William Kentrige's Black Box at Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam
Voices. Voices in the background. One is higher, peaks out of the murmur, like from a video screening; a male voice, by the flow of the sound he is talking about something; squeezing sound; sound of ventilation, ongoing, monotone; single pitched sounds, like pushing a phone's buttons; music just started in the far back; male voice talking in dutch, suriname-dutch; footsteps, various sounds on granite floor. One like rubber touching the stone floor, the other one more clicking. Like heals on stone; sound of wooden chairs cracking under the body weight of people sitting down; soft speaking voices; clicking of metal keys; clapping of door; male voice announcing starting time of the performance; screening voice in the background changed into female voice, telling something. Can't figure out the words; a deeper woman voice next to me; squeaking sound.
I am sitting - sound of footsteps - in a "black box". An installation of a cube shaped room in a museum space. Four rows of wooden chairs and in front of us a small theater stage with (closed) curtains. All is made out of wood, different kinds of wood.
Male voice joining female voice; sound of crumbling plastic; ongoing murmur; shuffling of paper; sound of shoes with wooden soles entering; paper ruffling; sound of pages being turned. The space smells woody. Woman's voice entering; nose sniffing; chair legs scratching on stone floor; exhaling sound; tingling sound made by a zipper; a woman's high voice; cracking sound of chairs under body weight.
There are six drawings framed in light wooden frames next to me on the left wall.
Deep woman's voice talking to me. If she can sit next to me since she is so tall (indeed she is!) she doesn't want to block anyone's view; more shuffling of chairs and paper; sound of single sheet of paper hitting stone floor; jacket button hitting wooden chair.
Six drawings, pencil or charcoal on paper. Grayish paper pinned upon off-white paper.
More voices entering; female and male voices discussing in dutch where to sit; sound of thump sliding over paper sheet; sound of woman next to me going through her large and soft leather bag; the very soft sound of my ballpoint pen on paper; whispering voices; low speaking voices; door clapping in the distance.
Music starting; sound of spotlights being switched on.
During the whole performance not one sound is made by the viewers. Not one, except the "click" of my camera once and the sound of my pencil on paper. Only the metallic hum and clapping sound of the wheels and the music coming from the stage. Exquisite gear wheel mechanic.
After the show, people murmuring, getting up from their chairs, walking towards the stage, clicks of phones taking pictures of the stage, of the drawings; doors clapping; footsteps moving away.
What had we seen?
Something I can only say in German: "Gründliches Vermessen und Ermorden - eine deutsche Wertarbeit". Gründlich sprach General von Trotha den Herero zu in seinem offenen Brief*... and the German genocide on the Herero begins.
William Kendrige puts this all into a live animated performance of maybe twenty minutes. His choice of material, music, staging, drawings, film, words and lettering, cut outs and gearwheel mechanics takes us back in time. Like in a "Wochenschau" we sit and watch the "newsreal" from afar.
1904, 1905,1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911.
News from "Südwestafrika". We see a metal object marching, general von Trotha marching back and forth, back and forth in front of original film material of the region. South West Africa. Today's Namibia. "Zeitzeugnis", a time testimony. A megaphone made of paper (very much reminding me of the pixar lamp, symbol of high class animation standards) moving on and off the stage with a paper board around its neck, saying "Trauerarbeit", the work of mourning, through its gorgeous, subtle and intriguing movements.
"Deutsche Gründlichkeit - Vermessen und Ermorden"**
The general with his arrogance and cruelty was nothing unusual. Just a ‚"treuer Untertan des Kaisers"*** who declared "The Herero are no longer German subjects" and therefore had to leave the area. Their area. Dead or alive. Heinrich Mann's "Der Untertan"****. Heinrich Mann, the brother of Thomas, the uncle of Klaus and Erika seemed to have written another piece I learned today. "Between the Races". I wonder what it is about? He the author of "Der Untertan", which is the novel version of the "The Blue Angel" - a movie that brought international fame to the young Dietrich. The very same Dietrich who tries, some years later, in another movie, to convince Spencer Tracy as the judge in the Nürnberg trials of the innocence of the common German people. The common German who has a heart for sentimentality and likes to sing and drink, who is nothing more than a "Untertan", a subject who likes to forget. True. She sings the opening song of the movie, a traditional German song soft-voiced and a little remote, the Dietrich way.
I used to sing it occasionally.
In the first half hour of Claude Lanzman's documentary "Shoa" I listen in horror to the Jewish survivor (one of two survivors of more than hundred thousand killed in the death camp in Chelmno) telling me how he, as a thirteen year old boy, had to row German soldiers over the Chelmno river while being forced to sing that very same song. "Wenn die Soldaten | Durch die Stadt marschieren,
Öffnen die Mädchen | Die Fenster und die Türen.Ei warum? Ei darum!"*****. Over and over again.
Did General von Trotha know this song?
We see a rhino shot and in death agony with a cheery hunter who shot him in great excitement jumping up and down, only daring to go closer to the creature once it is weak enough. "Siegespose", victory pose, while some Herero people are cleaning up the mess behind him.
William Kentridge for sure saw the continuity by drawing shower heads on the paper documents of the death lists. Shower heads, as a symbol that in this context - me a German-Turkish artist sitting in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam watching the annihilation of the majority of the Herero population - can only have one but one meaning. "Deutsche Gründlichkeit - Vermessen und Ermorden"**. Counting. the endless counting, measuring, killing of bodies. We see skulls being first measured to its smallest piece and than smashed into its smallest pieces. Decisive. Mechanically. Counting, measuring, killing.
Until today I cannot draw a straight line with a ruler nor are my measurements precise with any ruler. I too am German. As much as Heinrich Mann was. I do not believe in "blood and honor" but in collective memory. It is not possible for me to sing the song mentioned above without seeing the Jewish man rowing, without the absence of the Herero in my conscious mind, without Dietrich's overly sentimental voice, without the stomping of heavy beer glasses bumping against each other, loud and vulgar. Without the counting.
* Thorough measurement and killing - A German craftsmanship "Thoroughly General von Trotha spoke to the Herero in his open letter…
** "German thoroughness - Surveying and killing"
*** loyal subject of the Emperor
**** translated into English under the titles "Man of Straw," "The Patrioteer," and "The Loyal Subject"
***** "When the soldiers Are marching through the town, The girls open The windows and the doors. Hey why? Hey because! Hey why? Hey because! Hey merely because of the Ringing of the brass, Beating of the drums.Hey merely because of the Ringing of the brass, Beating of the drums."