The Suspended Image
AE: First of all, I should like you to talk about this work and about what took you to Terezín.
DB: The project began with a picture that I found in a book by the German writer W.G. Sebald: a photograph of a space that looked like an archive. At the time, I was quite fascinated by this image, which in the book appeared in black and white and was very badly printed, at least in the edition that I had, a German edition from that time. There’s a part of Sebald’s narrative that is set around Theresienstadt, but he never makes it explicit whether the photograph is from there or not. I was left with this doubt: whether the photograph was taken inside the camp, whether it was taken by Sebald himself and this is something that I still don’t know today or if it was a photograph that he had found. And it might equally well have been either a photograph from the period, or in other words one taken at the time when the town was still functioning as a concentration camp, or one taken in the years after the war in the 60s, 70s, or even the 80s or 90s, because the book is from 2001. I immediately thought of using that photograph as a metaphor for my work, but then time went by. Later, through a series of other coincidences, I found some diaries and I discovered that the author had passed through this camp, and so I started looking at this picture again. I ended up deciding to visit Theresienstadt, which is now called Terezín, and I then discovered the place where Sebald’s photograph had been taken and I took my own picture of it. At that time, just like when I saw the picture for the first time, everything seemed to me to be staged, it was a space that looked like a setting for a play. Perhaps I should mention here that I had never been in a concentration camp before.
AE: And what was it like visiting the town?
DB: I arrived by bus, feeling fairly apprehensive for obvious reasons. Terezín is divided into two areas: one part consists of a large star-shaped fortress from the 18th century, where the houses are and where today, once again, there now live roughly three thousand people; the other part is the former prison in the real sense, which dates from before the Second World War. Today the prison functions as a small museum. The room in the photograph is inside this museum area, which to some extent explains its staged appearance, which I was talking about earlier. The room is there, closed off by a glass door, like an inaccessible stage. I didn’t even manage to get into the room. When, now beginning to feel a little frustrated, I discovered the possibility of photographing it through the window, I noticed that this had apparently been the point of view of Sebald himself or of whoever had taken the photograph in the book. At the time, I thought that I should ask for permission and that they would certainly open the door for me, but, at the same time, I didn’t want to create a situation in which I was being given any special or exceptional treatment. I considered it more interesting to be afforded the same access as any other visitor, and, in a certain way, I also enjoy complicated photographs. My being unable to enter the room also reinforced this idea of a staging of the scene and also therefore of its inaccessibility. When I was a child, I used to be taken to classical music concerts, and I remember how I frequently imagined what would happen if I stood up and climbed onto the stage, how the musicians and the audience would react. But, of course, I never had, and never would have, the courage to do so, which is why the stage represents for me that inaccessibility that we were talking about.
AE: The way you approached the room reminds me of an experience I had when I went to see Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés in Philadelphia. The door through which you peek at the scenario has several holes in it, but there are only two that have been worn away and made greasy by the thousands of visitors. So, when you walk up to it, you don’t even hesitate in your choice, you know that it’s only through those two holes that the action unfolds. The path was already programmed, as was the final image, which was the same as the one that I already knew from the photographic reproductions. I was left with the distinct feeling that I was behaving like a controlled voyeur, with a perspective that was exactly the same as the one adopted by thousands of other spectators.
DB: When I travelled to Terezín, I didn’t even take the photograph from the book with me, because I didn’t yet have the intention of taking any photographs it was more a desire to discover the place for myself. It was afterwards, when I compared the two pictures, that I started to find their similarities and their differences. There are objects that have been altered, the table that’s there now is completely different from the one in the picture in the book, the small table in that photograph has disappeared, and I’m not sure whether the clock is still there or not. It doesn’t appear in my photograph. But perhaps it was still there and I didn’t see it. Or I saw it and forgot about it. There’s still a certain ambiguity in my knowledge of this place. What is a fact, however, is that the place had always seemed to me like a stage set and that when I was there it seemed to me to be even more staged!
In the text, I mention Bartleby by Melville, because this room seemed to me like a setting for the staging of this text. At any moment, a character could walk in, pick up one of those files and get on with his work. And all this suggests the idea of suspension, just as there is also a sense of suspension in the theatre.
AE: Like in Bartleby.
DB: And that is the suspension that we would also like to have happened, so that all of that would never actually have taken place. Bartleby is also in some ways linked to that ideal of a person who doesn’t participate, who doesn’t obey.
AE: Yes, it’s about how to participate by not participating. If, at the beginning, there’s a kind of consent, a compromised silence, the question is how to elevate that silence to the level of a refusal.
DB: Exactly. We’re also responsible for our non-options, our lethargies, our apathies. And, as you say, we participate by not participating. Even in this case, I’m taking part in a photography prize sponsored by a bank with various actions that, both in the past and the present, have caused me some doubts and apprehensions. But, returning to Terezín, that image also raised other questions for me: what type of room it was, whether it was an archive, or an office, or a library. Being there, I understood that the room was called a Geschäftszimmer, which, translated literally, means business room, and in this case the word “business” has, for me, the meaning of a concrete event. It’s a very clever name.
AE: This room, which appears in this work as the epicentre of the Theresienstadt machine, is obviously the control room of a panoptic centre. Yet it never appears in the film made by the Germans, which serves as the basis for your work.
DB: It doesn’t appear because this room is located in the part where the camp’s prison is and the film doesn’t even show that there’s a prison there. Kept in this prison were, in fact, the prisoners, whereas the others were also prisoners, although apparently they weren’t because they were kept in the camp. So there were also two realities there: in the prison there were a hundred people kept in a cell that was supposed to be for three, and the people who were kept there were the ones who had been accused of a crime, theft, murder, members of the Czech resistance, Communists, etc. In the rest of the camp were the people who had not been charged with anything, they were just there because they were Jews. And, in the film, the Nazi presence is non-existent, so a room like this one wouldn’t even have any place there. That absence is to a certain extent restored in my version of the film through the grotesque sound of the original voice-off.
AE: A sound that, at the same time, completely destroys the German language and bears a closer resemblance to some kind of furious divine intervention. Speaking of photographs, you treat everything in the same way, so that these realities are all placed at the same level.
DB: Well, I didn’t want to make any distinction between what was the prison at the time and what wasn’t.
AE: Because it was all a prison. Like the prison without any outer limits that we find in THX.
DB: A prison within a prison within an enormous prison, although there was a different treatment given to the people, and some realities were more urgent than others. But it was a different state of emergency, because the people who were in the prison apparently had a greater likelihood of dying than those on the outside, or, in other words, inside the fortress. There were several people who were shot and even hanged in that prison. In the camp, the people were either transported to other places to die or else they died of starvation and disease. Within the work itself, I didn’t want to adopt the stance of suggesting that it was not possible for this to have happened here, and that it could only have happened somewhere else, or vice-versa. Reality is always fictionalised. Because it is the metaphorical and symbolic possibilities that interest me, in every image that I see. Even in this case and with Sebald not revealing what it is that room can be used as a metaphor for much more than a situation that is geographically focused on that place.
AE: How do you bring together the various strands in this project?
DB: The project began with that photograph and it ended in my encounter with the place in that photograph and with the realities that are around it. Sebald gave me all the steps, because he also mentions the film, which I had already heard of, and speaks of the possibility of slowing it down and thereby making it more explicit, more profound. For me, this is a fascinating object because of its conceptualisation: a false documentary about a false town whose inhabitants were also false, because they were forced to remain there in a state of suspension. In a bubble. There was even money, which could only be used there like in a game of Monopoly. Although, generally speaking, we have a positive idea of the human imagination, here this imagination is a terrible thing. It is an imaginary world that is both frightening and frightful. Not so much because of the end that these people would eventually have, since the vast majority of them died shortly after the film had been shot, but if only for the simple reason that they were forced to live in this place. That in itself is enough to make this a frightful place and, what’s more, it’s an imagined land, a Neverland in reverse.
AE: In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas speaks of a miniature village inhabited by dwarfs who have come there from all over America, an almost autonomous village with its own money and commerce... but it was placed in the middle of an amusement park on Coney Island. Where did these people, or rather the extras that we see in the film, come from?
DB: The camp started out being designed for the Jewish inhabitants of what today is the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Later, people also began to arrive from Germany and from other occupied countries. In this way, it brought together a fairly broad mixture of cultures, professions and social classes.
Those arriving from Germany were mainly elderly people, convinced that they were being taken to a kind of old people’s home in the east and being forced to trade their possessions in some cases involving great wealth, in others not in exchange for this idea that they would be living in a model-city and that the State would look after them for the rest of their days. Others were well-known people: teachers, actors, musicians... people whose disappearance could give rise to protests, not only internationally, but also inside Germany itself.
AE: Your film begins with people in an audience watching something that could, in reality, be their own film. Something similar happens in the apocalyptic science-fiction film Soylent Green: an old man makes his way voluntarily to a euthanasia clinic and dies peacefully inside watching a film of the Disney type. He therefore dies watching his own culture and his own image.
DB: The image of his apparent happiness. But what’s strange in this film and what I find fascinating is that, in fact, this happiness seems to be there. We don’t know the exact extent of that happiness, because it’s a fictitious happiness, but it also has a real side. Despite everything, they were alive and they didn’t know what their final fate was to be. They were people without a radio, television or newspapers. There was a period when these existed, but they were censored newspapers. There’s a very concrete example to be found in Theresienstadt: there were people being transported into the camp and others that were being transported out. Shortly before the end of the war, there was a massive transport of people, because men were needed to work at Auschwitz and, on their arrival, the fit men would be sent to do forced labour and those that weren’t fit enough were immediately gassed. But the great lie that was placed on top of this other lie was the information that was given to those remaining in Theresienstadt, namely that these men would be returning after six weeks, because their work would be finished by then. After some time, they called the wives of these men together to go and join them. And so all this followed a very routine pattern: people kept disappearing and the others considered this to be a normal situation, because the information that they were given was that they were being sent to a city further east, where workers were needed. They used to receive postcards that had been forcibly predated months beforehand and whose senders had died in the meantime. The lie was spread in this way, and, after a while, nobody found this strange anymore, and this also mirrored what was happening inside Germany itself: the Jews were taken away and many people believed that they had been deported and relocated in cities and towns of their own. This was all built up gradually within the actual system and within the minds of the people themselves. That’s why we have to pay a lot of attention to systems and the way in which they develop. And to the way in which things are managed by people who are in competition with one another. During the war, each Nazi agency operated in competition with the others, each of them wanted to outdo the others and, by a certain time, things had started to get in the way of one another. The idea of making a film-lie therefore arose and a film is something that remains for posterity. Hence my interest in this subject.
AE: And the implications that this has.
DB: And the way in which people look at film today. We have to remember the way in which this film was made and under what circumstances, because, even though we now know the truth, the images can be deceptive. This is very interesting, and I think that it has a lot to do with the way in which we look at images today. We receive information that is given to us and which justifies and sanctions the opinion that we have already formed before, or we receive images that go against this same opinion and then claim that these images have been falsified. As information reaches us through images and most people don’t read newspapers or books, this information that we receive through images is practically all that we have.
AE: There are some people who maintain that film, and above all video, is a continuation of a an oral tradition.
DB: Yes and no, because we attach more value to images than we do to sound. But then we lose (if we ever had it) the ability to know how to read images. And we don’t have either the time or the desire to see everything, so that there then has to be a selection of images on the part of the transmitter and the receiver of these: one war is shown more than another and so on.
AE: And, in your manipulation of the film, by reducing its speed and colouring it red, you oblige us to reflect upon what is being seen. After watching your film, I thought about the difficult question of appropriation, especially about your stance as an artist in defence of certain values. I think that, in your case and in this piece, you appropriate things so that history can continue to be told as it should be. To some extent, you transport all of that to your own time. Basically, it’s a legacy that you carry through from beginning to end, trying to respect the intrinsic truth of the film itself. But, from time to time, you release characters from that farce, you erase the inscription Nazi Staged Film and portray people that belong to a possible family, your own...
DB: The photographs function as a way of freezing on each face. It’s impossible to look at each person one by one. We talk of art and the practice of images, but basically we’re always theorising, because we never manage to include the total number of available images. This happened to me with Under Strange Skies. While I was looking at the photographs of refugees, I felt that anguish of having to choose: you can’t use everything and therefore you have to choose, and then, in doing so, I felt rather like those policemen who used to pick people out. But they didn’t pick them out by their faces, in fact they based their choice on a system, on a rule, on a law, on absurdities. In photography, it’s the opposite to some extent, faces are chosen because there’s a certain look or expression in them, but it’s always a choice. In this work, I also felt that same importance and I think the fact that the film is being shown in its entirety is also a rejection of that choice. I know that this is very symbolic, but metaphorically those faces are being given a second life. They were faces that had been locked away in an archive for years and then suddenly came to the surface, they are being seen again! And obviously these are just pictures, they are only they’re not even shadows pale references to the people that they once were, but this look is also the greatest thing that can be given back to them. A photograph is a mirror with memory. So, this choice is inherently bound up with memory. And, in this case, with the lack of memory that there is about these people, because, in fact, they were groups of people, they were entire families that disappeared and nobody was left to remember them. One thing that has always interested me in my work is this overlap between what is public and what is private, between that collective memory and our own personal memory. And there is also the strange fact that this film reminds me and this is really very odd of a family film. Everybody’s happy and comfortable. And in family films, everybody’s apparently happy too, there are never any problem families. And the fascinating thing about these films is not even what they show, but rather what they don’t show - a layer, below or above or around, which is not to be found in the images from the film. And this is important, the fact that we can’t grasp hold of what is factual. There is, in this film of Theresienstadt, a scene with a family sitting around the dinner table: the grandparents, the husband and wife and some children. Those who know the identity of these people also know that they were not a family. They were placed at a table together to make that scene for the film. But when you see the film, what they are is a family sitting in a dining-room. What you have is a couple from Amsterdam together with some children who came from Berlin. This is a falsehood that needs to be exposed. If you look at a family film, you think “Oh, what a wonderful childhood!” and then someone tells you that the child was raped by her uncle who’s standing behind her. Suddenly, you look at the film and you think that you can now see that in it, when before you didn’t see anything. Or perhaps you actually did see it, but, of course, it’s only when we have the key that we can manage to unravel the codes that were previously secret.
AE: That shot of the fabricated family sitting at the table is therefore a second key to the project, the first one being Sebald’s photograph. Do you believe because I do a little - that, because of the way in which things have been put together and done here, there is almost an implicit truth to the scene? The fact that this film was made by people who were in the camp... there is in it almost a dismantling of the shots, as if it were an implied warning code. Like that soldier who, in a rescue film, manages to ask for help by winking.
DB: The director was one of the prisoners, who ended up being murdered in Auschwitz shortly afterwards...
AE: ... and if we suppose that, while making the film, he wasn’t also making an anatomical study of the whole situation, then you can understand that the filming of that body is something that will always be artificial.
DB: ... yes, and, in fact, even if there were no other reality: chaos, war, extermination and everything that we know about, all around... These were people who hadn’t heard anything about their families for ages, and they were far from their homes, in a camp that had been prepared for a maximum of five thousand people and which was completely overcrowded with some fifty thousand people, so that they were living in dreadful conditions. The film was made later, in 1943, but in September 1942 roughly a hundred and forty people were dying every day of typhoid fever, which means that it was impossible for those people not to know that obviously something wasn’t right.
AE: It would be impossible for them not to have had that burden.
DB: That weight and that identity inside them. But it’s also interesting, when we realise to what extent people seem to have been handpicked for the film: the different elements, the actors, the extras, they were all chosen. A film is always fiction. In a documentary, the best framing is chosen for each shot, that red sofa looks better than the yellow one, you choose that person who has larger eyes and who looks better in the picture than the other one, who may even have a very different story to tell. And, of course, all this is so obvious in photography.
AE: The best realities are also the ones that are made fictional.
DB: For example, in the Second World War, countless colour films were made, and yet our memory of that war is in black and white. It’s the colour of memory. When the Americans reached the concentration camps and saw the piles of bodies, they raised the question of whether to film in colour or in black and white. And it was decided to film in black and white for one practical reason. The Americans’ idea was to show this horror to the Germans themselves so that they could understand the full extent of what had happened, and as it was still much easier to duplicate and project copies of films that were made in black and white, they decided to film in black and white. And I can’t imagine that horror being shown in Technicolor. When I photographed the crematorium at Terezín, the place was so gloomy that strangely enough the picture ended up being in black and white.
AE: Black and white suspends time, red subjectivises it. Coppola presents a treatise on this very idea in Rumble Fish. A black and white film about the common reality of almost any city in America with a colour-blind individual who only sees the fish he identifies with in colour. In fact, you yourself reaffirm this in the film Black and White. In the video A Perfect Day and in Slightly Smaller than Indiana, colour makes everything appear timeless and suspended in the stereotype, whereas in Under Strange Skies, I’m not sure whether you have this relationship.
DB: In that film, the still images are always in colour and the moving images are in black and white, except for the films of my childhood. Which has a little to do with the treatment that I also gave to this film: it was a film shot in Rossio that I put into slow motion, so that you move all the way round the square very slowly...
AE: It’s funny that you should talk about this. There’s an obvious relationship between a film camera and a machine gun. The first idea behind slow motion when it was used in the technical sense was to see the effect of a bullet perforating a human bone. It’s incredible to think that it was a military study that lay behind all this. There is a morbid and warlike side to each film, especially when, as in your film, you’re watching a slow motion effect that is horrible.
DB: And even documentary films developed in very much the same way: beforehand, people used to go to Africa and bring back the heads of animals that they’d hunted, later we ended up going there to make anthropological films, which is very similar to that warlike connection with hunting, with trophies. The Internet itself is, in fact, an old military project. And, the other day, you yourself made this analogy, that a photographic camera is like a rifle and that a film camera is like a machine gun. As far as this image is concerned, I’d also like to mention that the fact that I reduced the speed of the film of Theresienstadt meant that it went back to its original length. It is thought that the film was originally meant to last about ninety minutes. At the end of the war, the film disappeared and only later were some excerpts found, which were scattered around museums all over the world. It was these bits that I worked on, and I reduced them to a speed that was four times slower, making it much more slow-moving. And so, in this way, we have returned to the ninety minutes that the Germans wanted the film to last, and which, according to them, would be the amount of time needed for you to get caught up in the lie that those images portray. With this process, a certain truth has been re-established from that lie and that intention of theirs. But you can make a true or a false film about any theory. That’s why I think that this film of Theresienstadt is paradigmatic of the times that we live in.
This conversation took place in Lisbon in October 2006. A second conversation was held a week later, focusing on filling in some of the gaps in the first conversation. On 26 October 2006, a car was broken into on Cape Finisterre. Amongst the many objects stolen was a mini-disk player with a disk inside it, which contained the recording of that second conversation. In trying to reconstruct the lost conversation, we came to the conclusion that we each had completely different memories of it.