Berlin

Marcel Odenbach

Buchmann Galerie | Berlin

In the late ’30s, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova spent countless days and nights in front of a prison’s gates in Leningrad, waiting in the freezing cold to see if her son Lev Gumilyov was even alive. Another woman there asked: Could one ever describe this? I can, replied Akhmatova, and she soon began writing “Requiem,” one of the most shattering testimonials in world literature. Marcel Odenbach, noticing in Rwandans introverted behavior uncharacteristic of Africans, began to wonder whether this was perhaps a consequence of the 1994 genocide. Later, working in the film archives at the United Nations, he came across documentary footage from the disaster. Greatly disturbed by the images, he was seized by the idea of transposing the unspeakable events in Rwanda into a film. But how?

The result is a thirty-one-minute double projection titled In stillen Teichen lauern Krokodile (In Still Waters Crocodiles Lurk), 2004, shown here for the first time. Odenbach is not concerned so much with a reconstruction of the genocide, or even with showing its horrors, as he is with its psychological consequences: How can such traumatic experiences be overcome? Is it possible for perpetrators and victims to then live together in the same society? This concern is suggested in the opening credits of the film, which, in a reference to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), shows a rolling film projector. Bergman’s film, on which the whole opening of Odenbach’s is based, deals with the traumatic dream of a child; in Rwanda, the children of the victims as well as of the perpetrators are “sentenced” to living on.

Odenbach divides his film into seven “chapters,” with titles such as “When God lies down to sleep, he rests his head toward Rwanda,” “A drum is mightier than the cry,” “A nightmare becomes true,” and, finally, “When will God go to sleep again in Rwanda?” Each chapter has its own rhythm, intensifying from one to the next. Peaceful landscapes; scenes from the history of Rwanda; music from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion (which, in a cinematic context, calls to mind Pasolini’s unforgettable images of Christ’s suffering); heartrending silent images of crying children, their faces so pained and painful that the viewer is relieved to finally hear the cries too; victims’ soiled clothing hanging on a line. The killings themselves are hardly shown, and yet death is ever present.

For Odenbach, this film increasingly became a work about his past. Having grown up in postwar Germany among victims and perpetrators, he saw parallels to his own childhood: the silence, the self-imposed isolation of others, the curtains drawn shut in the windows, the inability of children to cry out loud. And so it is definitely also his personal story that he tells in the piece. “Isn’t storytelling always a way of searching for one’s origin, speaking one’s conflict with the Law, entering into the dialectic of tenderness and hatred?” Roland Barthes once asked.

The film ends as it begins, with a reference to Persona. A boy haltingly raises his little hand and strokes his mother’s face, projected bigger than life on the wall: a moving picture. “I can forget the images but never the smell,” Odenbach wrote in his diary of Rwanda—thus the title of the fifth chapter. But no one who sees this film will forget its images.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.