From 1939 to 1945, more than 130,000 women and children, deemed ‘racially undesirable’ or ‘alien to the community’, were incarcerated and tortured in the German concentration camp of Ravensbrück, about 50 miles north of Berlin. Many of these women were political prisoners from Poland, the Soviet Union, Austria, France and Germany, an estimated number of 26,000 internees were Jewish. In 1958/59, 13 years after its liberation by the Soviet Red Army, Ravensbrück became a ‘Mahn- und Gedenkstätte’, a memorial site that now houses a library, educational and exhibition spaces, a special collection of historical photographs and media as well as a large repository of everyday and artistic objects made by former camp inmates. (1) During the Nazi regime, Ravensbrück was also a central training and recruitment centre for circa 3,300 female guards, some of which were transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau or Bergen-Belsen. These women were not necessarily SS members, but liable to the Armed SS (‘Waffen-SS’) by contract. During their time in Ravensbrück, they lived comfortably in an SS housing estate from which they could overlook beautiful Lake Schwedt, to one side, and the grounds of the camp, with its barracks and gas chamber chimneys, to the other side.
Although many thousands of women and children were starved, abused, overworked and killed at Ravensbrück, only a negligible number of female guards faced trial after 1945. ‘Poster figures’ of female perpetrators, such as the blue-eyed blonde Irma Grese, who was convicted of murder, sentenced to death in the British Bergen-Belsen trials and executed at the age of 22, are more an exception than the rule. Grese was trained at Ravensbrück and later promoted to a higher-rank SS guard in Auschwitz where she also participated in the selection of prisoners for the gas chambers. Her and a few other select cases, however, have shaped the cultural imagination of female SS guards in Europe and the global West. As both Ingrid Lewis (2018) and Simone Erpel (2011, 2007), in their respective historical studies, have critically noted, the public image of female perpetrators is riddled with popular clichés of women as ‘witches’, erotic ‘beasts’ or ‘sadist monsters’. (2) In 1993/94, Erpel and Jeanette Touissant conducted interviews with female guards from Ravensbrück as part of their on-going research on female perpetrator memory. When they asked a former guard what her duties had been during a ‘commando crematorium’, her answer was marked both by staggered silence and rhetorical acts of drifting, avoiding, circumscribing. The detail she most succinctly remembered was that inmates were ‘repotting flowers’.
Repotting flowers is also the title phrase of a short essay film, realised by German-Cypriot artist Marianna Christofides in 2021. Shot on 16mm stock, the film is a later iteration of a two-channel compilation piece of work-in-progress sequences, which the artist called μελέτες (‘studies’) to foreground the ‘unfinished-ness’ of the larger historical project. ‘studies’ was one of five artistic interventions commissioned by Ravensbrück on occasion of a new permanent exhibition on female SS guards, curated by Erpel, which recently opened at the memorial site. Choosing the guard’s words – ‘repotting flowers’ – as the title for her new essay film, Christofides allows a very different image of violence and female agency to become visible. Nothing of the sadistic, the monstrous or the erotic is inscribed in this phrase; but the denial of personal accountability suggested through these words remains equally problematic. To a certain extent, ‘repotting flowers’ echoes Hannah Arendt’s notion of the ‘banality of evil’, which refers to us the possibility that underneath the most banal or normalised acts lie dormant crimes against humanity, potentially implicating all of us at any time. Arendt, who was an eager reader of David Rousset, a French writer, political activist and survivor of the camps, made this discovery while reporting from the Adolf Eichmann trials in Jerusalem in the early 1960s. (3) Whether Eichmann was indeed the boring bureaucrat that Arendt saw in him or a ‘passionate and ideologically convinced SS officer […] who took great pride in his personal responsibility for the mass deportation of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews’ (4), as Bettina Stangneth persuasively argues (5), – his case has shown us what is possible.
Such possibility continues to haunt our present, as Christofides’ practice of essayistic filmmaking in repotting flowers suggests. Opening with a sequence of teetering long to medium-long black and white shots, the film takes its viewers on a claustrophobic ride down a country road through the forested lakescape of the Brandenburg region, along a path we imagine might end at the gates of the former concentration camp. Such a tour-de-force recalls Alain Resnais’ sequence of travelling shots from Night and Fog (Nuit et Bruillard, 1955) that collide a few non-descript fields around Auschwitz with the barbed wire fencing of the former concentration and determination camp. When Christofides’ camera – matched with the vocal acoustics of Almuth Kühne and disrupted by black leaders – leaps forward with accelerating speed, it seems to gesture to Resnais’ treatment of Auschwitz in the 1950s. His sequence is paired with a voice-over written and spoken by Jean Cayrol, in which he develops a complex argument on the ‘deadly proximity of horror and the everyday and the fragility of the boundaries that we imagine keep them apart’. (6) A similar logic seems to underpin repotting flowers. Here imagery of fine fog hovering over a pasture in the morning light resurfaces as a shiny cloud of dusty particles in a still unrestored attic, located above the new permanent exhibition space, to eventually connect us, in a further chain of associations, to thoughts of human ash: the ash of those women whose dead bodies were burned in the incinerators at Ravensbrück and whose ashes were simply dumped in the nearby lake.
Such disturbing slippages also mark another scene, in which we see a semi-transparent fabric cover old bottles and broken pottery that were found during excavations on the memorial grounds. Thoughts of un/dis/covering and un/veiling of history perhaps come to mind; as the gentle airflow causes the fabric to billow, the whole scene acquires a darker connotation. The fragile gauze-like fabric also solicits associations with human flesh, relating us to a year-long history of unethical human experiments, which were conducted at Ravensbrück, mostly on the limbs of Polish women, to test the effectiveness of sulfonamides on battle wounds of German soldiers.
Notably, no flashbacks, eyewitness accounts, expert talks or historical re-enactments are deployed in repotting flowers; instead, history and memory are invoked as a dynamic and complex assemblage of multiply entangled, at times anachronistic or dissonant, relations. The inclusion of several b/w photographs of former female SS guards, for instance, foreground the schizophrenic conditions that made work at the camp possible. These archive shots, which bear the intimacy of a family album photograph, familiarize us with brief moments of pleasure and joy, usually not associated with the camp. In one of these pictures, we see a group of female SS guards walking in step, with arms linked, seemingly enjoying their time together. One guard is playfully interacting with a German Shepherd Dog, a type of animal that was both used as pet and instrumentalised by the Nazis to terrorize and control internees at the camp. Given the enormity of the historical events, these scenes ‘shock’ us ‘out of comforting dichotomies’ and alert us to the ‘invisible knowledge hidden by a normalized documentary presentation of a real’. (7)
The potential of these black and white photographs as unsettling cyphers of historical multiplicity is further enlarged by shots taken of their reverse side. We can see here the logo ‘Agfa’ of the German corporation for aniline manufacture, which was founded in 1867, near Berlin, and started to produce photographic film in 1908. From 1925 to 1945, Agfa was part of the cartel IG Farben that manufactured ‘Zyklon B’, the deadly gas used in Auschwitz-Birkenau in the genocide of European Jews. With Ravensbrück Agfa was entangled through the Filmfabrik Wolfen in Bitterfeld-Wolfen where a subcamp was built that was subordinated to Ravensbrück until 1944, before it became part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau military-industrial complex. In the early 1940s, 17 female SS guards worked at this subcamp, supervising 200 female internees from Ravensbrück, in the sewing of filters, making of filter cloth, twisting and pre-twisting of crepe or working at viscose stations. Christofides shoots the performance by Kühne on ORWO (ORiginal WOlfen) film stock, the successor company of Filmfabrik Wolfen, thus referencing, exposing and complicating these histories of violence embedded in the film material itself.
Nature shots and archive imagery are further matched or, alternatively, juxtaposed with short performances by German Jazz singer Almut Kühne. Her vocal acoustics resonate with and potentially transform the nature scenes – a forested landscape, grazing horses on pasture, swinging water lilies – as well as her own performative acts. When we hear the vocalist sigh, groan or gasp, it seems as if the Brandenburg region surrounding the memorial site is in-spirited but also still haunted by the tortured souls of the past. At another time, Kühne’s breath ‘whistles’, ‘howls’ or ‘soughs’ like the wind; then again, it translates to the ‘tap’, ‘click’ or ‘chirp’ of birds, bestowing the nature shots with uncanny ambience. ‘Breath still enjoys a privileged place in aesthetic theories of composition’, conferring metre, dictating pauses or conditioning meaning; it also ‘pre-sences the actor, musician or artist to a particular moment in a particular place.’ (8) Like any other more visible matter, breath’s ‘agentive’ potential, its productive, generated and generative forms, to speak with Karen Barad, (9) is conjured up to provide the documentary image with a sense of transient uncanniness but also, occasionally, hope and empowerment in the face of death and suffering. In one striking shot of the vocalist from behind, which focuses us in on the singer’s widening and contracting thorax, we not only become ‘alert to the way respiratory control sits easily between voluntary and involuntary modes of experience’, (10) but also how the controlled movements of inhaling and exhaling can translate into a ‘momentum for overcoming powerlessness’. (11)
As the breath of the vocalist travels between images across space and time, its ephemeral force relates us not only to our own (human) vulnerability, but also that of other beings. With face turned away from us, we hear Kühne in one scene interpret in personal and oblique ways an old German lullaby ‘Weißt Du wieviel Sternlein stehen?’ (‘Can you count the stars?’). The popular evening song was written by the Protestant pastor and poet Wilhelm Hey (1789–1854) and published in 1837. Its original lyrics that speak of God’s love, protection and caring for all his creations – from the stars in the sky to all beings on earth – are made to jar with the dissonant tunes of the singer. In another scene, we watch a fish out of water flexing its body and tail back and forth, flapping its gills and gulping for air before it slowly succumbs to hypoxia. In its gradual depletion of oxygen, the animal invokes thoughts of human suffocation, which in the context of the Ravensbrück camp also short-circuit us to the agony and death of about 2,200 internees who died here in the gas chambers. Matched with machinic sounds that invoke the rhythmic rattle and force of an approaching train as they grow increasingly louder, the scene connects us to the terror of the camps to the extent that it also allows the extreme vulnerability of all life forms become palpably tangible.
Archive material, vocal acoustics, machinic sounds, performative acts and documentary image form a dynamic assemblage of intersecting forces that precipitate – in their affective, sensory ways – conscious thought and conventional language. Channeling these forces in film essayistic ways can ‘breathe’ new life into memory culture, offering possibilities of not only scratching at the limits of semantics, but also allowing the unthought to be/come thinkable. The latter might be more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a more traditional exhibition context. Christofides’ piece, by comparison, encourages us to think of voice – in its subjective as well as material sense – as ‘breaking away from a constricting rational, logocentric and anthropocentric system of designations and interpretations’. (12) The film closes with an enigmatic mirror-shot of the artist operating her 16mm film camera. Her image as filmmaker is here refracted back to us by the same mirror through which we first encountered parts of the Brandenburg region and the Ravensbrück archive. As a Deleuzian ‘zone of interference’, this round-shaped reflecting surface forms an intermediate layer of multiplicity – both enabling, from a physics point of view, a bending of light and, in a more philosophical sense, a possible shift in perspective. The mirror image here also suggests a form of ‘co-habitation’, not only with Kühne’s vocalizing body, but also with other (non-human) beings in the world; we seem to become, in a Bergsonian sense, an image amongst images. (13) Furthermore, the film camera and its operator are brought into the picture, exposing cinema’s illusionist mechanisms and prompting scrutiny of their participation in a history of violence. As repotting flowers aims to think with/through the gaps left open by the elderly interviewee, as it explores – in other words – the interstitial space of affect across a slippery terrain of what can/not be said or even be thought, Christofides’ short essay film alerts us to the co-constitutive, entangled relations of bodies, things, historical discourses in the dynamic, diffracted formation of memory.
(1) https://www.ravensbrueck-sbg.de/en/visitor-service/site-plan/, accessed 25 June 2021.
(2) Ingrid Lewis, Women in European Holocaust Films: Perpetrators, Victims and Resisters (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); Simone Erpel, Im Gefolge der SS: Aufseherinnen des Frauen-KZ Ravensbrück. Begleitband zur Ausstellung (Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 2011; 2007).
(3) Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem – I’, The New Yorker, 8 February 1963, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1963/02/16/eichmann-in-jerusalem-i, accessed 25 June 2021.
(4) Robert Gerwath, ‘Eichmann Before Jerusalem: Bureaucrat to the Holocaust’, The Irish Times, 23 November 2014, accessed 25 June 2021.
(5) Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, New York: Vintage Books, 2014.
(6) Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman, Concentrationary Memories: Totalitarian Terror and Cultural Resistance, London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014, p. 10.
(7) Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman, Concentrationary Cinema: Aesthetics as Political Resistance in Alain Resnais's Night and Fog (1955), New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, p. 2.
(8) Arthur Rose, ‘Introduction: Reading Breath in Literature’, in: Reading Breath in Literature, co-authored by Arthur Rose et al., Palgrave Macmillan (ebook), 2019, p. 7; https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-99948-7.
(9) Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
(10) Rose, Reading Breath, p. 11.
(11) Personal conversation with the artist via email, 21 June 2021.
(12) Personal conversation with the artist via email, 21 June 2021.
(13) Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, London: MacMillan, 1911.