During our feedback session for Assignment One, my tutor suggested I look at the work of this photographer, in particular his project Terezin (2010)
Daniel Blaufuks was born in Lisbon, 1963, in a family of Jewish German refugees. He uses photography and video and his work is presented through books, installations, films and facsimiled diaries and letters. His first documentary, Under Strange Skies (2002) chronicles the Jewish immigration, which included his own grandparents, through Lisbon during the Second World War and his film Slightly Smaller than Indiana (2006) is an essay on landscape and collective memory in Portugal. His project Terezin incorporates a book and video/film about Theresienstadt a World War II ghetto and transit camp in Northwestern Czechoslovakia.
Theresienstadt, in Northwestern Czechoslovakia, was established as a garrison town in the late C18th Century. Between March 1939 and the end of summer 1941 the occupying German forces used the town as a military base. As they planned the first deportations of German, Austrian and Czech Jews to locations in the East in October 1941, The German SS and police decided to convert the garrison into a ghetto and transit camp. The first Jews arrived there on 24thNovember 1941. To begin with it was those aged over 65 years and German and Austrian Jewish World War I veterans who met the criteria of either severe disablement due to war wounds or veterans awarded the Iron Cross 1stClass and above. Later on, a third category of the ‘eligible’ list was added – prominent Jews, especially artists, musicians and other cultural figures whose disappearance might lead to inquiry from their communities or from abroad.
Although the ghetto was run by the SS in practice it was presented as a model Jewish settlement for propaganda purposes. Educational and cultural activities were abundant despite congestion, hunger and forced labour. When reports about the death camps began to emerge at the end of 1943, the Nazis decided to present the ghetto to an investigative commission of the International Red cross. More deportations to Auschwitz were carried out to reduce the overcrowding in the ghetto and fake stores, coffee house, bank, school and kindergarten etc were opened with flower gardens planted throughout. Meetings between IRC and prisoners were ‘meticulously planned’ beforehand.
After the visit the Nazis produced a propaganda film and when filming finished most of the actors in the film, including almost all of the independent leadership and most of the children in the ghetto were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The film has been used by Holocaust deniers to make false generalizations about the treatment of Jews by the Nazi regime. More than 155,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt until it was liberated on 8thMay 1945. 35,440 Jews died there and 88,000 were deported to be murdered. See here
The book incorporates text, found photographs, facsimile diaries, photographs of objects; stills from the propaganda film, and stills from the film Blaufuks created in response to the propaganda film. the pages are not numbered. A DVD of his film is also included in a pocket at the back of the book.
At the beginning of the book Blaufuks recalls that the first image he saw of the camp was in Austerlitza book by the German author W.G. Sebald – towards the end, looking almost like a photocopy and portraying a space that seems to be an empty office.
There is no clue as to where the space is located and, according to the clock on the wall, it is exactly six o’clock. He goes on to describe the small cabinets layered on an entire wall and how the whole room seems to be waiting for the occupant to return. His descriptions are very precise delineating exactly what we can see in the photographs – making them clear in our mind.
Blaufuks write about some diaries that came into his possession in the winter of 2001 – from the years 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930. Again – very precise. The diaries are written by someone called Ernst K (we aren’t provided with any more personal information about him). His written hopes, dreams, travels, photographs, scraps of papers with addresses and a lock of hair in a in ‘transparent cellophane paper. All appear. The diaries end in 1930 and Blaufuks wonders what happened to Ernst in subsequent years. No indication is given as to how/why these papers came into Blaufuks’s possession and who Ernst K was. Was he indeed a real person I wonder, or is he a composite of the type of person who would be transported to Theresienstadt – the place where Blaufuks then transports me, the reader.
A description of the camp; how it came about – photographs, franking stamps, currency notes, charts. Postcards even. Stills from the staged film and then a description of his own visit to see the remains of the camp. He finds the room in the Sebald photograph.
The memory of this room prompted me, for some reason, to find the film fragments and to try to retrieve the images from their intended purpose, from the carefully constructed reality the film was planned to create for posterity
To slow down the continuous motion and search through the faces one by one and, once again inspired by Sebald’s writings, to see if somehow I could find Ernst K. among them.
I needed to try to create some truth out of the falsity and out of those staged images. Was everything fake here or could we at least trust some of the expressions on these faces? Were these moments of happiness in the midst of chaos and despair or plain acting in front of a camera, just like in some of our later family home movies.
To understand how images can still lie even when we think we know the truth about them
(Blaufuks, D, 2010)
The book then continues with images from stills of the original film, interspersed with Blaufuks red-filtered images; photographs taken on his visit there (I think) empty rooms, details like a rubber apron, scraps of food.
The book itself ends with an essay by Karel Margry Theresienstadt 1944-1945: the Nazi Propaganda Film depicting the Concentration Camp as Paradise summarising the history of the Camp and describing the making of the film. At the end of the essay Margry provides, on paper, a reconstruction of the film in its final form – pieced together from available sources with scenes and sequences presented in correct order. Margry notes that, by order of the SS, the film’s music score was made up exclusively of pieces by Jewish composers.
Daniel Blaufuks’s re-presentation of the original Propaganda film
Blaufuks suffused the film extracts with a heavy red filter overlay which makes it difficult to see and also slowed-down the sound as part of his quest to find some truth in the images. The colour reminded me of old, thick blood. I couldn’t find the exact red so below is an approximate (I have experimented with layering a photograph of the crematrorium from WikiCommons but don’t think it appropriate to include it in this particular post but it can be found here)
The re-worked film opens with what seems to be an audience (perhaps watching the film) and the sound is distorted through being slowed-down. The conjunction of the heavy, dark, muted red and slowed film made me feel quite sick as it resounded in my throat and diaphragm. There is a sense of heavy doom about it. It is stamped with the words “STAGED NAZI FILM’ on the top right.
Close-ups on people apparently reading at a table. A sequence of young women in shorts in a field, captioned “On the old fortress grounds people happily while away some of the leisure hours in the sunshine (05.33). A lot of the scenes are of people sitting, reading, knitting, including what look like nursing staff. Large groups of children are shown. It refers to use of free time and watching football matches and a municipal bath that serves the population (1.03.49). It was the images of the municipal bath that made me shudder the most.
I read the book some time ago but have only just watched this film. Somehow, I needed to circle around it knowing its falsity. I then re-read the book. To me this is a carefully prepared book telling a chilling story. The precise prose is almost forensic in the mapping of how this Camp came into being; its purpose and destruction. I could have ended with my response to Blaufuks film but, really, I needed to go back to the written words to gain some balance
Daniel Blaufuks writes a short postscript on the final page. Whilst preparing his book in Göttingen he discovered in Steidl’s library (his publisher) that the photograph in Sebald’s book was taken by the German photographer Dirk Reinartz and originally published by Steidl in the book “Deathly still: Pictures of concentration camps” (1995), which is still available. Blaufuks writes, A perfect circle which started and now ends here in Göttingen.
I have another book by him Works on Memory: Selected writings and images (2012) Cardiff, Ffotogallery which I’ve read but will write about in a later post. I feel very drawn by his mediations on memory and use of archives and artefacts to question truth and fiction and know that his work will be a useful resource later in the Module.
Terezin (2010) Blaufuks, D. (2010). Göttingen, Steidl Publishers