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The making of Oswiecim 

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At BIAFF 2010 Stephen Green won a 4-Star award with Oswiecim.

Oswiecim is the Polish name for the town renamed Auschwitz by Nazi Germany after they invaded Poland in September 1939. Auschwitz was a network of concentration and extermination camps built in and around the town and operated by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It was the largest of the German concentration camps, consisting of Auschwitz I (the main camp); Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the extermination camp); Auschwitz III-Monowitz, also known as Buna-Monowitz (a labor camp); and 45 satellite camps. . - Wikipedia

In April of 2007 my wife and I decided on a few days holiday in Kracow, Poland with a planned day trip to Auschwitz. This turned out to be a trip that would profoundly affect both of us. We were both born 10 years after the Second World War, and like most of our generation we had many close relatives who had fought and died during those war years. The aftermath of the war, and understanding the true horror of what the Nazis had done, made the reasons why our relatives fought for our future all the more important to us.

Ever since my childhood I had envisaged this visit. But now, it was really happening, I found it difficult to storyboard the shots. My head had all the scenes, all the music, but I couldn’t express them on paper. I packed the Canon XM2, 6 or 7 DV tapes and a couple of spare batteries along with the 30 year old tripod, which was a big heavy cumbersome piece of kit, but I was determined to get steady shots. It was sure to be worthwhile.

We arrived at Auschwitz I, where the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate is located. The buildings are now museums with a terrifying and thought provoking history. I filmed a couple of hours worth of Auschwitz I and I will edit that at a later date. It is a harrowing place and needs some care in what I would want to portray. The killing wall alone touched my consciousness like nothing ever before.

But the film I wanted to make was about Auschwitz Birkenau: the site of the main extermination area.

We made the short bus ride to the main camp. It was made in absolute silence. Nothing can prepare you for what lies behind the wire. The sheer size of the camp is awesome. The sight of the all seeing Watch Tower above the railway track is, as one survivor of the camp said, the “Gateway to Hell”. Once inside the camp it was, strangely, a truly peaceful place. It is difficult to imagine the events that took place here. I stood and asked myself: Did this holocaust really happen here? Here where I stand?

1944 photograph of the camp In my film, validated archive material was combined with my footage to show how little the camp has changed. The scene with a young mother (her daughter is out of shot) walking towards the camera with the Watch Tower in the background is superimposed with a photograph taken by the SS in 1944 (shown here on the left).
It fits exactly. I was indeed standing in the same spot the original SS photograph was taken; only this time, the mother and child were not going to the gas chamber. It was at this point I realised tears were running down my cheeks.

Barbed wire and ceramic electrodes Everywhere within the camp there are iconic images. The concrete posts with ceramic electrodes and barbed wire wrapped around them. The railway track leading through the Watch Tower and ending at ‘The Ramp’.
I still did not know exactly what I needed to film to make such a documentary. The music, Spiegel im Spiegel , was always my choice since the first time I heard it. When I walked around the camp this helped to form the pictures and put my mind into the correct train of thought. I had to trust in my ability to record what was there - nothing more, nothing less. I think the images in the film are a powerful reminder of the events that took place.

The escape sequence was quite scary. This came about by a pure accident. As I walked that part of the camp I couldn't help notice how close the entrance to the gas chamber was to the outside world. I would have just ran .... Then I saw how many guard towers there were and thought maybe not. I had put my camera back in its bag at that point, but the lens was still pointing out the top.. I had accidentally left it running. I speeded up the footage.... going into black and white at the sound of the dogs... If it had been me running I think that's what it would have been like... My life going from full colour to black and white then nothing as a bullet entered the back of my skull.

While researching material for this film, I came across some paintings on the internet by Geoffrey Laurence of New Mexico. The paintings spoke a thousand words about Auschwitz and the ‘final solution’. We exchanged several emails on why I wanted to make this film. We both agreed that it should be done and he gave his permission to use the paintings, for which I am truly grateful.

Is Was Will Be by Geoffrey Laurence Those the River Keeps by Geoffrey Laurence Aaron by Geoffrey Laurence
Is Was Will Be shows an SS officer in an embrace with a Jew. I see this as the SS wanting to be the owner of every Jew. It brilliantly captures how things must have been. Terrifying. I did not want to show dead bodies... I think people have become de-sensitised to the dead now. A skeleton standing next to an SS officer is far more convincing if you know your history! A painting can invoke so much more! Those the River Keeps is another brilliant portrayal through Laurence's eyes of the way Jews must have thought at that terrible time. The boat is superimposed deliberately on the bunk to show that as the prisoners slept there, many did drift off into a journey they would never return from. Aaron what a painting this is !! the Jesus figure. A strong man with an excellent physique but who looks serene with soft features and that heavenly golden light. Even so... No matter how strong or serene he was. If lucky he would be sent to quick death, but a death for no other reason than being a Jew.

The visit is best summed up by the words engraved on the plaques around the Monument To The Victims of Auschwitz:

Forever, let this place be a cry of despair
and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis
murdered about one and a half million men,
women, and children, mainly Jews,
from various countries of Europe.
Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945

Stephen Green, Tyne and Wear
You can see more of Geoffrey Laurence's work at www.geoffreylaurence.com


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Page updated on 04 October 2011
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