Saturday, June 10, 2023

Touristic Intents

Considering the Soviets repurposed concentration camps into gulags after WWII, it is hardly surprising East Germany found new uses for an uncompleted Nazi resort on the Baltic Sea. The nearly three-mile eight-building complex never had an explicitly military purpose while Hitler was in power, but the ideology guiding its construction and its subsequent use during the socialist regime make its current mixed-use (hotels, luxury condos, and a youth hostel) quite controversial. Mat Rappaport explores the structures’ history and significance in the documentary, Touristic Intents, which opens Monday in LA.

The “Colossus of Prora” was supposed to host up to 20,000 loyal vacationing Germans in equal egalitarian comfort. It was conceived by the National Socialist labor organization Strength Through Joy as a place where working-class German union members could vacation like the privileged bourgeoisie. It was never completely finished, but it served as temporary barracks for concentration camp support staff during the war. Although it would not have had high strategic value, it arguably still would have been a legitimate military target, had the Allies known of it.

Throughout the post-war years, the GDR regime put Prora to a variety of uses. Most notoriously, it became a camp for the conscientious objectors the Protestant Church had pressured the Communist state into excluding from armed service. One of the survivors, Stephan Schack, explains how the state systematically attempted to break him and his fellow dissenting conscripts while they were essentially imprisoned in Prora.

The best segments of
Touristic Intents are those featuring Schack—by a country mile. The rest of the on-camera commentators lack his emotional resonance, but they are also quite reserved and mostly rather dull. Many of them are also largely in denial. Frankly, Strength Through Joy perfectly illustrates the socialism in National Socialism. It was literally a massive social welfare public works project spearheaded by a quasi-governmental union. Nevertheless, many talking heads argue it Strength Through Joy wasn’t really a union, because its dues were so high. And yet, so many people felt compelled to join.

The scale of Prora is impressive, as a towering expression of toxic national hubris. Rappaport and cinematographer Ted Hardin capture the Colossus from many angles, giving viewers a good sense of the place. The idea of developing Prora might sound spiritually akin to the building over an indigenous graveyard, but the location is extremely picturesque. It turns out, even in Germany, the three laws of real estate are “location, location, location.” A developer literally says so.

It is easy to understand the interest in Prora, as a political, historical, and architectural subject. Unfortunately, almost none of the film’s participants can persuasively share their fascination. The bone-dry execution just does not do it justice. Frustratingly, it is not possible to recommend
Touristic Intents when it screens Monday and Tuesday (6/12 & 6/13) at the Laemmle Monica Film Center, Glendale, and Claremont 5 theaters (but it might be worth a try when it hits a streamer, if you are intrigued).