Survival is depicted as a double-edged sword in “Destination Unknown,” an accomplished and heartrending documentary comprised of testimony from men and women who made it out of the Nazis’ concentration camps, or avoided them altogether by hiding from capture. Devoid of third-person narration or unnecessary sentimental gestures, director Claire Ferguson allows her subjects to tell their own dreadful tales about the war, and their subsequent lives. In doing so, she crafts a chilling portrait of the past’s unavoidable pull on the present. As with many likeminded predecessors, it’s a vital act of recollection and commemoration.
Ferguson doesn’t preface her material with contextual background; instead, she simply opens with elderly Ed Mosberg putting on the striped outfit and hat he wore at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria to wheel his wife through crowds as he visits that horrific site — where he then furiously explains to an audience that he still feels the sting of the guards’ whip. The rage and hurt in his cries, undimmed by decades spent creating a new family, resounds with poignant force. And they’re similarly heard in the film’s many other accounts, which detail the various ways these survivors managed to cheat death.
From Victor and Regina Lewis, who were reunited upon liberation, to Eli Zborowski, who along with his mother and siblings hid in a friend’s basement and attic, to Stanley Glogover, who spent years after the war searching Europe for his relatives — culminating in a miraculous reunion — “Destination Unknown” presents a chorus of haunted voices, each one filled with the sorrow born from traumatic experience.
At Treblinka, Mauthausen, Plaszow and Auschwitz, they endured the unimaginable: stepping over fellow inmates who were shot right before their eyes; hiding in piles of corpses; and working as a servant for Plaszow’s evil commander Amon Göth. In revisiting these memories, both while speaking to the camera and while walking around their former concentration camp prisons, they shine a spotlight on the sadistic monstrousness of the Holocaust — as well as on humanity’s capacity for kindness, here epitomized by Helen Sternlicht and Mietek Pemper’s deliverance, courtesy of Oskar Schindler.
As the film’s title makes clear, these individuals couldn’t fathom the future the Nazis had in store for them. However, once freed from captivity, they quickly discovered that charting a new course was its own arduous ordeal. Including archival footage, photos and home movies, “Destination Unknown” is infused with a deep, sorrowful sense of what was lost in the Holocaust — not only loved ones and innocence, but also lasting inner peace and contentment. That’s most touchingly epitomized by Marsha Kreuzman, who confesses that, even today, she’s plagued by nightmares of being hunted by SS guards and their dogs, and that, as a result, she wishes she were dead.
Ferguson doesn’t belabor any one anecdote, or specify the origin of each grainy clip of a child’s birthday party or Hanukkah celebration; rather, she creates a collage of stories and images that, set to Andrew Skeet’s graceful, mournful score, respects and honors the torment suffered by so many, both during and after the war. It’s a wrenching nonfiction work about the pain of memory, from which there is no escape, much less catharsis. And it’s also a chronicle of atrocities that would be deemed unspeakable, if not for the necessity — for the speakers themselves, and for the world at large — to have them spoken so that they’re never forgotten.