War Stories, the Lorelei, Europe Today, and Documentary Photography
Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten
Dass ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
"Lorelei," Heinrich Heine
(I don't know what it means that I am so sad; there's a story from olden times that I can't get out of my mind.)
This book is a combination of photographs and texts telling the story of two journeys separated by 50 years. In 1995, Mikael Levin retraced the route traveled by his father Meyer Levin, an American war correspondent reporting on the final chapters of the second World War, including the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. Mikael Levin's photographs stand in quiet counterpoint to the passionate texts written by his father. His photographs survey the often tranquil and ordinary European landscapes of today, which were the battlegrounds, camps and ruined cities witnessed by Meyer Levin in 1945. Some of these scenes were originally photographed by Eric Schwab, who was Meyer Levin's companion on his journey through Europe.
The relations of the past and the present, the public and the personal, the text and the photograph, the father and the son, what is absent and what is present, and of suspense and certainty are all woven together in an intricate pattern in this volume. Both the photographs and the texts concern the Second World War, the Holocaust, and human response to what is unbearable. But one story is about an immediate, existential experience while the other is a meditation upon the ways in which life is assimilated to art, and what can be gained thereby. Fifty years have past since the Allied troops rolled through Europe, liberating the concentration camps and bringing the war in Europe to an end. It is now a tale from olden times which we can't get out of our minds. This book is an exploration of all that we can least afford to forget.
The wordless evidence of these photographs is a collective portrait of the European landscape today. Guilt, beauty, the passage of time, history, German culture, seduction, and repulsion are all present in the images, stories, meditations, memories and questions which Mikael Levin has wordlessly collected in his images. His work is, however, not pure documentary photography or reportage; it is also art--and it is about art. Photography itself, and its possibilities, have been patiently explored throughout all of his work to date. In this project, he skillfully employs several different photographic styles as needed, including those of classic landscape work and of the new social landscape school. His previous photographic projects have explored many subjects: landscape, architecture, people in the streets, archaeological artifacts; borders, nationalism, time and perception, history and inscription. The revelations about reality to be won from small visual details in the world have always been central to his work, as they are here. His lucid photographic analysis is impressively unemphatic, benefiting from an assurance which never calls attention to itself.
Levin is an unobtrusive witness to the scenes he photographs. He has reasons for where he goes and what he sees, but in this book the reader will learn of these more readily from the texts written by his father than from the photographs themselves. In Levin's previous landscape photography, change and the passage of time in the landscape were shown as stable processes, held in a ceaseless Heraclitian rhythm. This work, darker and more complex as well as wider in scope, proposes that the past is deeply implicated in the present, and that the more carefully we look at the world, the more we find evidence of the vanished past which we cannot see. Rather than a general philosophical meditation upon time, these photographs are utterly specific in their grounding in modern European history. This book is about the problems of retrospection faced by the postwar generations, and it does not seek to explain how a highly civilized nation was seduced by the siren song of Nazis, and sailed its ship so dramatically onto the rocks, plunging a whole society into previously unimaginable evil.
In making these photographs, Mikael Levin prompts us to reflect upon how the present is made from the remains of the past, but also--and more unexpectedly--upon how the past is shaped by the present when we try to find it. This condition of mutual influence is a variation of the familiar two-way transaction between a photographer and his subject, in which what is seen is affected by the one who sees it, while he or she is in turn affected by the process. The recognition of the mutual involvement of past and present makes for a curious play here with the ostensible neutrality of the camera eye. These pictures look uninflected, documentary and accurate. Yet there is an element of paradox in this, as in so much documentary work. Levin's photographs are simultaneously factual and profoundly personal. Typical photojournalism often pretends to an immediacy which can mask the specific conditions under which a photograph may have been made. These photographs, on the contrary, are deeply immersed in recognition of their own layering of present upon past, and make reference to historical events and memories.
But history, memory and experience are implicit rather than explicit in these landscape images. Sometimes the oblique and enduring qualities of the natural world depicted in these photographs are in metaphoric or even contradictory relation to the events recounted in Meyer Levin's dispatches and memoirs. For instance, on page 78 of this book is a picture of a scene of superb pastoral beauty. The morning fog lifts from a slowly flowing river beside a meadow. In the distance apparent at the center of the composition is mystery: hills and mists, changing from minute to minute as the atmosphere succumbs to the motion of wind and action of the sun, but fixed here with decisive instantaneity. This photograph was made in a spot where Meyer Levin and a companion had huddled behind a tree trying to evade sniper fire, contemplating their chances and pondering the almost random patterns of fate and destruction in warfare. Though the grave loveliness of the scene as it appears now is a reproach to its past, the photograph alters almost visibly as one hears the story which goes with it. Many of Mikael Levin's photographs are like this: elliptical, compelling and willing to admit many interpretations though perhaps actuated by but a single one.
On page 88 is a picture which is far more somber and just as finely wrought. An ominous landscape, it descends directly from several bodies of previous dark, quiet photographs of Northern European landscapes which Levin has made previously. But in Meyer Levin's telling, this barren, plowed field of broken stalks is a field of death, so thickly seeded with enemy corpses that even the advancing Americans pitied the enemy men who'd died there. In this bleak place, there fell a German corpse still holding his binoculars to his eyes. In this charnel field, that corpse was left untouched while all the others were routinely stripped of tools and supplies. A photograph made today can't tell this story, but the image is nonetheless powerfully redolent of death and destruction. Yet both these landscapes are something like dress rehearsals for the photograph which appears on page 132, and depicts a place that was an important way-station on Meyer Levin's journey into darkness.
In this picture, a muddy road leads away from camera or viewer, up a slope towards a dead white horizon framed by undistinguished shrubbery on either side. It is the road to hell, traveled with foreboding but without exact prior knowledge by Meyer Levin, and later found, photographed and traveled by Mikael Levin in possession of the full weight of knowledge of the unbearable and inexplicable in modern history. This is the road to the mass burial pit of Nordlager Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp visited by Levin and Schwab, and the site of an intense epiphany for them concerning the nature of the evil which they had sought out, and would chronicle. This picture demonstrates how Mikael Levin's photographs are composed with a painful consciousness of the past that is frequently in contrast to the innocuous or even banal circumstances of the present. Moving with his camera through contemporary Europe, he carries with him the double consciousness of past and present. His images indicate the violences, ironies and threats of history in relation to the present.
While documentary photography normally attempts to show events, or things, in a direct and straightforward manner, these images are highly oblique. But among the photographs in this book are some which explicitly comment on the visible presence or absence in Europe of the effects of the events of 50 years before. In St. Vith, Belgium, Mikael Levin photographed an undistinguished war monument commemorating the dead of the US. Second Infantry Division (page 61). On its base is a recent scrawl in chalk: a rudely drawn swastika. The photograph speaks of many things. It tells us that we clutter our streets and towns with monuments which go all but unseen in daily life--that to remember officially can be to forget in a sense. And of course it tells us of the presence of a new generation's chilling adoption of Nazi imagery, the sign of a very real and international threat to peace and decency. The monument in this picture is situated on a narrow strip of land, scarcely a park, between two roads. In the background, parked at the curb, is a large Mercedes car. The image compounds history remembered and forgotten, used and abused in a composition rich in incidental meaning.
Most of the photographic journey in this book occurs without characters or faces. Places and terrain are made to account for themselves as best they can in light of the texts from the past. But in a few images, Mikael Levin opens the recollective work of his project to others. Photographing the scene of a dramatic battle for control of Itter Castle, an ancient stronghold not far from Innsbruck, Austria, he came across a farmer who recalled the incident (page 208). In Levin's photograph, this man appears holding Eric Schwab's photograph of 1945 from this place. We see it from over his shoulder as he, and we, look out beyond the old photograph to the present-day landscape. In Schwab's photograph are a tank, two helmeted soldiers and no horizon. In Levin's photograph is the bemused farmer, the photograph and a corner of open sky. The photograph is redolent of the change and absence which we expect after 50 years, but it also reminds us of ties of guilt, complicity, and memory which are inescapable as life continues after historical cataclysm.
Another photograph which addresses the problems of post-war Europe in rebuilding and continuing life after the war is the richly shadowy street scene made in Düren, a small city which was entirely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, so much so that, as Meyer Levin wrote: "Densely built city blocks, comprising acres in area, have been flattened without even a vestige of a wall for a picturesque war-horror photograph" (page 95). To uninitiated American eyes, no evidence of tragedy can be read from the view of Düren today. But merely the presence of such modern construction in a town center is suspicious for Europe: in order to build anew, the old construction of preceding centuries must have been destroyed. And thus the posting on the streets of kitschy line drawings recalling the traditional architecture of the pre-war period are elegiac rather than merely decorative in intent. A ghostly absence, again provides the significance of the picture. The imagery of the past is alive and present in the new German cities of the postwar era.
Just such forms of cultural inscription upon the landscape are essential tools for Levin in his photographic search for the past in the present. Beauty and evil alike are to be found in the landscape, as in history, as in the present. German landscapes are so thickly overlain with history, sentiment, Romantic admiration and cultural representations of many periods that each hillside or river strand is already a palimpsest of images and ideas. The Rhein-side scene which Levin photographed was passed in a moment on the eve of Passover 1945 by his father, hastening by Jeep along the entire length of the river in order to reach Frankfurt before sundown (page 114). The beauty of the landscape which had nonetheless given birth to horror struck him as a parallel to the folkloric Lorelei, the lovely and deadly mermaids who lured unwary sailors to their doom. That fairy tale was captured by the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is his renowned lyric "Lorelei". Heine, an assimilated Jew and a revered figure in German literature, is a poignant representative of the complexity and mutability of German culture, nature and history.
In wartime, on the eve of Passover, it was possible for Meyer Levin to conclude that the Lorelei represent the whole truth about the German soul, but at other moments he doubted this absolute position. After 50 years, and in awareness of other genocides elsewhere, it is natural to share his moments of doubt more surely than his fierce certainty. German history now seems to represent one extreme of human nature as represented by this figure of evil, rather than to be an exceptional and ethnically specific deviation. Yet the landscape remains innocent despite all it has seen. In Heine's poem, it is described far more precisely and visually than the alluring Lorelei:
Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
(The air is cool and it's getting dark, and quietly flows the Rhein; the peak of the mountain gleams in the evening sunshine.)
In Levin's photograph, the peak of the mountain is severely absent, so that a steeply craggy rock wall seems to rise without end from the river's banks. The landscape is shown as one of power rather than pleasurable seduction, and the image on the facing page shows the ruthless curve of the Autobahn which is routed immediately beside this famous landscape in a typically twentieth century triumph of technology over nature (page 115). The view of the river is there for drivers who, at high speeds, may fancy the place unspoiled, but a slower or even stationery look from the shoulder of the road affords this revelation of the incursion of man into nature. The Lorelei combing their golden hair with golden combs are no doubt inconvenienced by the wind and noise of the unheeding motorists rushing past.
Two street scenes explore less symbolically the evidences of evil in contemporary German everyday life. The first was photographed in Frankfurt (page 121). Traffic light poles, undistinguished six-story modern apartment houses and a passerby are apparent to the left of a telling array of signage on the wall of building. Three signs are juxtaposed: the street sign reading "Judengasse" (street of the Jews), a poster bearing the legend "Heute morden Nazis schon wieder" (Today the Nazis are killing again), and a second poster, this one advertising a photography exhibition with a stylish high-modernist image of a photographer who seems to have a camera rather than eyes. There on the city's streets is the whole range of Levin's project compressed almost into the proverbial nutshell: the old Jewish quarter, virtually all of whose inhabitants were killed by the Nazis, a poster warning of neo-Nazi activity, and another promoting the history of photography.
An even richer and more complicated layering of imagery occurs in the street scene from Dachau, which opposes a wonderfully atmospheric rainy day scene like something out of one of Caillebotte's paintings with a poster on the wall beside a shop entrance (page 182). This poster announces an exhibition of paintings by one Heribert M. Spitzauer at a local art gallery. The image on the poster is expressionistically brushed, and represents an emaciated man's face. This painting was made as a direct transcription of one of Eric Schwab's photographs of a concentration camp survivor. Levin's labor of reconstruction of the words and texts of 50 years before is here seen to be part of a much larger project--or, we could see this as evidence that he has help in his endeavor even without knowing it! The photograph from Frankfurt requires that we read the words evident within the image to perceive the density of reference within the photographic frame. This image asks that we recognize Schwab's image and infer the connection. These are eloquent images, and ones that encompass, demand or generate texts of their own.
The separation between past and present blurs at a few points on Levin's journey in his father's and Schwab's footsteps. In simplest terms, Mikael Levin's project was a re-photographic survey, distinguished from most merely by the use of written reportage as well as previous photographs as the sources for its subjects. One of the most strikingly powerful of the instances of exact re-photographic reportage in this book is the photograph taken by Mikael Levin of the crematorium at Buchenwald, which precisely reprises Eric Schwab's image. (pages 160-161). But in Schwab's view, we see the burned remains within one of the ovens. Such pairings of images are riveting, but they operate very differently than the majority of Levin's photographs, which by their very indirection necessitate the viewer's active participation. The one-to-one correspondence of then and now in simple re-photographic projects is greatly enhanced and elaborated by the many strands of meaning and memory which Levin incorporates in his work.
Some of Levin's photographs show us troubling or surprising aspects of the contemporary state of places of horror which have become memorial sites. At Buchenwald, Levin photographed a museum-style didactic sign bearing an historical photograph (page 156). The fine lines between museum, memorial and theme park are more difficult than usual to draw in a place so weighted with meaning, mourning and history, and this photograph raises some disquieting questions about how Holocaust sites can and should be presented to visitors. What may be photographed in such places, and how and why is also at issue.
At Dachau, Levin photographed a sign of quite a different type, which employs four languages to advertise the more benign charms of a site best known for its concentration camp: "Visit Dachau, the 1200 years old artists' centre with its castle and surrounding park, offering a splendid view over the country." (page 181) How are we to remember this place in history? Does the horror of what happened there for a few years efface all other identities the place has known? The photograph reminds us that what we make of the past of course depends on us, and on the present.
The photographs of Theresienstadt afford another angle of view upon this problem (pages 224-225). They show darkly ominous and empty dead-end, no-outlet streets unrecognizable as belonging to such a place, but intensely weighted with an atmosphere of despairing gloom. Meyer Levin's text describes the shocking irony of a well-outfitted hospital in the camp which was not used to treat a shipment of desperately ill prisoners sent there from another camp in the final moments of the war, and the darkness evident in the photographs is concomitant with this bitter circumstance. Yet Theresienstadt--incredibly--was also a place of hope and renewal, for it was there that against all odds, Eric Schwab was reunited with his mother, who had been an inmate of the camp.
That reunion is one more story which it is impossible for the camera to show after an interval of 50 years, and thus it is not surprising that instead, the images made by Mikael Levin suggest a Central European village still asleep, still caught under an evil spell. Remarkably unchanged in appearance from what it must have been in the late 1940s, the town seems to have been hermetically sealed by the Iron Curtain, from which there is no sign of its having emerged. A shared itinerary and the curious repetitions of history don't, after all, enable a father and son to step into the same river after an interval of half a century. Time insistently flows onward, and the two records in this volume necessarily tell us many different things.
In this book, the man who was not yet Mikael Levin's father speaks as a journalist and a witness to the world about public things, about war, about a vast historical tragedy. He is emotional, communicative and direct in his imposition of personality upon the reader. His son, who has come to see his life in complex relation to his father's life, to history, identity, nationality and belief, responds with subtle art to the past. His pictures speak of the vast and universal operations of time and of history, but also about the particular qualities of photography, about the seamlessly manufactured urban texture of much of Europe today, and about the smaller more personal issues of his following in his father's footsteps.
Despite what photography seems to promise to us, we can neither stop nor regain time, and this circumstance is a cornerstone of the human condition. We all know about how photography works through our own processes of memory, which are interrupted by the re-emphasizing effects of photographic images upon specific episodes. Mikael Levin's complex journey though time is an invitation to consider what can and cannot be seen, photographed and understood. It is a visual epistemology of history, asking how we use what we see to know what we think we know about the past. In this book, we are shown both what can be photographed and what can not be photographed. The places where photography reaches the frontier of the possible are an exciting territory where we notice how like life itself photography can be.
This book is testimony about the power of memory and recollection; it redeems a pledge made between the generations to remember; and without compromise or irony it claims great ability and responsibility for the photographic medium. In his landscape photographs, Levin has always suggested that there is more to the land than territory or even emotion. But until now, history and metaphor have only been implied in his photographs. This volume traces the outlines of much that cannot be said, and recalls much that has been lost.
Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Lorelei getan.
(I think the waves swallowed the sailor and his boat in the end--that's what the singing of the Lorelei has done.)
Theodor Adorno famously said that after Auschwitz there could be no more poetry. Some subjects seem to us so grave that they can at first only be addressed through reportage; the felicities of art are unseemly. But this is the response of the witnesses and survivors, rather than a categorical designation of those subjects as forever inaccessible to the muses. The last few years have seen innumerable attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust in all artistic media, and this is both necessary and inevitable. It is the task of this and of future generations to reckon in art, the most sensitive and powerful language available to us, with the darkest chapters of the history of this century. The most eloquent artistic ventures of this kind are those like Mikael Levin's, which recognize the claims of document, history, evidence and memory, and use these forces and resources as material for what nonetheless belongs to the realm of art.
The author's translation of "Lorelei" is used throughout this essay.
Ellen Handy is associate Curator at the International Center of Photography, New York.