BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 01 APR 10
Featured in
Issue 130

What is Appropriate?

The role of art in responding to the Holocaust

BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 01 APR 10

It is often claimed that some works of art are disturbing, but The Confessions of Roee Rosen (2008) is a rare example of one that actually is. In Roee Rosen’s hour-long film, three women, all illegal immigrants in Israel, impersonate the artist, reading out a phonetic translation of Hebrew – a language none of them can speak – from a teleprompter. (The film is subtitled in English and Hebrew.) Successively, in three separate sequences, each of the women sits at a desk surrounded by works of art and piles of books that keep changing (at one point, the titles on the spines of four of them read: Baghdad Burning, Intercourse, Saints and Solitary Pleasures). The women recite the artist’s embarrassments and sexual obsessions, and the poor wages he received when he was supporting himself as an art student in New York. In turn, they stand and raise their right arm in a Nazi salute; in one scene, one of them intones: ‘My father was a child during the Holocaust. During my own childhood, he maintained a monstrous silence. That silence made me the adult, while preserving him as a child–victim, inching his way all alone in the frozen forest through trees and corpses.’ The confessions continue with Rosen’s vision of being buried alive and, from beneath the gravel, glimpsing his ‘wife’s panties’. It’s like Tourette’s syndrome in reverse: amidst a stream of delirious exaggeration, short bursts of chilling statements make clear why confessions might be necessary and why such a ‘monstrous silence’ and feelings of childhood guilt need to be broken.

Like a television talk show, The Confessions of Roee Rosen includes musical interludes by an all-female band performing Chopin, as well as a Hebrew version of The Stooges’ song ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ (1969). They can’t, and are not meant to, soften the discomfort the film encourages. Rosen exploits the women by using them as puppets, as if he’s exorcizing feelings of guilt – of the survivor’s child, of the artist – by purposefully intensifying his feelings. It’s therapy without a therapeutic safety net, both plain crazy and weirdly rational. Ultimately, it’s about the hall of mirrors the commemoration of the Holocaust has become. The only thing that can keep us from forgetting, Rosen seems to imply, is to constantly respond to the Holocaust via displacement and aesthetic exertion.

The conventions and clichés of cultural production – the TV show formats and cinematic genres – are not just hindrances to be removed but what we need to engage with; they’re the masks we put on in order to see and speak. (Or am I now delirious? Is this all just a messy misunderstanding? Should we simply confront the sites and the facts?) Has art, after the generation of survivors who bore witness in documentary or fictionalized form, become a red herring? No: Rosen’s film, and a number of other works from the last 30 years or so, function as counter-evidence; they all share both a sense of serious commitment and a stance that is, above all, sardonic.

Yael Bartana, Mur i wieza (wall and tower), 2009. Production still. Courtesy: Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, Sommer Gallery, Tel Aviv, and the artist: photographs: Magda Wunsche & Samsel, and the artist.

I first came across this sardonicism in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film, Shoah, which includes a sequence in which Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), talks about Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) of the Warsaw Ghetto. In July 1942, the Nazis ordered Czerniaków to organize a daily round-up of 6,000 Jews to be deported; knowing the inevitable outcome of the deportation, he pleaded exemption for orphans. When his pleas fell on deaf ears, he returned to his office and committed suicide. Hilberg ­– who co-edited The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniaków (1979) – describes Czerniaków’s peculiar tone, his ‘sardonic jokes’ and descriptions of ‘a hearse with drunken drivers, a dead child running around’. Hilberg’s own face also becomes sardonic while talking about Czerniaków: he smiles and raises his eyebrows. But it doesn’t come across as if he wants to mock Czerniaków for not having taken up arms (although he has expressed elsewhere his frustration with what he considered the Jewish Council’s fatal, passive complicity with the Nazis). Rather, the men’s shared sarcasm becomes a kind of mask, echoing the irreconcilable chasm opened up by the Nazis’ crimes against humanity – the sardonic smile as truthful distortion, conveying the inadequacy of ‘normal’ expressions of consoling grief.

But what is adequate or normal in this context? There is, obviously, a place for traditional, consoling rituals of remembering the dead; but that is not art’s function. In literature, there are the voices of survivors – such as Jean Améry, Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertész, Ruth Klüger, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel – all of whom document the horrendous dehumanization of the camps without offering the false redemption of a ‘good story’. In art and architecture, there are monuments such as Peter Eisenman’s minimalist Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005) in Berlin that offer no story at all but only the disorientating experience of space. This is what distinguishes these works from films such as Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993), with its logic of heroes and villains and dramatic rescue; or from memorials such as Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument (1948), which includes an enormous bronze relief depicting the heroic Jewish fighters of 1943 in almost superhuman fashion.

One could argue that, other than as concrete witness account or abstract monument, art has no fruitful role to play in the memorialization of the Holocaust. Is the often-sardonic tone of works made by artists born since the 1960s simply a reflection of a self-indulgent taste for controversy? Sometimes there is a mindlessness at work that tries to pass itself off as productive ambivalence. This is the problem with a number of art works included in ‘Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art’, a 2002 group show held at The Jewish Museum in New York. While Tom Sachs’ cardboard model of a Prada Deathcamp (1998) passed for a lame joke about the subdued power style of the Italian fashion brand, Alan Schechner’s Barcode to Concentration Camp Morph (1994) – a barcode mutated into the image of camp victims wearing striped uniforms – was a lazy equation between the historical destruction of a people and the contemporary correlation of commodification and control. This is not to say that artists shouldn’t be allowed to take liberties – but artistic sloppiness is nowhere less forgivable than in responses to the Holocaust. Liliana Cavani’s film The Night Porter (1974) – the twisted love story of a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and a camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) – is a case in point: although audacious in its ambition to explore the trauma of female survivors, the film is mindless in its construction of concentration-camp reality (a playground for Nazi chic) and of desire itself (a melancholy soundtrack, say, over scenes of a woman being beaten). Yet these kinds of oversimplifications and distortions have perhaps been inevitable in the development of a deeper understanding of how contemporary art can productively use simplification and distortion as an aesthetic tool. The Shoah has directly and indirectly affected every generation since World War II – the mass-media-amplified echoes of trauma, shame and discontent go beyond first-hand encounters with sites, witnesses or abstract monuments and ask for new forms to be reflected instead.

Yael Bartana’s recent short film Mur i wiez˙a (Wall and Tower, 2009) is the second part of a trilogy, the first instalment of which – Mary Koszmary (Nightmares, 2007) – involves a fake propaganda speech given in an empty Warsaw stadium by the Polish sociologist Slawomir Sierakowski. He calls for Jews to return to Poland: ‘Three million Jews can change the lives of 40 million Poles.’ To an echo of this speech carried on a howling wind, we see the pioneers who have answered the call: young men and women with their heads turned to the sky. They are Kibbutzniks who have built a small settlement in the middle of the former Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, next to Rapoport’s monument and on the site of the future Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Recalling the heroic aesthetics of a Zionist film of the 1940s, Mur i wiez˙a follows the pioneers as they erect a watchtower and, to a soundtrack of the Israeli anthem played backwards, hoist a flag (a fusion of the Star of David and the Polish Eagle) and learn the Polish language.

It's therapy without a therapeutic safety net, both plain crazy and weirdly rational. Ultimately, it's about the hall of mirrors the commemoration of the Holocaust has become.

The effect of this set-up becomes apparent when we see passers-by stopping, puzzled, to observe the goings-on. The result of the annihilation of Polish Jews under the Nazis, and of subsequent anti-Jewish campaigns, is that today only about 8,000 Jews live in Poland. It is one of several flashpoints in Bartana’s film; another is the conflicted construction of heroism and nationhood on the basis of a traumatic experience of dissociation and destruction – and, in particular, the contemporary Polish–Israeli relationship. Before entering military service, Israeli high school children make trips to Warsaw to visit the site of the Jewish Ghetto; however, they are usually given little opportunity to learn about contemporary Polish life. Against this background, Bartana’s film is a knowing hallucination that accentuates the void left by the Holocaust – it is not surprising that Polish politicians on the far right demonstrated against her project.

Signifying a void was also the inspiration for a temporary memorial created by Polish artists Anna Baumgart and Agnieszka Kurant in Warsaw this January, just a few steps away from the house where Czerniaków lived on Chlodna Street. Early in 1942, the Nazis erected a footbridge across this ‘Aryan’ thoroughfare to divert Jews from setting foot on it. In response, Baumgart and Kurant strung five silver balloons across the street that recalled a free-floating ellipsis, (…) – the textual marker for an omission. For an art audience, such an approach recalls both linguistic conceptualism and Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966), but for the general public it could have been read as a concept-driven fashion campaign. It may seem frivolous to signify the persecution of Jews with something so fleetingly constructed on art-historical and commercial glamour – but it’s precisely because the piece adopts the aesthetics of fashion and advertising, as well as those of Conceptual art, that it highlights the unresolved nature of what constitutes commemoration.

Whenever an aesthetic form meant to address the Holocaust is anything other than a dark stone at which wreaths can be laid, there will always be a vocal group who will condemn it as being trite and tasteless. In 2008, German artist Michaela Melián won a competition to create a public monument in Munich – the cradle of the Nazi movement before 1933. The brief explicitly invited ‘new forms of commemoration’. Melián’s proposal, Memory Loops (which will be completed later this year), consists of a network of sound loops of actors reading out various texts – mainly Holocaust witness accounts – that will be available via a website, free telephone calls and MP3 players available for hire at Munich museums. Melián has won several awards for her radio plays – Föhrenwald (2005), for instance, which examines the history of an eponymous housing development built by the Nazis outside Munich – but, despite her credentials, all hell broke loose amongst the city’s local politicians and media when it was announced she had won the competition. Newspapers ran headlines such as ‘Commemoration Is not a Playground for Modern Art’ and ‘Dial “C” for Commemoration’, while the Mayor declared: ‘The city needs a dignified memorial.’ According to Melián, none of these critics actually examined the details of her proposal nor talked to her about the planned work. One can’t help but think that those who oppose the project do so because of their reservations about contemporary art: as if commemoration should be dealt with in a predictable format so that it signals acknowledgment of responsibility to the ‘outside’ world while not disturbing the ordinary run of things on the ‘inside’.

Discussions of commemoration are often conducted as if the idea of a public urban space as shared by freely gathering citizens hadn’t been irreversibly fragmented by Modernist planning, privatization and the effects of mass media. But what if there were other ways to work through trauma – in the form of, say, a comic or a comedy or a country song? The suggestion sounds flippant, and yet in the 1970s a handful of artists – Kinky Friedman, Art Spiegelman and Lina Wertmüller – took exactly this approach. It is to these pioneers that contemporary artists – from painter Wilhelm Sasnal to film director Quentin Tarantino – ultimately owe a debt.

In 1972, Friedman wrote a song entitled ‘Ride ’em Jewboy’. In it, he employed the conventions of the country ballad – the sentimental melody and references to prairies and wild horses – but included lines such as ‘the smoke from camps arising’. The epitome of mythical freedom, the lonesome cowboy, is here framed by the inescapable facts of the Holocaust: the song’s sentimentality is not redemptive, but haunting. In 2009, Christoph Dettmeier, who has been staging ‘Country Caraoke Shows’ since 2000, did a version of ‘Ride ’em Jewboy’: he sang along to Friedman’s song immersed in the shadows of a slide projection of sites in Berlin that were significant to both Jewish life and Nazi rule. Dettmeier’s act of mimesis enters into a transatlantic feedback with Friedman’s song – the irony cancels itself out to render an authentic sense of mourning.

Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986–91) tells the story of the artist’s troubled relationship with his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, using the visual language of comics: Germans are portrayed as cats, the Jews as mice and the Poles as pigs. Spiegelman’s achievement is special because of – rather than in spite of – the medium he employs. Building on what comic theorist Scott McCloud has called ‘the mask effect’, Spiegelman allows the reader to enter horrific scenarios as ‘safely’ as a playing child putting on a mask. But, crucially, Spiegelman makes the mask play an explicit role: when Jews attempting to escape from Nazis try to pass as non-Jewish Poles, they literally put on a pig’s mask; in one particularly strong image, we see the artist at his drawing board wearing a mouse’s mask, while the sequence of frames gradually reveals that beside him lies a pile of dead bodies – the reality of mass murder and trauma invading his studio.

Wilhelm Sasnal, Maus. From the series 'Maus', 2001. Oil on canvas, 50x40cm. Courtesy: Raster Gallery, Warsaw.

Sasnal has made a mural and a cycle of five paintings, entitled ‘Maus’ (2001), which isolate elements of Spiegelman’s work to heighten the sense of a traumatic shattering of a whole. Sasnal reproduces the portrait of a pig that, in the original story, is a traitor complicit in trapping Vladek and his family. The image amounts to a powerful statement about contemporary Poland’s conflicted attempts to come to terms with its history in relation to the Holocaust and its aftermath – the country is not able to clearly identify with either the position of the victim, like Israel, or the perpetrator, like Germany (as troubled as such a ‘clear identification’ is in the first place).

Wertmüller’s remarkable film Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties, 1975) tells the story of an Italian deserter imprisoned in a German concentration camp who survives thanks to his moral dissolution. When it was first released in the USA, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote that it turned ‘suffering into Vaudeville’. Obviously intended as a criticism, the phrase ironically pinpointed the film’s main achievement. In the same way that Spiegelman employed the comic strip to explore the traumas of the Holocaust, Wertmüller borrowed from burlesque, because it threw into sharp relief the conflicted feelings of guilt that plague survivors. Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini) is a Neapolitan petty crook who, before the war, murdered his sister’s pimp in order to save the family’s honour. Once interned, he survives by drawing on his talents as a womanizer and succeeds in seducing the sturdy iceberg of a female commander (Shirley Stoler). After an absurdly unerotic sex scene, Pasqualino is promoted to ‘Kapo’ (a camp inmate given certain privileges in return for supervising fellow prisoners) and eventually survives, but not before he is forced to kill his best friend at gunpoint. Unlike The Night Porter, there is no false sentimentality or erotic abuse here but an exploration of what it means for victims to be subjected to the destabilizing tactics of being pitted against each other. Pasqualino’s closing sentence is ‘Yes, I’m alive …’ the implication being: ‘But only just’.

For Israeli artist Tamy Ben-Tor, destabilization is a constant: her video performances nurture a polymorphically perverse universe of twisted genders, racial and ethnic identities, languages and accents, altered or invented personas, and fictional traumas that cover up, and then uncover, actual traumas. What distinguishes her work from Rosen’s is that her impersonations erase all evidence of her own persona, as if behind the masks there is only a void into which all of this stuff is sucked. In Women Talk About Adolf Hitler (2004) she impersonates, in brief succession, numerous female types: from the gender studies woman who is proud to be the first to have taken into consideration the significance of the Führer’s digestive problems, to the author of Healing Hitler, who asserts in genius psycho-babble that ‘it’s all about helping healing and dealing’. Caught in infinite semiotic and psychological regression, these characters regurgitate preconceived fragments of opinion and identification, in turn regurgitated by Ben-Tor (who studied experimental theatre at the School of Visual Theater in Jerusalem before attending Columbia’s art programme in New York). In Gewald (2007) – a neologism of the German words ‘Gewalt’ (violence) and ‘Wald’ (forest) – a video collage takes Ben-Tor’s uncanny impersonation skills further into the realm of phantasmatic condensation: an idyllic Swedish postcard with a blonde-wigged and moustachioed Jesus who finds relief from his illness by blaming it on others; an American Hasidic woman, wearing a 1930s-style bonnet, ranting about why it’s great for Jews in Europe and the USA, but not in the Middle East; a Ukrainian folk dancer singing, in Romanian, what sounds like a silly children’s song, with Levi’s poem Shema (1947) subtitled on the screen in English: ‘You who live safe / In your warm houses / […] Consider if this is a man / Who works in the mud / Who does not know peace / Who fights for a scrap of bread / Who dies because of a yes or no.’ Finally, we get to see Adolf Eichmann wearing headphones and trying to learn Yiddish.

Following the upside-down logic of a nightmare, a sardonic approach does justice to the contradiction between gemütlich folksiness and the reality of dehumanized annihilation that Levi describes. That said, there is an element of self-exemption in all of this, in the sense that Ben-Tor’s ‘self’ in her work seems nothing but the empty centre not of trauma but derision. Maybe it’s her right to exempt herself from the kind of unflinching examination she subjects those she parodies to – as much as it is the ‘right’ of these types to regurgitate stereotypical gestures and phrases. Ben-Tor’s infamous remarks at a panel discussion in New York in 2006, during which she rejected feminism as ‘serving the weak’, attests to this: presenting herself as an entirely singular artist, she inadvertently positioned herself as part of the legacy of 20th-century female artists (such as Leni Riefenstahl, for example) who were complicit with the patriarchy – very often at the expense of other women – and were thus allowed to rise up the male-dominated ranks.

What seems to emerge from all of this is the old question of truth versus ideological deformation. As many of the works discussed demonstrate, however, truth can be manifested by repeating and displacing ideological deformation. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), the story of Jewish fighters assassinating members of the Nazi elite gathered in a cinema, resists being a mere Postmodern rehash of genre – war movies, westerns etc. – because of the director’s investment in the idea of cinema itself as a realm in which a revenge fantasy can convincingly unfold – not least since the Nazis employed cinema as a propaganda tool. That the film exposes the collective failure to stop the Nazi machinery earlier on only works on the premise that we know it didn’t happen; that this is a fairy-tale hallucination.

This is the crucial difference between Tarantino’s film and Oskar Roehler’s Jud Süß: Film ohne Gewissen (Jew Suss: Rise and Fall, 2010), which tells the story, based on historical events, of the making of one of the most vile anti-Semitic films ever produced, Veit Harlan’s Jud Süß (1940). The main problem with Roehler’s film is that it doctors historical fact: for example, the lead character, Ferdinand Marian (Tobias Moretti), is portrayed as having a half-Jewish wife; in reality, she was a Catholic. The intention is to offer the audience a means of identifying with a conflicted hero who is supposedly prone to blackmail rather than being out-and-out complicit and corrupt. Asked during the 60th Berlin International Film Festival in February about the veracity of the film’s story, actor Moritz Bleibtreu, who plays Josef Goebbels, responded defensively, referring to Tarantino’s film to support his position: ‘When you make a movie, you take certain liberties. Having Hitler and Goebbels die in a fire in a cinema in Paris is taking liberties with history.’ However, there is a difference between taking liberties and doctoring a plot to conform to mainstream cinematic conventions. Whatever playful, sardonic or perverse ways contemporary artists may adopt to respond to the Holocaust, there remains a bottom line that writers such as Levi firmly established: that there can be no aesthetic excuse for false redemption and exculpation.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.