Our institutions and our freedoms are inherently fragile, subject to pressures that can deform or destabilise them. In that respect, a recent drift to the political right can’t have escaped the notice of anyone with an eye for historical parallels, and with it has come a return to the kind of attitudes that once haunted the European continent in even more substantial forms. It seems we have an almost irresistible tendency to keep making the same mistakes, repeating the same destructive patterns, which emerge out of the complex interplay between social and historical factors. Often these can circumscribe future action as much as they enable it, hindering change as a by-product, or to the extent that those in power benefit from the status quo. With that in mind, it is perhaps as good a time as any to re-examine a photographic work that in its own distinctive way takes on this issue of what might be called historical inheritance, precisely by addressing it in those terms, and, in the process, raising often uncomfortable questions about how the reluctance to face a legacy of division and violence can profoundly affect national life.
Made in the years following German reunification, Michael Schmidt’s Ein-Heit is deeply attuned to the way that the events of the past continue to shape the present, looking to the example of Germany’s own history, just at the moment when its many traumas seemed to have been overcome for good.[i] Most of these pictures centre on Schmidt’s native Berlin, and his treatment of the city – its streets, its interiors, its people – gives very little away. Indeed, these subjects are presented with what often feels like a bewildering matter-of-factness. If Schmidt’s previous work, Waffenruhe, was notable for its emotive, expressive quality, here he seems to move away from that, reverting to the almost forensic approach to picture-making that defined his very first projects. In many ways this is deceptive though, because even when compared to the imaginative visualising of social and psychological fractures so characteristic of Waffenruhe, the ‘documentary’ style of Ein-Heit also has an emotional valence, albeit one suggestive of repression, an awareness of something barely held in check beneath these well-ordered (if somewhat boring) surfaces. In fact, his way of evoking the traces that history leaves in the everyday might almost seem wilful if not for the gravity of those events he wishes to bring our attention to.
It is also perhaps superfluous to say that the work is determinately monochromatic. For Schmidt, grey seems less a photographic tone as it is an almost material absence of colour, here perhaps manifesting visually the effects of political and emotional stasis occasioned by the Cold War. In this respect, historical resonances become apparent independently of any overt reference to them, though he doesn’t neglect to layer actual references to historical events into his pictures as well, to an extent that makes navigating the work a decidedly challenging task for the viewer, who has essentially to reconstruct a history from the experience, but one that is, by necessity, partial and fragmented. To this end, Schmidt makes use of literal symbols, such as might be found in any place, regardless of its political structure, including statues, plaques and signage. An astute viewer would no doubt be able to unpick the significance of these, some of course being more obvious than others. More broadly though, Schmidt takes the whole of the built environment, down to the smallest detail, as being symbolic of the forces at work in German society, defined on a fundamental level by the relationship to its own past. He asks what kind of country is being made here – and what foundation does it rest on?
The opening image of the book gives us our first glimpse of the housing blocks that perhaps more than anything else dominate the idea we might have of the post-war urban landscape, particularly on the continent, where the destruction was most intense and created an urgent need for new housing in the years immediately after 1945. Though commonplace, these blocks have a symbolism all their own, and Schmidt returns to them throughout the work, sometimes in overall views as with this first image, but most often by dividing them into a series of flat planes, as if studying their constituent elements. Sometimes he appears to be hinting at the various pressures operating within (and without) these often hastily built structures by concentrating on the point where walls almost fail to meet, or in one especially potent image, highlighting a broken pane of glass in an otherwise numblingly homogenous façade. But Schmidt also deliberately blurs any sense of local specificity, so that it is difficult to tell which side of the formerly divided city an image might have been made; at that moment it should not have mattered. He undercuts this certainty, however, by placing his observations of the present in a structure composed from the fragments of Germany’s recent past.
This bring us to what is arguably the most striking aspect of Ein-Heit, the use of archival material, predominately photographs. Schmidt’s deployment of this material is extremely telling, and it is one of the ways that he seeks to locate the effect of history – and German history in particular – on the experience of the present. This has, of course, become a very familiar strategy in recent years, but there seems to have been little precedent for Schmidt’s approach. Specifically, rather than just integrate this material as a series of artefacts into the sequence of his own pictures, he re-photographed the images and other documents that he wanted to use. This treatment has a kind of flattening effect, in that the archival elements take on a visual substance similar to Schmidt’s own landscapes and portraits, marking an implied continuity; it’s all part of the same story. Often the more Schmidt concentrates on what these pictures are of, though, the less comprehensible they become, reduced to a field of blurry half-tone dots, as in one case where a mass of lumpy, indistinct forms only gradually resolves itself into what must surely be a pile of shoes taken from death-camp victims, one all-too-human glimpse of the larger spoils. Perhaps the implication here is how difficult it is to really make sense of our relationship to the past, the way that it requires a continual effort to – metaphorically – bring it into focus. In that sense, Schmidt remains alert to the blind-spots of historical memory and how the desire to erase or suppress its most painful legacies can have far-reaching consequences.
The range that this material covers is admittedly broad, continuing right up to the moment of reunification; the war itself does not appear directly and neither do the events around it predominate in the selection. But the effect of those images that do refer to this period is obviously disproportionate to their number, just as the war itself loomed large in the German consciousness, with its twin burdens of guilt and shame. The multi-layered reading that all this material allows and how it relates to Schmidt’s own photographs is in itself a statement about the complexity of historical influence, the roundabout ways the past continues to shape the present. He suggests this in other respects too, such as with the image that appears early on in the book of a homely tapestry, shown closely cropped, and projecting a sentimental, idealised view of German history – that is to say, long before the war, and so, safe to recall – but it is also a past that served as an inspiration for rabid nationalist movements, Nazism included. This connection is reinforced by the following archival image of army officers standing to attention. Schmidt is telling us that these historical influences are all somehow ‘woven’ into the very fabric of German society. Obviously, untangling all the implied relationships here is a daunting task, but the effort is a necessary one, because ‘history’ should never really be settled, never allowed to harden into assumed positions and comforting myths. Of course, this is not at all the same as continuing to implicate the Germany of today in the sins of its past, rather it is to strive for an understanding of the very conditions that allowed those events to unfold as they did.
So, naturally, facing the legacy of the war has a major part to play in this work, not least because it gave rise to the divided state of the country, with reunification being Schmidt’s ostensible subject.[ii] The fracturing effect of the war years and the violence they unleashed – both against Germany, and carried out by its people – have to be acknowledged and confronted, because they have made the present what it is. Here Schmidt leverages his material with a skill that is no less effective for its (relative) understatement. Instead of gesticulating demagogues, we get lesser, though equally insidious figures like the skeletal Joseph Goebbels, so adept at manipulating mass opinion. In a nod to the extremely militarised culture of those years we also see army personnel, and in one particularly suggestive, dark-toned image, Nazi flags held aloft. What repeats most strongly though is the depiction of the crowd as an invocation of the German people itself, almost mystical in its appeal. In one of these pictures we can spot the characteristic stiff-armed Nazi salute, but even where there is no particular indication of context this idea of ‘the people’ resonates from any kind of homogenous, disciplined crowd, all marching in step, seemingly of one mind, and with one goal.
In this respect, totalitarianism might be said to have its own vocabulary, the array of tropes and symbols that make up a large part of its effect. Nazism was maybe not unique in this respect, but it remains undoubtedly one of the most extreme examples. Although it is a myth that the German people were completely united behind the party or ever fully reconciled to the violence that the regime thrived on, the support that they could claim was real enough.[iii] Added to this was the way that the party ruthlessly ‘co-ordinated’ so much of German life under its control, which allowed it to effectively replace or override the legitimate functions of the state, seeking instead to “establish the fictitious world of the movement as a tangible working reality of everyday life,” as Hannah Arendt described it.[iv] This is evoked precisely by the massed crowds, the troops and the smiling leaders that make up such a large part of Schmidt’s archival excavations, pairing these outward manifestations of what Arendt called the “skilfully manufactured unreality” of totalitarian regimes with their ultimate effects, subtly shown, as we have seen, to be almost ungraspable in their particulars, and in the scope of their historical consequences.[v] Even when the images only suggest these phenomena without referring to them directly (and indeed many of the picture here were made long after the war ended) the implication is much the same. Belatedly coming to terms with this divisive legacy should have been a significant aspect of reunification, but even then the process was a delayed one, as Schmidt clearly recognised.
Equally marked are the dynamics of the post-war world, for which a divided Germany – and its divided capital – served as a microcosm, playing out in miniature the ideological confrontation of East and West, while also being, on a less metaphorical level, one of the genuine flash-points of a global stalemate. This is apparent in the archival images of course, where familiar faces like Nikita Khrushchev appear, but it can be seen in Schmidt’s own images as well, embedded in the textures of the city itself. In this regard, his observations are especially acute, and small details take on a deeper meaning, such as with the image showing a band of glossy paint that has dripped down between two tonally opposing areas – a repressed history bleeding into the present. A sense of the country having been ‘split’ is also signalled in a subtle way by the tendency to repeat images at certain points in the sequence, but reversed, like the smiling, somewhat bug-eyed woman who appears first facing one way and then another on the following page. This doubling, which occurs with other images as well, serves as a kind of structural metaphor for the opposing sides of the country, essentially the same, but facing in different directions.
With East Germany on an authoritarian footing, and under the constraining effects of a Soviet-style economy, it appeared by contrast that West Germany, buoyed by its ‘economic miracle,’ was surging ahead and had broken free of the past, but Schmidt suggests that this apparent progress came at a significant cost, leading to the kind of social tensions hinted at here, for example, by the inclusion of what might well be the wanted poster of some youthful domestic terrorist, the glamorous personification of a generational – though in this case thoroughly nihilistic – discontent.[vi] Perhaps more significant though, is how Schmidt uses the built environment to portray this period of growth as the product of an ugly compromise with the past, not least by emphasising the sheer dinginess of interiors that are more haunted than homely, and a material culture typified by rigidity or even outright repression, manifested in the austere bunker-like quality of the buildings. These studies dominate the middle portion of the book, where archival borrowings are few, but extremely loaded where they do occur, such the depiction of a Nazi flag slipped into the sequence between an image of net curtains and a close-up view of a clichéd landscape painting. Admittedly Schmidt doesn’t indicate where exactly any of these pictures were made, but even that ambiguity is telling in itself.
This extends to the portraits that make up a large part of the book as well. They employ much the same strategy that defines Schmidt’s depiction of the city itself, making use of a flat, descriptive style, often with flash, but sometimes natural light, giving us very little clue about the people themselves, either textually in the form of captions (of which there are none, for any of the pictures), or in the actual portraits. In this way we are obliged to scrutinise the images as if they were evidence, but Schmidt’s point-blank style paradoxically refuses any certainty. As a consequence, it becomes difficult to locate the specific social context of his subjects – their backgrounds, their occupations, which side of the formerly divided city they might have resided on. Of course, someone more intimately familiar with that place and time than most viewers are now might not find this as tough – and admittedly perhaps not all the pictures are so ambiguous – but it seems in many ways that this questioning is largely the point: who are these individual people on whom our attention, like ‘society’ itself, ultimately comes to rest?
The sequencing of the images is fundamental here; no one picture can really stand on its own, but only begins to become intelligible in context, as the weight of material builds up. Even then, the book doesn’t ‘make sense’ in a conventional way. This is at least partly to do with the fact that many of the historical references are decidedly obscure, or are treated in such a way as to render them purposefully so. It seems likely that these are not all intended to be understood for their specifics, but also to function more broadly as historical reference, creating a background that need not be grasped in detail to see how it connects with Germany’s present. There is an overall structure, however. Schmidt divides the work into roughly grouped sections that at the beginning of the book consist mostly of found images and other material that he has re-photographed, mixed with some of his own photographs, followed by a section of portraits. Then as the book progresses this ratio changes, so that his own pictures predominate, as we have seen, concentrating mainly on the built fabric of the city, mixed with the occasional found image and portrait, until the last grouping of the book comes to focus almost entirely on pictures of these anonymous people. The drive of the work, then, consists in this narrowing down of Schmidt’s focus to the portrayal of individuals, however little we might be able to glean about them, as well as places that are, at first glance, equally unremarkable, in the context provided – and deeply complicated – by his archival researches.
Born just after the end of the war, in the partitioned, but not yet totally divided city that would be his most enduring subject, Schmidt’s output as a photographer is marked by a dogged engagement with the everyday realities of German life, often abruptly shifting styles as his thinking about the medium and about his themes changed. The result is a series of major – and some admittedly minor – projects whose influence has been considerable, but at the same time oddly diffuse, given the richness of those themes, as well as how insightfully Schmidt treats the social and historical development of his native Germany, to say nothing of his consistent formal innovations. These last speak to the thoroughness with which he worked through the influence of his artistic near contemporaries, albeit in the distinctive context provided by a strong awareness of European – and especially German – history.[vii] That isn’t to say of course that the depth of Schmidt’s work has gone unnoticed, far from it, but there is also the sense that he has been too often overshadowed by the museum-ready scale and much more easily consumed spectacle of some later German photographers who typify one particular school.
By contrast, Ein-Heit is deliberately oblique, if not downright enigmatic, and it seems intent on confronting the viewer with an ugliness that is as much to do with the style of the pictures as their content. But for all that, it constitutes in its own way a kind of visual poetics, while also remaining fiercely political, coming alive at the intersection of these two spaces, which Schmidt made uniquely his own. He evolved a distinct photographic language to question an untenably complacent relationship with those histories that had made the world he was living in – and that we continue to inhabit. Although I have only scratched the surface of a work whose density of historical reference presents a significant challenge to any viewer, it should be apparent that Schmidt doesn’t treat Germany’s past as a kind of closed book, but rather as a dynamic set of conditions that have to be seen as the foundation for any later social and political reality. Equally, he outlines a warning for the ways in which those realities can be undermined. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that any of these specific circumstances obtain today, history doesn’t ‘repeat’ in that sense; instead the same basic patterns tend to reoccur time and again, which is what Schmidt is alerting us to here. He suggests that we can either dare to confront the legacies of the past and overcome them, or continue to struggle under the burdens they impose. The choice is ours.
[i] Michael Schmidt, Ein-Heit, Scalo, 1996. At the time of writing, Schmidt’s earlier book Waffenruhe has just been reprinted, so it is to be hoped that Ein-Heit will eventually receive the same treatment.
[ii] In an English-speaking context the title is usually rendered as U-ni-ty. The sequence of images in both versions of the book is otherwise identical.
[iii] A comprehensive account of this period is provided by Richard J. Evans in his The Coming of the Third Reich, Penguin, 2004 and The Third Reich in Power, Penguin, 2006.
[iv] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Penguin Classics, 2017, pg. 512.
[v] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, pg. 583
[vi] In his reading of Ein-Heit, Michael Jennings suggests that this might be Gudrun Ensslin, a founding member of the Red Army Faction, often known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. I haven’t been able to confirm this one way or another, but the style of the image and its placement is suggestive enough for it not to matter. For more see http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/06/michael-schmidt-not-fade-away-face-of.html
[vii] Schmidt’s artistic development was complex. It had a number of distinct phases and influences, not the least of which was his experience as a teacher. This is chronicled in the book Werkstatt für Photographie 1976–1986, Walther König, 2017.