The Nazis & Our Critical Consciousness


I just got done reading Piotr Uklanski’s monograph, The Nazis. Reading here, of course, simply refers to the act of looking, as there are no words in the book (until an index at the end). Uklanski is an artist, a Polish photographer. Although, similar to my own approach to photography, Uklanski doesn’t take photos per se. Rather, he’s sort of a curator, a collector, highlighting, as the New York Times says, “Conceptual attitudes” (the superfluous capital letter on conceptual is NYT, btw).

The Nazis is a book that bears 247 pages of appropriated images of Hollywood, and prevalent European, actors decked out in Nazi regalia. What I’m interested in probing here are the following things: 1) why are there enough stills for this collection to be possible? and 2) why was I interested enough in this book to go through the process of requesting it from WorldCat?

To get the honest and maybe uncomfortable answer to #2 out of the way: the promotional image on the Amazon product info page for the book is Clint Eastwood dressed as a Nazi. My initial response to this image was “holy shit, Clint Eastwood looks stupid hot as a Nazi.” Upon that reaction I went to google and image searched “Clint Eastwood nazi.” There are few results.

The interesting thing is that the specific image used on the Amazon product page is not in the book (though publicity material for the movie, Where Eagles Dare, is). Looking through the book, there were two things I immediately realized: there are a lot more high-profile actors that have played Nazis in films than I realized, & the type of Hollywood hunks that I drool over, apparently, often take on roles as Nazis (Gregory Peck, Dirk Bogarde, Brad Davies, Tom Selleck, Buster Keaton, Clint Eastwood, Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, James Coburn, etc). Many of these men sit in the hegemonic cultural conscious as hunks. This immediately posits a seduction to a character who is often indicative of, really, pure evil.

A while ago I read Heimrad Bäcker’s transcript, which was released, and is arguably presented, as poetry. The construction of the book presents the poems first, and the end notes at the end (of course). This is not anything new. But the reason that this is particularly effective here is that many of the poems are numbers. Various numbers in lists. As we read them, if we read the book linearly, we cannot identify what these numbers mean. Because of the context of the book we can understand that these are numbers that in some way relate to the Shoah, but it’s not until the end notes, which precisely define what these numbers are standing for, that the horror of the numbers strike us.

I imagine that everyone is at least somewhat aware of Adorno’s quote regarding poetry and the holocaust:

“The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”

Of course, the fragment “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric” is what most often gets taken from this, often interpolated into the idea that “it is impossible to write poetry after the holocaust.” Even in its extrapolated forms, Adorno basically reneges the sentiment, but that doesn’t stop people from (mis)quoting him at any and every opportunity.

What Bäcker’s book does, as the Dalkey page itself points out, is “serve as a reminder that everything about the Shoah was spoken about in great detail, from the most banal to the most monstrous.” This responds to both the idea that seems to be inherent in Adorno’s quote (and yes, I recognize the fact that I am not giving the Adorno quote the scrutiny it deserves, that I’m ignoring the larger context of the essay– the entire essay is not what is present in the critical consciousness of this post’s title) & the fact that the Shoah is often described as an “unspeakable” horror, an “unspeakable” evil.

Artist Roee Rosen has a project that was turned into an artist’s book titled Live and die as Eva Braun: Hitler’s mistress, in the Berlin bunker and beyond : an illustrated proposal for a virtual-reality scenario. There is an article at the end of the book that contextualizes this project into the larger set of “holocaust art,” made, arguably, in opposition to Adorno’s (now disowned) statement that there can be no poetry (art) after (about) the holocaust. This seems to hold true, even in terms of holocaust art, as most works tend to proclaim nothing more than the inexpressive nature of the experience of the holocaust, silence, a loss for a semantic signifier or mean, because no meaning can be found. The author of the article aligns this lack of expression with Freud’s interpretation of melancholy. However, in Freud’s article he also addresses mania, which sits, ostensibly, opposite melancholy but is based out of the same neuroses. Rosen’s project can suitably be declared manic, forcing the spectator into a position of empathy with the woman who was the most despised man on earth’s lover.

I like Rosen’s visual art on it’s own accord just fine, but it is the narratives that he throws his visual arts into that make them something truly engaging for me. In this project, the text offered in this book was originally presented on large column between varieties of artwork around the gallery walls. In this was Rosen present a “virtual-reality scenario” without having to actually deal with technology: the art work is offered as an experience in that it asks for an active participation, one might say, with one’s imagination. Addressing the holocaust by asking the spectator to “imagine” events tangential (causal?) to the holocaust are in direct opposition to the traditional mode of refusing a method of expression.

You are Eva Braun. You make love with Hitler, you wait for him, he kills you, you die, but you wake up. You are reminded that this is not real. But you know this is not real, as you are walking through a gallery (or flipping through the pages of a book). But the experience can never be real, and a sub-sub-title to the book (following the “illustrated proposal for a virtual-reality scenario” is the line of text “Not to be realized”) refuses to let it be real. The experience of the holocaust will never be real for anyone who has not already experienced the holocaust, and Rosen knows that any attempt to do so inherently cheapens an “inexpressible” event.

So this awareness, perhaps, is where we’re left. I’m comfortable with giving the audience of art the benefit of the doubt that having never personally experienced the Shoah, they will never fully understand than experiential affectations. The pain, the struggle, the entire context is so specific, that the futility of representation is entirely transparent.

But what to make of Piotr Uklanski’s project? What to make of the fact that so many recognizable, high-profile actors can be found in images striking the pose of an icon of terror? what to make of the fact that these icons of evil have been, ostensibly, culturally sexualized?

When I was in high school I found myself watching a lot of movies that would fall under the umbrella sub-genre of “SS-sploitation,” or “nazisploitation” if you will. This meant cheap, over-sexed exploitation films that took the second world war, the gestapo, the terror of the Nazis. The key films of the trashier side of this genre, of course, include Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (shot on discarded sets from MASH, arguably launching the sub-genre), and Luigi Batzella’s notoriously in-poor-taste SS Hell Camp aka “The Beast in Heat.” I was watching them because I was watching every exploitation/horror film I could at the time, and I really wanted a thorough education.

I hadn’t even considered the offensive nature of the sub-genre until one of my friends encountered my DVD collection for the first time & found himself offended by what was a small section of SSPloitation flicks. I, honestly, perhaps in a jaded ignorance, had not considered the political implications of the films. The films themselves, perhaps in their low-budget nature, were so distanced from any sort of reality I could imagine regarding WW2 that it was impossible for me to even read the films as offensive. This was simply an appropriated iconography, a cheap way to signpost evil in a genre dedicated to the idea of such.

The essay in the Rosen book, combined with the fact that I had earlier in life, without even realizing it, encountered & accepted such a remarkable divide between art & life, made me a bit unprepared to my reaction to Uklanski’s book. I think, really, Uklanski’s book highlighted the fact that I at least encounter things in culture without giving them a second thought. Like, seriously, this book is 250 pages, almost 200 different actors, of which most I imagine most readers to this site have heard of, of Nazis. Nazis are a very popular thing to make movies about, it seems.

But if we understand that the experience is literally inexpressible, completely opaque to those not present, why do we keep trying? I imagine there is nothing more offensive to an actual survivor of the holocaust than to be in your 20s and say to them, “I understand what you went through.” That’s total bullshit, of course. So what’s the appeal?

I think there is an appeal in the evil. Nothing in the 20th century indicated the true & pure evil that humanity was capable of like the Shoah. This is not new information to anybody reading this. Evil is one half of the guiding conflict of “good versus evil” that, jeez, the history of literature falls under. This idea of conflict.

But I think that our constant re-appropriation of these symbols of evil is successfully removing them from what they mean. Lars von Trier say he “understands” the Nazis in an attempt to, who-the-fuck-knows, carry on his European-art-bro-shock-rock persona. Children in grade schools color “Hitler mustaches” onto images in order to deface them. Laughing. None of this means anything any more.

What’s even going on? Representation, our image-culture, is fizzling to a moot point. Images no longer hold power. We’re fucked. Are we? Or is culture as communication just fucked. Who knows.