New York

“Seeing Through ‘Paradise’”

Drawing Center

Mass media accelerates a culture’s ability to rewrite history even before it is codified as such: witness the yellow flag factories and invisible Iraqi casualties of the (perhaps gently forgotten) Gulf War. Politics continues to inform both “high” and “low” cultural production overtly as well as covertly, and though much contemporary work attempts critically to unmask (or at least name) this dynamic, more still remains symptomatic of unquestioned ideological agendas. That elusive gaggle dubbed the “New Right” has seized the means of representation for its purposes; we know altogether too well how AIDS is really just a chronic manageable illness, and that health care exists in America. Yet long before these insidious maneuvers, the Nazis had forged false self-representations that continue to surpass any subsequent cultural abuses. In 1941, they began to convert Terezin (in German, Theresienstadt), a town forty miles from Prague, into an assembly and transit camp for Czech Jews. Eventually the Nazis used the camp to imprison hundreds of artists, writers, and scholars; many were forced to produce graphic materials and decorative works for German use. In 1944, the Germans staged a giant performance at Terezin, re-dressing the camp as a simulated “luxury town” to placate the visiting International Red Cross. Parks were created, flowers planted, triple bunks reduced a tier, and only the most healthy were allowed to be seen on the streets of this massively art-directed revisioning (the less fit were ushered off to the death camps). “Seeing Through ‘Paradise’: Artists and The Terezin Concentration Camp,” originally organized at the Massachusetts College of Art, filled The Drawing Center with dozens of works secretly created by inmates of the camp that documented—with stolen materials and incredible resourcefulness—the horrors of the facility and the perverse spectacle of Nazi deceit. The exhibition also included a panel and several film screenings, including the remarkable Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The führer gives a city to the Jews, 1944) presented at the Museum of Modern Art. Directed, under Nazi coercion, by well-known cabaret star and prisoner Kurt Gerron (he was the schoolteacher in Joseph von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, 1930), the film uses the still freshly dressed set of Terezin to picture an idyll of laughing children and comfortable community. Inferior to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, 1935, or Olympia, 1936, with their grand mythic quality, this promotional film nonetheless grafted the compulsive spectacle of Teutonic order onto what was essentially a holding camp for the tens of thousands who would shortly be transported to death camps. Gerron, once used, was also sent to die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The fragments of this propaganda piece, reconstructed by the National Center for Jewish Film, reveal an illusion that threatens to crack from the stress of forced participation. The film’s initial bland cheerfulness yields to scrutiny; and the look of hunger and terror is revealed behind each frozen grinning mask. In many countries, public screening of Nazi propaganda continues to be controlled and contested; many fear its power to promote a revisionist history that would deny the deaths of millions. Clumsy by today’s standards in its stilted order, the print bears the words “staged Nazi film” branded on the upper corner of every frame. The discussion following the screening at MoMA, led by a panel that included a Terezin survivor, the exhibition curator, and several filmmakers and scholars, ironically never dislodged the presumption that media are essentially instrumental. When most effective, propaganda—from pop cultural lies about sexuality to Pentagon press conferences—operates within strategic contexts; rarely do media function alone to yield immediate direct action (pornography does not incite rape, images of lesbian and gay sexuality don’t recruit, Nazi propaganda films do not erase the weight of history). Although the meticulous lies of this and all Nazi propaganda must be publicly contested, many on the panel embraced a troubling censure (or at least strict control) of the film.

The exhibition of drawings and paintings included Fritta/Fritz Taussig’s Expressionist cartoons of camp life (registration, confinement, death), Petr Kien’s wry and sharply observed caricatures of fellow prisoners, and the work of children such as Helga Weissová Hosková, who was able to work openly, unsuspected by camp guards. The cumulative effect of these works speaks to the impoverishment of photographic images taken within the camps and to the loss of the individual within the spectacle of mass destruction. Work by survivors of the camps has often been framed only by an unavoidable pathos; the traces of gesture and the vérité of autobiographical touch obscuring the vitality of these slim but moving works. This angry, potent exhibition refuses the erosions of either collective history or individual memory, providing a stirring counterhistory of loss.

Tom Kalin