Tag Archives: Memory


21 Apr

Bear with me as I try to make a point about the media’s construction of “Image” and its manipulation of the visual record–whether aesthetic or historical or both. Theory has never been my strong suit as a thinker or teacher, so I may be reinventing the hermeneutic wheel here in a flat-footed way; and it could be that my comparisons here are stretched beyond persuasiveness, but current events have contrived to bring these ideas together for me right now.

This is the article that began this rumination:



If she is to be believed, the eminent scholar Mary Beard, pictured above, was largely deleted from the American presentation of the ambitious new “Civilizations” series, because, according to her, PBS Boston thought her appearance wouldn’t appeal to an American audience. She tweeted: “Can’t help think that there is something about a creaky 63 year old grey haired lady that doesn’t quite fit the bill. But I am probably smelling a rat where there isn’t one!” Beard also indicated that the American edits veered the narration of the series much more directly toward Christian views, and turned the episodes into an “anodyne” version that critics have noted in a rebuke of the productions’ “value free” approach to the subject.

While Beard may indeed be placing blame for the cuts on the wrong culprit, that such edits were made at all is a dismaying indictment of U.S. media’s interpretation of what American audiences want or should be exposed to–as if we can’t deal with another culture’s approach to history and art. Such micromanagement of what the American public sees smacks of the most egregious kind of censorship:  insulting an entire culture’s intelligence. Personally, as a “creaky old lady” myself, I tend to believe that Mary Beard is right:  her physical appearance doesn’t fit the mold of female talking head in America.  As if anyone watching a series with as lofty a goal as explaining “civilization” would be put off by a female presence not as attractive as the weather girls on local television stations!

The second image (which I don’t seem to be able to edit into place, so will have to place it  at the bottom of this discourse) is a screen shot from the scholar Thomas Elsaesser’s film about his family, “Sonneninsel”, “Sun Island” in English.


As I have written before (https://esauboeck.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/a-book-proposal/), Elsaesser serendipitously discovered my blog about Irmgard Rexroth-Kern, one of my “Three German Women”, and contacted me because Kern and her husband H.G. Rexroth figure in his film! (An indication of what a godsend Google can be for researchers!) He quite graciously sent me photos of Fr. Kern, as she appeared in the 1940s, and we have been sharing information ever since.  I was thrilled that he brought his film to USC this week, where we were able to see it yesterday and to meet the man himself.  “Sun Island” is a fascinating documentary based on home movies that tells a complex story of family, but brings up many other intellectual strands, having to do with architecture, the birth of the Green movement, memory, and revelations about everyday German life before, during, and after World War II.

After the film’s presentation and insightful discussion by extremely clued-in film students (they are, after all, at one of the most renowned film schools in the world), one of the faculty members wanted Elsaesser to address the “dilemma” raised by the film showing images of family members in Nazi uniform. The argument seemed to center on the fact that American audiences would not be able to read these images as anything but meaning that Elsaesser’s family were indeed Nazis, and that while Elsaesser does mention the appearance of people in uniforms, he doesn’t explain clearly enough what these depictions “mean”.  There was much back and forth about whether such images should be deleted for an American audience that wouldn’t understand.

Such concerns, to my mind, are exactly why such images of Germans in the 1930s and 1940s should be shown–to give a realistic presentation of what living in Germany at this tumultuous time meant.  Everyday life went on, people continued to make gardens, have friends over for tea, went for strolls in the gardens or swims in the lake.  Just like today, most Germans were, if not apolitical, neither Nazis nor leftists. As the war proceeded, men were drafted and sent off to the front. There wasn’t much they could do about it no matter how they felt about the military forces in charge of the country, unless they were immensely courageous and refused to go. Americans should also try to remember that Germans were not receiving the same kind of news that the Allies received; as far as most Germans knew, they were winning victories, they were fighting for the Fatherland, and life went on.  By the mid-40s, having a family member in uniform was as normal as seeing an American in uniform during the Vietnam war, and the feelings about their presence were as complex and emotional as were ours during that time.

But for the media,  what IMAGE is presented and how it will be interpreted is of utmost importance.  The awareness by professional documentarians and filmmakers of the inevitable self-censorship that happens with any film-making must always, I think,  be informed by film’s educational possibilities, even when dealing with “the market”, as the film-watching public is considered to be. Too often, however, those market forces seem to take precedence over the opportunity to educate.  That Elsaesser has such access to this amazing vernacular footage provides a brilliant opportunity to expand the interpretation of German life, to broaden the expected image of GERMAN that the world has created. As the people in this film reveal, they embraced neither one ideology nor the other; their visualized story presents a much more mundane picture of human beings going about the living of their lives, unaware that they were experiencing what has now become history.  Elsaesser’s desire to eradicate some stereotypes and misinterpretations of this past is the main reason I’m writing my book, too:  each of my German Women had to deal with the exigencies of this miserable history as it was happening, and none of them fit neatly into any of these black-and-white models of politics or ideology.  The concern about “accepted” presentation–whether of the supposedly desired female image for TV or the assumed meaning of a Nazi uniform–is not what is important to me or, I would hope, to most intelligent viewers or readers.  This “creaky old lady” just wants these stories to be told as factually yet evocatively as possible.



A screen shot from Thomas Elsaesser’s “Sun Island,” showing a family member sitting in German uniform at a family gathering during WWII.

Moral dilemmas

29 Oct

A Russian prisoner at Buchenwald berating a brutal Nazi officer after the liberation of the camp, 1945.

A short little story exemplifying the kind of moral and ethical traumas that still confront many Germans and Austrians today:  yesterday we went to visit an old friend, Jutta (I have changed their names here). We met her through American friends  in Vienna when we lived here in 1980-81. Her husband Johann was a painting conservator at one of the museums–through him I was able to view several Renaissance paintings in the process of restoration, which was a thrilling experience. Johann and Jutta and their children lived an hour by tram from the city, in a lovely old building with a fantastic garden.  They were a very interesting pair:  Johann was from peasant family and a die-hard Communist of the gentlest, most idealistic kind. He was much more political than she, who was raised in the DDR and was most interested in alternative education (their children all went to non-traditional schools) and organic gardens. In America, these two would have been ”back to the landers” of the most committed sort.  The children, I remember, were encouraged and supported to go and help the Nicaraguans during the Daniel Ortega days. We had only stayed in touch by occasional Christmas letters, and I hadn’t communicated with them around the time that The Berlin Wall came down, but I’m sure it was a bitter disappointment for Johann. He died in the early 2000s after a long illness.

Jutta still lives in the same house, has several grandchildren, whom she sees from time to time. She still lives a very simple life, with no television or computer, does interesting artwork, re-writes fairy tales, and until last year worked with children who have learning disabilities. In other words, an old-fashioned, generous humanist who believes art and peaceful occupations can help the world become a better place. I can’t imagine she has ever had an enemy or a violent thought in her life. But here comes the burden of the German past: a few years ago, her older brother, already in his 60s, decided he wanted to know what their father did during the war. He fell at the Russian front when Jutta was 5 and her brother was 10; her mother never talked about him or what he had done once he left their home in a region of Eastern Germany in 1939. They knew he had done something administrative ”somewhere in what is now Poland”, but that was all. In the age of the internet, where everything is online, more information was not hard to find. Another sibling did a simple search, and found specific documents talking about their father. He had been appointed as the administrator of an Eastern region of Germany, in 1939–a very telling year. After having the documents online translated from Polish, the siblings found out the horrible truth: their father had been responsible for the organization of the deportation of 6,000 Jews from ”his” region to the concentration camps, and had written that he did this in such a way as to not ”disturb” the German people.

This was, understandably, shattering news to the siblings, who knew nothing about this. Jutta said that one time while doing a report in high school, she had asked her mother about her father during the war, and she had simply said, ”Es war alles damals zu hart”–it was all too tough at the time. Just imagine learning this about your own father after so many years. Did the mother know? Did she want to know?  Did any of the women want to know?  As Jutta said, most Germans tried to forget the past and rationalize the atrocious events of the time by saying they were just living their lives, and that they really didn’t know what was happening. But here were these good people learning that their own flesh and blood willingly and actively participated in the atrocities. ”It’s actually a blessing for us all that he died in the war,” Jutta said. It is no wonder that people have only begun to face this painful past in the last few years, and why so many Germans simply did not want to talk about any of it. I really feel for Jutta–this is now a horrible burden that this good woman must carry with her for the rest of her life.