Four Seasons Lodge will likely be labeled a Holocaust documentary, but it’s more accurately a work of sociologically-minded film poetry akin to Michael Apted’s ongoing Up series. Impartially observing a cluster of senescent Auschwitz survivors who congregate every summer in the Catskills with their proud descendants, director Andrew Jacobs assembles an image-rich mosaic of group psychology that surprisingly illuminates the ineffable: Unlike most Shoah-related films, which tend to approach their interviewees as mounds of extraordinary memories that need unwrapping from their fleshy packaging, Four Seasons Lodge views its participants as singular, personal lives to unravel and examine for traces of Hitler’s insidious fingerprints. By focusing on the quotidian holiday rhythms—the mechanics of maintaining the modest grounds of the multi-structure property, the id-driven wants and dislikes of regressive elders, and the endless patter of forthright, self-deprecating small talk—of several aging Jews soldered together by a common past of unspeakable loss, the movie offers an indirect but somehow incomparably piercing study of the concentration camp experience.
The film shuttles us through the lodge’s inhabitants somewhat perfunctorily; most of the characters receive little more than a 10-minute segment with which to circumlocute their connection to “the camps” (as they are obliquely and ominously identified) and their duties at the Catskills community (which bears the equally ambiguous title of “the colony”). This, along with the lack of expository voiceovers, stunts the growth of the movie’s subcutaneous narrative, involving the splintering of the colony’s lodgers, due mostly to dwindling health or death, and the inability of its remaining tenants to meet the property’s financial or practical needs. But the filmmakers surrender the sturdiness of a conventional storyline due to a canny fascination with tangentially revealing vignettes, and the patient camerawork (much of it by the characteristically observant Albert Maysles) is perpetually rewarded with remarkable, if desultory, confessions. One woman, the sole member of her entire extended clan to be plucked from the gas chamber line, abruptly transitions from speaking of her postwar migration to the United States in order to half-heartedly boast of the (relative) respect and kindness with which Josef Mengele treated her. Auschwitz was, for most members of “the colony,” a formative experience onto which they projected torrents of exacerbated Oedipal energy, and as they revert to a childlike state in their dotage, their minds complexly flit back and forth in time, forging wildly raw mental associations between the comfy here and now and the Gehennian camps.
In the end, what sets Four Seasons Lodge apart from most documentaries on peripheral topics is its boldness; Jacobs has the courage to report the profound influence that the Final Solution has had on his subjects, and the subtle dimensions the effects of racial abuse have manifested in the victims’ old, withered selves. Observing the relationships between colony members and the relaxed cadence of their daily intermingling, it’s hard not to conclude that the Four Seasons Lodge has been established as both an escape and a confrontation. With bungalows configured on the grounds like a lazy collection of barracks and a communal spirit pervading every meal and activity, the lodge is a kind of anti-Auschwitz: A way of challenging, and perhaps negating, intimidating memories of the Nazi camp with new, empowering experiences that replace stale bread and water with fresh bagels adorned lovingly with lox, barked German commands with accordion-and-clarinet renditions of “I Will Survive,” and, above all, an overwhelming sense of alienation with compassionate fraternity. When one decrepit lodger raises a cup of Ensure to his lips after thickly pronouncing “Chayyim,” it’s a sober reminder of the many years that separate each survivor from their life in the camps; and yet at its core, Four Seasons Lodge is an indelible tribute to those who must perpetually relive what has been done to them by past oppressors, and the creative methods undertaken to sew up a ravaged human soul.