PICTURES DON'T STINK
»First Exhibit. Here is a book of 126 splendid color photos by Leni Riefenstahl, certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years. In the intractable mountains of the southern Sudan live about eight thousand aloof, godlike Nuba, emblems of physical perfection, ...« (1)
With these sentences Susan Sontag begins her 1974 deconstruction of the photo book, The Last of the Nuba, or better stated the destruction of the person (dancer, actor, film director and photographer) Leni Riefenstahl. The author detected fascism in these pictures, a fascism that fascinated not only her but the entire cultural elite of early 1970s New York. But what follows is not a closer analysis of the ethnological photographs as one should expect but Susan Sontag dedicates her total attention to the sleeve notes and introduction, an introduction »full of disquieting lies«. (2)
Second Exhibit. Here is a book of 134 splendid black and white photos by Digne Meller Marcovicz, Martin Heidegger (3), certainly the most ravishing book published anywhere in recent years. In the intractable mountains of the southern Black Forest lives a thinker, emblem of mental perfection, ... No sleeve notes, no introduction but a short biography, a chronology and reference notes about the situation in 1966 and 1968 in Freiburg and Todtnauberg.
As third and fourth exhibits we call upon the photos of Heinrich Hoffmann (Adolf Hitler) and Jan Bauer (Jonathan Meese). There are also »splendid« photo books and pamphlets about Adolf Hitler, amongst others, the Hitler Youth picture book Hitler in seinen Bergen (4) (Hitler in his Mountians) or Hitler, wie ihn keiner kennt (5) (The Hitler No One Knows), Hitler abseits von Alltag (6) (Hitler aside his Daily Routine) and Jugend um Hitler (7) (Youth around Hitler). Drawing on the photo propaganda of Hoffmann-Hitler that created the Führer-Myth (8), Bauer / Messe appropriated their photo propaganda for art. (9) These pictures have flooded art catalogues and magazines for some time now and appear increasingly in the red-top press from Bild to Gala.
In these photographic exhibits we are dealing with strange pairing and crossovers: A Jewish intellectual, who opens the question of Leni Riefenstahl's fascism, who herself denies ever having been attracted by it; a Jewish photographer fascinated by Martin Heidegger, whose photos significantly contributed to the denazification of the philosopher and who is now sad about it; a commercial and postcard photographer with a postcard painter who together redefined the term photo propaganda and finally a former agency photographer and a mama’s boy who together propagate the Dictatorship of Art in word and picture. Three of the pairs use concerted photo propaganda - Hoffmann / Hitler, propaganda for politics, Meller Marcovicz / Heidegger, propaganda for philosophy and Bauer / Messe for art. With Sontag / Riefenstahl it is still ambiguous, but at the moment it seems like propaganda for art.
Back to Susan Sontag and her »reading« of The Last of the Nuba. Several purposely misleading facts in the biography of Leni Riefenstahl, that Sontag found in the sleeve notes and introduction, caused her to look for traces of fascist aesthetics in Riefenstahl’s work. It is astonishing that an author, who with her Notes On »Camp« (10) decisively started the transition from Modern to Post-modern, defends the truth against untruth. (11) It’s about the proof of the pudding and the pudding in this case is called fascism. Not the ugly fascism of the Bergen-Belsen and Dachau photos, which she came across by chance and which were a »negative epiphany« (12) for Susan Sontag and divided her »life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after«(13), but even worse a fascism, that attracts and repels at the same time. Absolute Camp. Wolfgang Ullrich indicated that Heidegger's »eloquence« gives a perfect example of camp, »which opens totally new perspectives for Heidegger’s impact.« (14) Susan Sontag reveals to us that Riefenstahl’s »fascistic aesthetics is a variation of camp« (15); Hitler and camp is worth thinking about, considering amongst other things the photos in Lederhosen, with a fawn or aside his daily routine.
Susan Sontag not only found the later Nuba photos problematic but also the message in the mountain films in which Riefenstahl starred at the end of the 20s and the early 30s. The most successful mountain films were directed by Arnold Fanck, whose »pop-Wagnerian vehicles« (16) offered the ideal backdrop for Leni Riefenstahl’s early self-portrayal. »Mountain climbing in Fanck’s films was a visually irresistible metaphor for unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führer-worship« (17). Whoever arrives here in the »purity of the mountains« is at the summit of art, philosophy and politics. These mountains attract those who have grown weary of the lowly valleys, away from the »valley pigs« (18) in Munich, Berlin, Marburg, Freiburg or where ever else.
First Conclusion. Heidegger was not as high up to as he appeared to be. Records of friends and scholars (19), who visited Heidegger in the cabin »above« Todtnauberg, read like directions from the Alpine Club, but there were no strenuous ascents to the cabin, at most short hikes. These descriptions made the look of the philosophers, far from the lowly valleys, enduring the high icy summits of the loneliness of reflection, and so freed from the university ego.
Second Conclusion: Hitler was right at the summit. He had established himself in the late 1920s in his »Berghof« on the Obersalzberg, in the middle of the Alps where, similar to Heidegger in his cabin in the Black Forest, all sorts of illustrious guests were allowed to visit him and could breath far from distant valleys the pure mountain air of higher politics and philosophy with the mountain dweller. In her role as »mountainposessed girl« (20) Leni Riefenstahl anticipated these top performances and the »romantic« or better said the pre-fascistic suspense of the work was surely one of the reasons why Hitler engaged the actress to make »a documentary on the Nuremberg Rally in 1934«. (21)
Third Conclusion: Jonathan Meese loves the valley, is scared of nature and flies from cattle onto stumps from which he sometimes hardly comes down. It is not known whether Susan Sontag was ever in the mountains.
After the mountain films with Leni Riefenstahl there followed a series of non fiction films from the director, as Susan Sontag writes, especially Triumph of the Will. The following sleeve notes reflect Riefenstahl’s self-perception that she expounded in an interview for a French film magazine: Her Party Rally film was not propaganda but pure Cinéma verité that means truthful cinema. (22) We see that we are getting close to the core of Sontag’s deconstructive reading. In the attempt to disprove Riefenstahl's Cinéma verité assertion, there follows a string of truly strange formulations, that give priority to picture over reality. So what is this »genuine« (23) expressed in Triumph of the Will?
First Thought: Pictures don't stink. Film not only introduces aesthetics into political life, as described by Walter Benjamin in the epilogue of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in respect of fascism, – in the words of Susan Sontag »It has no commentary because it doesn’t need one, for Triumph of the Will represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history becomes theatre« (24) – even more scandalous because the party conference was largely staged for the filming of Triumph of the Will. An historical occasion served as a backdrop for a film that transforms itself into an authentic documentary. (25) It is purported that the oaths of loyalty to Hitler by Streicher, Rosenberg, Hess and Frank, »were refilmed, (...) weeks later without Hitler and without an audience« (26) whereby the difference between propaganda and documentary film totally vanish. And then follows the decisive sentence: »In Triumph of the Will, the document (the image) not only is the record of reality but is one reason for which the reality has been constructed, and must eventually supersede it«. (27)
In principle, Susan Sontag could have ended her essay there, when she would have recognised an insight that she formulated a few years later in On Photography. »Eventually, people might learn to act out more of their aggressions with cameras and fewer with guns, with the price being an even more image-choked world.« (28) But it seems, that she found this »truth« appalling, that photos as opposed to reality don't stink and photos could one day supersede the ugly stinking reality.
Instead of that there follows in the next segment a longer discourse about the rehabilitation of proscribed figures in liberal society. The purification of Riefenstahl’s reputation of its Nazi roots (29) took the following pattern: Riefenstahl as guest of honor at diverse film festivals, as artist and feminist, as the darling of the avant-garde establishment and lover of beauty. And the photo book The Last of the Nuba standing exactly for this new Riefenstahl.
Second Thought. Around about Leni Riefenstahl it stinks, maybe she herself stinks to high heaven. When you can prove that these photos carry fascistic traits, then you can reveal the »horrid propagandist« (30) behind the »beauty freak«. A twist that not only turns Leni Riefenstahl but also Martin Heidegger and above all the photographer Digne Meller Marcovicz into horrid propagandists. At this point the »mystic powers of primitives« (31) comes into play. The train of thought is roughly as follows: The works of Leni Riefenstahl can be collated to the panels of a fascistic tripych. The first panel involves the mountain films, »tales of longing for high places« and the »vertigo before power«; on the middle panel the Nazi films, foremost Triumph of the Will and Olympia, that deal with the »Triumph of Power« (32); the third panel of the tripych shows The Last of the Nuba quasi the waiting for death and downfall as »final ordeal of their proud heroic community«. (33) According to Sontag you just have to switch the leitmotif of fascism, from the Jews as vermin to the civilisation as vermin and immediately we get the noble savage in place of the Aryan as opposite to the depraved valley pigs.
Martin Heidegger’s work can also be represented as such, as a fascistic tripych. You must begin a little later in the chronology and ignore the phenomenological early years. The mountain air of founder Edmund Husserl’s »theoretical sanatorium« (34) »phenomenology« was obviously to thin for Heidegger. On »Husserl's magic mountain« far from the »practical flatlands« you could only be a patient and enjoy the »beautiful suffering of phenomenological endurance«. (35) Whoever can’t stand it has to switch the lever from evidence to existence. The left wing of the tripych shows Being and Time, that was not written in the cabin in Todtnauberg but in the valley – in the Bühlhof, a neighbouring farm house. But the whole vocabulary of Being and Time evokes the race to the top and the dangers and fears of the white hell of Piz Palu. The center panel shows as a matter of course the time in the Rectorate and ideological positioning. It’s about »community, self control, and submission«, in other words, the philosopher enjoys the »Triumph of Power«. (36) Like Leni Riefenstahl, Heidegger and his son Hermann, a former Ministry of Defence officer and retired group captain, put a large part of their energy into denying his engagement and to explain it as a misunderstanding. So that no one could say, Heidegger stinks. The same pop cultural rehabilitation that Leni Riefenstahl used at the end of the 1960s, allowed Heidegger’s star to shine again, somewhat delayed by the silly condition to print the SPIEGEL interview and the photos of Marcovicz posthumous after his death, otherwise his transformation from Unperson to Person would have begun earlier. Nevertheless Paul Celan arrived at the cabin and existentialism brought many of Heidegger’s ideas en vogue again. What is found on the right outer panel of the triptych? »In the third panel of the triptych« the Heidegger book of photographer Digne Meller Marcovicz shows an »almost naked primitive(s), awaiting the final ordeal« his »imminent extinction« (37). »It is Götterdämmerung time.« (38) Following Susan Sontag’s listing of the »large themes of Nazi ideology« (39) you can find everything here: »The contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical«. »It’s amazing, how the philosopher imposes his style even on the photographer, that he inspired her to take pictures that suggest a simple, elementary life in the countryside.« (40) Philosophising, says the principal message of this cabinfever is not an »urban and intellectual« act of a »critical spirit« (41), the philosopher is a noble savage that trusts the power of the elements. Did Heidegger maybe know the photo book, that shows Hitler aside his daily routine? It’s a certain irony that in the end all that remains of Heidegger’s philosophy in our mass culture is just a »number of ridiculous photos« (42), that in opposite to the dead philosopher have the advantage that they do not stink. »The message of fascism has been neutralized by an aesthetic view of life« (43), just as the content of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger was turned – by introducing aesthetics into his philosophical life in the mountain cabin above Todtnauberg through the photos of Dinge Meller Marcovicz – into a variation of camping.
Pictures don’t stink, pictures can excite or are exciting. Not the pictures from Todtnauberg, not even those of the Nuba, although the subjects are naked. No, the pictures that don’t stink but excite us are the pictures of the SS insignia that Susan Sontag introduces as her second piece of evidence in »Fascinating Fascism«. Surely Martin Heidegger recognised early on, that the uniform of a lectern philosopher has little erotic effect on the audience at a lecture and so he decided to introduce a modern variant at least: Casual knee breeches, loden jackets or even sometimes skiing outfits. In the cabin photos he is seen wearing pointed caps or smart hats. Even better are military uniforms, complete with rank, orders, medals, particularly those of the SS that till this day enjoy a huge popularity in sex avant-garde circles. »Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on shining bodies and Swastikas.« (44) Signs and symbols, that for a long time scared and frightened people, are not enough to shock mature society in the 1970s. Removed from their real wearers and set by artists such as Yukio Mishima, says Sontag, they become toys for sadomasochistic professionals and experts around the world. Even the »Führer-Rector Heidegger« (45) seems to have fallen for a while for the erotic thrill of this superficiality. Even around his Rectorate students started to wear uniforms, surely a concession to the circumstances of the time. In the well known notorious rectorate speech (46), he announced his intention to set German students in march, which actually happened a short time later. In October 1933 selected lecturers and students from Freiburg marched to the scientific base at Todtnauberg in »SA or SS service uniforms, and maybe with steel helmet uniforms with arm bands«. (47) Little is known about this camp, whether the march actually took place, can’t be seen in the records, however it was Heidegger’s wish and directive. In Todtnauberg they probably did not set up a camp but stayed in the Youth Hostel on the Radschert near the cabin. Maybe the thrill that Heidegger experienced through National Socialism was of a sexual nature, which would also explain him turning away from the vulgar political »low swines« of the Third Reich. Susan Sontag states: »Naturally most of the people, that found SS uniforms exciting, were not expressing support for what the Nazis did, if they even had a vague idea about what was actually happening. Nevertheless there are powerful and ever growing torrents of sexual feelings – generally termed as sadomasochism –, for whom playing with Nazism seems erotic.« (48) Maybe that is the big secret hidden behind Heidegger’s National Socialism. Not only boredom but also the sadomasochistic game with the insignia of power promises a disclosure of truth beyond alienation from civilisation.
»The same applies to evil as to pornography. The shock effect of photographic cruelty diminishes with repeated viewing, in exactly the same way that the surprise and confusion, with which one views ones first pornographic film, diminishes as soon as one views further films. The sense of tabu, that outrages and distresses us, is not much more steadfast than the sense of tabu, that determines our definition of obscene.«(49) Watching repeated lust and suffering of others furthers a form of experience, that for Susan Sontag is impressed into the term camp. »Camp is esoteric – a form of secret code, a call sign for small urban groups« (50) that in a new context, »threatens the taste of a wider public«. (51) Thus all the storm surrounding fascinating fascism.
Beyond politics and morals, in art pornography becomes metabolism, to something »completely normal« and therefore very precise, Jonathan Meese tells us. »In a sex shop I find toys and nothing obscene, repulsive (...) The most appalling, most horrible, most brutal, most disgusting, most deadly, is always the consciousness, not a picture, it is the person himself, who looks inside his inner being.« (52) It is true, the shock effect of evil and pornography, our sense of tabu disappears by repeated viewing of these pictures, there remains »always the same new«: Metabolism. The metabolism has no morals, the metabolism is unstoppable, except pathologically. One has no power over the metabolism, it cannot be suppressed. Whoever puts »consciousness before metabolism« (53) searches for life after death. »The Dictatorship of Art is not a death longing ritual, Art is total life.« (54) In a photo by Jan Bauer, Jonathan Meese stands on a blue lifting ramp in front of a wall, on which he had painted a large red heart with a black iron cross. In the heart is written: I learn power. It means the power of the metabolism, which is not within human power. The artist in the picture becomes a metabolic machine, who never stops producing the same odourless pictures.
1] Susan Sontag, Faszinierender Faschismus, in Susan Sontag, Im Zeichen des Saturn, Fischer, Frankfurt/M., 1983.
2] Ibid., p. 97.
3] Digne Meller Marcovicz, Martin Heidegger, Fey, Stuttgart, 1978.
4] Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler in seinen Bergen, Berlin, 1935.
5] Heinrich Hoffmann: Hitler, wie ihn keiner kennt, Berlin, 1932.
6] Heinrich Hoffmann: Hitler abseits vom Alltag, Berlin, 1937.
7] Heinrich Hoffmann: Jugend um Hitler, Berlin, 1934.
8] Cf. Rudolf Herz, Hoffmann & Hitler. Fotografie als Medium des Führer-Mythos, München 1994.
9] For the appropriation of Hoffman’s photo propaganda by Bauer/Meese see Robert Eikmeyer, Hitler on Stage. The Dictatorship of Art as total Re-enactment, http://www.grizedale.org/projects/gtv/gtv-films/1#gallery
10] Susan Sontag, Anmerkungen zu Camp, in Susan Sontag, Kunst und Antikunst, Fischer, Frankfurt/M., 1982.
11] The text was also published in a reader on Postmodernism. See Susan Sontag, Anmerkungen zu Camp, in Utz Riese (ed.), Falsche Dokumente. Postmoderne Texte aus den USA, Reclam, Leipzig 1993.
12] Susan Sontag, Über Fotografie, Fischer, Frankfurt/M., 1980, p. 25.
14] Wolfgang Ullrich, Vorwort, in Wolfgang Ullrich, Verwindungen. Arbeit an Heidegger, Fischer, Frankfurt/M. 2003, p. 8.
15] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 1), p. 118.
16] Ibid., p. 98.
17] Ibid. P. 99.
19] Cf. Heinrich Wiegand Petzet, Auf einen Stern zugehen. Begegnungen und Gespräche mit Martin Heidegger 1929-1976, Societäts-Verlag, Frankfurt/ M., 1983, p. 200 ff.
20] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 1), p. 99.
21] Ibid., p. 97.
22] Ibid., p. 103.
23] Ibid., p. 104.
25] Ibid., p. 105.
28] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 12), p. 20.
29] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 1), p. 105.
30] Ibid., p. 107.
31] Ibid., p. 108.
33] Ibid., p. 109.
34] Peter Sloterdijk, Vorbemerkung, in Peter Sloterdijk (ed.) Philosophie Jetzt! Husserl. Ausgewählt und vorgestellt von Uwe C. Steiner, Diederichs, München 1997, p. 10.
36] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 1), p. 108.
37] Ibid., p. 109.
40] Wolfgang Ullrich, Heidegger im Bild, in Jonathan Meese, Erznahrung, Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nuremberg, 2011, p. 26.
41] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 1), p. 109.
42] Thomas Bernhard, Alte Meister, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M., 1985, p. 89.
43] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 1), p. 121.
44] Ibid., p. 122.
45] Hugo Ott, Martin Heidegger, Unterwegs zu einer Biografie, Campus, Frankfurt/M., New York, 1992, p. 144.
46] Martin Heidegger, Die Selbstbehauptung der deutschen Universität. Das Rektorat 1933/34, Klostermann, Frankfurt/M., 1983.
47] Ott, op. cit., p. 218.
48] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 1), p. 123.
49] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 12), p. 26.
50] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 10), p. 322.
51] Sontag, op. cit. (s. note 1), p. 118.
52] Jonathan Meese: Lolita de Sade, Audio-CD, Brigade Commerz, Pforzheim, 2010.
53] Jonathan Meese, Geburtstagsmanifest: Spielkind Heideggerz, in Jonathan Meese, Erznahrung, op. cit., p. 59.
54] Ibid. P. 72.