Baring witness to some of the most atrocious events in the history of humanity, 12 Holocaust survivors, mostly in their eighties and nineties, share some of their most harrowing experiences in Claire Ferguson’s hugely affecting documentary feature Destination Unknown. Using unique and intimate testimonies, the film manages to approach this delicate subject in the most respectful and truthful fashion by allowing only those who went through this ordeal to be heard. Ferguson attempts to retrace these brave survivors’ journeys from the outbreak of war, to the misery of the ghettos, all the way through to the unimaginable horrors of the death camps where millions of innocent people perished in the gas chambers or from starvation and disease.
Amongst the survivors being interviewed are those who lost every member of their families in the camps, and those who were lucky enough to be saved by Oskar Schindler, like Mietek Pemper, who helped Schindler compile his “list” and thus rescuing hundreds of Jews from certain death. There’s also an interview with a survivor who knew both Schindler and Amon Göth, the sadistic commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, who Schindler managed to convince to let him employ some of the the prisoners. Ferguson also talks to Frank Blaichman who left his family to be a partisan fighter and Eli Zborowski who recounts how he survived by hiding behind a wall in a neighbour’s cellar for years.
The film uses archive footage from the time containing devastating images from the liberation of the camps and showing the level of hardship and heartache the survivors went through. With interviews mainly conducted in English, Ferguson manages to convey a poignant, yet sober narrative. Her use of a fitting soundtrack goes a long way into advancing the story without ever being preachy or reconciliatory. The home video aesthetic of the movie also goes a long way into making the stories all the more real, as you get the impression that Fergusson is less interested in presenting a perfectly made film, but is mostly concerned with making sure these stories are preserved for posterity and never forgotten.
Destination Unknown shows human perseverance in the face of devastation and callous murder and how people never lost hope even when faced with pure evil. The film’s confessional nature and the openness of all those taking part fills you with a strange sense of familiarity towards them and their stories. The film is as urgent today with the rise of the far right in Europe and elsewhere, as Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah was more than thirty years ago. Ferguson’s film is likely to remain essential viewing long after her subjects are no longer around to tell them directly to us. A harrowing, yet sobering look at one of Europe’s darkest hours, which while being a difficult watch, is never unnecessarily voyeuristic. A must-see.