Christophe Cognet’s “From Where They Stood” scrutinizes an astonishing record of the Holocaust: photographs secretly taken by prisoners within Auschwitz-Birkenau and other concentration camps. Cognet’s analytical documentary adopts the stance of an investigating historian to explicate the pictures, which were made and smuggled out at mortal risk.
Unlike many documentaries about the Holocaust, this film hinges on still images rather than archival footage or interviews with survivors. Cognet joins scholars to pore over these pictures and their silent testaments; in one clutch of images, women displaying wounds on their legs are revealed to be subjects of Nazi medical experiments. Other portraits catch people in eerily calm-looking repose.
But the clandestine pictures known as the Sonderkommando photographs carry the gravest weight of all. These ghostly images depict nude women on the way to the gas chamber and, afterward, corpses left in the open air (both scenes overseen by the cremation prisoner workers known as the Sonderkommando). Shot from a significant distance, apparently through holes in the gas chambers, these figures are small and not greatly defined, but no less devastating.
Cognet (who also made a documentary about artworks created in the camps) visits camp sites to re-create the precise positions and sightlines of the photographers and their subjects. His film can feel overly cerebral—a bit like being plunged into a seminar—and the text cards do a lot of explanatory heavy lifting. But Cognet’s forensic approach does insist on memorializing these events in an important, physically specific way and, intentionally or not, queasily anticipates a world without any living eyewitnesses to these horrors.
From Where They Stood
Not rated. In French, Polish and German, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters.