FILM REVIEW: Destination Unknown

Spring 1945. Liberation. Freedom. Joyous reunions. Soldiers kissing women. Liberation from concentration camps.

This is how history books retell it, how movies portray it; the joy of the horror being finally behind, the desire to turn the page, start afresh. The prospect of a better life ahead.

This is how Claire Ferguson’s excellent documentary doesn’t show it.

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Destination Unknown gathers the testimonials of 12 concentration camp survivors who recall their ordeal in their own words. The documentary is edited so that the testimonials follow the chronology of the events as they happened. Some of those taking part have accepted to retrace their steps back to those camps, those places where they hid, ran, witnessed and lived the war horrors, and the elements filmed in those places have been paired with archive footage. The result is simple, perfectly edited, almost cinematically and visually dumbed down so that the words, the memories and the emotions prevail.

The protagonists of Destination Unknown are the last of their generation to still be able to talk in the flesh about the Second World War. They were children or teenagers when the war started and their recollection of it 70 years on is very clear, very detailed, hard to listen to, appalling to consider.

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“I can’t remember what I had for breakfast,” says one. “But this, I can never forget.” Seventy years on and not even a failing memory to hide behind. What those people have witnessed is there, ever present, every day and every night in their memory.

They didn’t turn the page. They didn’t start afresh. They left the camps weak, broken, haunted.

Liberation brought them freedom and the return of emotions that they suppressed throughout the whole ordeal in order just to survive. Liberation brought in the search for family members, the grieving for lost ones who were shot, drowned or killed by dogs for the amusement of Amon Göth.

That desire to survive was not always present – and there were times, are times still, through the lives of those survivors when death would be the least painful option, would end the trauma, the guilt, the nightmares, the sorrow, the secrecy. And it seems the secrecy is an inherent part of them all.

Holocaust survivors star in new documentary
Holocaust survivors describe their lives in new documentary “Destination Unknown”. Jane Witherspoon reports

They lived the last 70 years never mentioning what they went through in an attempt to live a normal life, for the sake of their children, for their own sake.

It seems they finally decided to open up for the first time when confronted by Claire’s camera, and it is those raw emotions brought about by 70 years of bottled-up memories that give the documentary its deep poignancy.

Decades ago, Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi wrote about the importance of remembrance as a way to not let history repeat again, in order for younger nations to never become complacent about the past.

There is a necessity to remember those times when the world ventured so deep into evil and could have become an infinite hell if it hadn’t been for those who had the courage to carry on, to look out for others, to save those they could. It is a human and civic duty to never forget what the Second World War did to mankind. And this is what this documentary does, with aplomb, heart and dignity – it reminds us to always remember those who can never forget.

4 out of 5

Review by B F Jones

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