Thursday, 5 July 2012

Der Zauberflöte, Thomas Struth and The Night Porter

It is a curious thing, how connections are made; Dirk Gently might not have been surprised, but I was when a number of seemingly disparate orbits collided earlier. I had found a way in to Struth, to how and why his photographs had felt so impenetrable to me, and this was working its way around my head. Whilst I was planning to get back to the source of the revelation I sat down to watch a film that I hadn't seen for maybe three decades: The Night Porter, directed by Liliana Cavani. A difficult film dealing with the the Nazi heritage a decade after the second war had finished. How it had affected both sides, the guilty and the persecuted. How, in this story, during the conflict, two people on opposing sides had found a connection, albeit through a warped sense of mutual need, the one being an SS officer the other a young woman who would be exploited by her captors the waffen SS. How this connection was rekindled after a decade or more and their eventual death because they couldn't renounce this connection born out of a social distortion. Not wanting to retell the whole story, after the war the woman marries a conductor and they are visiting Vienna where the husband will conduct a performance of The Magic Flute; the SS officer is now a Night Porter in the hotel where they check-in. The eyes of the fated two meet, they recognise each other after all those years and the scene changes to the opera house where the performance of the opera is underway. It is Der Zauberflöte. In the first act in scene four the aria "bei männern welche liebe fühlen" is being sung when the wife and the night porter fully recognise each other and seal their fate. The aria of course tells the story of a true and pure and beautiful love between a man and a woman, a husband and his wife, star-crossed lovers who were meant to be. The director cuts between the erstwhile lovers catching each others eyes whilst in the audience and juxtaposing these with other shots of the husband conducting with his wife in the frame as well. I thought the choice of the opera and the aria was a beautiful and telling directorial/narrative decision. Soon after the conductor is called away and the rest of the film deals with the destruction of the couple by their past that they cannot escape. It is about a personal and national "Vergangenheitsbewaltigung" - the German national guilt (and in this case also the Austrian) and the Night Porter and the woman coming to terms with their collective past - the expiation or not of their collective guilt and its ramifications.
This, in essence is Struth's fate. He has been trying to escape from the devils in his past, the skeleton's in his cupboard are his parent's generation and in fact, more personally, his parents. His mother was in the Hitler youth, his father fought on two fronts and afterwards always complained about how "his" war was difficult, not whether it was right or wrong. Struth states he has internal conflicts in trying to deal with this guilt, that he takes it on a personal level, even though it was 1954 when he was born - "it was always there, no-one seemed to tell me about it, they didn't need to..".
This video from the FT has Francis Hodgson introducing the recent Whitechapel Struth exhibition (Whitechapel's own video is here). It was certainly interesting to have both Struth in sound and vision and have Hodgson and Achim Borchardt Hume discuss the work, but I was still frustratingly on the outside after watching it. I then found two interviews - all be they in written form only, one by Gil Blank and the other by Jane Malcolm from the New Yorker that seemed to let me in.
I'm not sure at all about the Blank interview, it seemed to me to be a closed conversation, I'm sure my vocabulary isn't sufficient in any case but I found that Blank wanted to keep the conversation between Struth and himself; the venerated Struth in a conversation not designed to be inclusive of it's audience, rather to place the two on the pedestal Blank had constructed for them both. I may be wrong.
Malcolm though appears to have unlocked the door for me. Firstly I felt included, as a reader, into the world that she was exploring. I know she knows about art and photography, I also felt that she didn't dismiss her audience as Blank appears to do. And the revelation that Struth provides Malcolm about his motivation, which is not the fact that he was taught by Richter, not that he thinks the Becher's joint legacy will be their photographs, rather it will be their teaching. It is more about, as he falteringly puts it..."a desire to melt, like to - how can I say it? - be an antenna for a part of our contemporary life and to give this energy..." soon after this Struth gives up trying to describe it. But I think it's about "melting" as he puts it, into the detail, to use the detail as a screen to the past, to hold off reality by giving the viewer so much to think about that they won't dig too much further, so Hodgson is both right and wrong to use a magnifying glass to inspect Struth's work. Right, because it is the detail that allows the viewer to get lost in, to numb the senses for a while maybe, but wrong in trying to examine so closely as to maybe find an answer. And the problem with finding an answer to someone who is bearing the burden of guilt is what side of the line will the judgement fall, at fault or not. Either case would be a issue for Struth as it would remove his motivation. The newer "high-tech" images are so complicated that no one person could possibly fathom it and the conversation to elucidate would take forever.
Blank's interview is worth reading and re-reading, a lot of what Malcolm elicits from Struth is also there. However Struth is sanguine about interpretation, he readily accepts all readings of his work as something that he cannot help and maybe inevitable, so I expect my epiphanic moment may also be a mis-reading. But I have one and that's a start and it sort of makes sense to me.
I can see therefore why the pictures are big, they provide a greater surface area to lose oneself in, more detail to explore, to be immersed in, to lose oneself for the period and to forget. Just as the process that Malcolm describes as Struth takes these pictures - a big camera and each capture seems to drain him, working for long hours to get the capture and losing himself for the duration of the process. I'm not surprised his assistant is from Israel - where else could one have come from? But I still don't quite understand why with all the technical skill he clearly possesses that some of the photographs are "out of kilter". Another day another lesson to learn!


  1. After reading this and your links I went back to the post I'd written after going to Struth's Exhibition at the Whitechapel last year. What came through to me again was a sense of flatness and my query as to whether Struth was searching for internal order. I'm left wondering as to why it is that some people feel guilt for something that happened before they were born, that they played no part in. It's a kind of retroflection.

  2. Thanks Catherine, I had completely forgotten about the Struth study visit (it was one that I was too late to join) - a strange day though for those who did attend! I have now re-read these remarks from the OCA site and it is interesting to see the reactions, not that dissimilar to my own despite only having a monograph to look at. Dense he was and it seems, dense he stays; though I've really enjoyed immersing myself in his work this week, of the two I still prefer Michals' work; it just produces an immediate visceral response which says Yeah! I get it!