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“Here There Are Blueberries” reviewed

The museum devotes its attention mainly to the six million victims; does it even want photos of the tormentors? (It does.) How do the researchers uncover the truths behind the album? (With … research, and a few educated guesses.) Should the photos be displayed? (Yes.) Did the lower-level subjects in the pictures even know about the crematorium, the ovens, the horrors? That’s actually interesting, and so is seeing how the museum staff gets to the bottom of it–it plays like a good mystery.

The owner of the album, it turns out, was one Karl Höcker (Scott Barrow), who advanced from bricklayer to bank teller to a top administrator at the camp. As part of his duties, he wrote a daily report on the events there, a feel-good summary sounding like the newsletter at a Catskills summer camp. He probably shot some, but not all, of the photos. And after the war, like so many SS, he rationalized his activities into an I-was-only-following-orders stance that’s still shocking, even after so many Holocaust books and dramatizations.

The photos are, in and of themselves, innocuous; the “here there are blueberries” one depicts Höcker with the Helferinnen, the female communications staff at the camp. He’s dishing the berries out to them on a wholesome day outing to Solahütte, a nearby chalet Auschwitz personnel repaired to for fun in the sun. But it’s such pictures’ very innocuousness that is so appalling in context.

As they’re released, the photos generate comment and startled reactions. Tilman Taube (Jonathan Raviv) recognizes his grandfather in one and contacts Rebecca, who urges him to reach out to other offspring who might be able to assist in the museum’s research. Peter Wirths (Grant James Varjas) meets with Taube, sees his father in the photos, and learns of his dad’s complicated history there: some good deeds amid otherwise complete capitulation to the cause. Rainer Höss (Charlie Thurston), grandson of Rudolf, creator of Auschwitz, speculates on the normality of the photos of his family, a happy existence a few feet from the genocide. (This section is quite a lot like The Zone of Interest, last year’s Best Picture nominee.) Melita Maschmann (Erika Rose), a former head of the B.D.M., the youth group from which the Helferinnen evolved, conveys the moral compromises implicit in such a position and how she weaned herself away from them. These scenes have some moral heft, and so does the story of Lili Jacob (also Stahlmann), a camp survivor who uncovered a second album, one that showed inmates.

But the whole atmosphere is somewhat muted. Where’s the outrage, the astonishment? Kaufman, also directing, keeps the emotions largely tamped down. Even more so for the museum staff, who populate most of the scenes and who deal in factoids and data, their undramatic, levelheaded responses virtually a job requirement. There are pockets of revelation: Jacob’s testimony, and the younger Höss’s insistence on keeping the disgraced family name, because “It’s my best revenge–to live my life differently … and tell the truth of who I am.”

But such incisive moments are outliers amid an excess of archivists archiving, engaging in bloodless conversations about museum policy. The visual feast of photos aside, Here There Are Blueberries doesn’t reveal much that we haven’t trafficked in before. “Never Forget,” goes the old warning about the Holocaust, and that goes double these days. But one suspects there are better ways to keep this tragic memory alive. Kaufman’s you-are-there reportage was so effective for The Laramie Project. Why isn’t it this time?