Whether fiction or documentary, a Holocaust film is a particularly heavy responsibility for a director.
In her documentary Destination Unknown, director Claire Ferguson interviews a series of Holocaust survivors–European Jews that hid and escaped Nazi persecution during the war and Jewish partisan fighters who fought against the Nazis. She eschews the notion of a singular Holocaust survivor experience, but her comprehensive, seemingly democratic intention to give equal time to her subjects results in a mere litany of incidents rather than a thoughtful cinematic investigation. As a result, the film feels stitched together, lacking in thematic intersection and cohesion. Nonetheless, the power of the survivors’ testimonies cannot help but pull you in.
Destination Unknown begins with survivor Ed Mosberg putting on the replica of his striped camp uniform, which he wears as he returns to the grounds of Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp (now a museum and memorial). Pushing his wife and fellow survivor Cesia in a wheelchair, Mosberg, now in his 90s, is fierce and angry in his recollections as the only member of his family who survived the camps.
For this film’s subjects, the burden and trauma of being a survivor often leaves them feeling alienated. They are living testaments to the Holocaust, but not all of them have accepted the role. Stanley Glogover explains that he had his prisoner identification number tattoo removed because the attention was too much for him.
While some get emotional and break down on camera, Marsha Kreuzman plainly summarizes her current life with a blank expression on her face: “If you think I don’t suffer now, you’re wrong. I don’t sleep at night.” There is no model behavior for how a survivor is supposed to behave or cope. To her credit, Ferguson understands this, and doesn’t pass judgment on interviewees’ words and actions.
This is for the most part a conventional talking head documentary, subjects presented matter-of-factly, with heavy supplementary use of archival war footage and contemporary exteriors of former camp sites. The film’s score means to draw emotion from viewers, but music feels unnecessary–the testimonies alone have enough power to hold this film together.
Unfortunately, with its many subjects, the myriad stories of Destination Unknown feel squeezed into its 81-minute run-time. The film too frequently jumps from subject to subject, and though stories intersect at certain camp locations, the threads never quite feel connected. Ferguson’s treatment of the material can seem rushed, a Cliffs Notes version of survival. It is admirable that Ferguson wants to share so many of these stories—stories that indeed should heard–but she merely scratches the surface.
Whether fiction or documentary, a Holocaust film is a particularly heavy responsibility for a director. It is imperative that the filmmaker gets the story right. It’s no surprise that, despite the best intentions, only a select few filmmakers have risen to such a challenge. Claire Ferguson’s Destination Unknown is not one of the great documentaries on its subject, but such powerful and unforgettable testimonies make it watchable. If only Ferguson had weaved these strands into something more.