Tina Schula, Brown Tea Party.
Tina Schula and Nicola Kast are both artists who deal with the lingering presence of Nazism in their work. They got together to discuss Quentin Tarantino’s recent movie Inglorious Basterds and tried to relate some of the questions that came up to their own photography. Schula and Kast share a strong interest in the history of the Third Reich, yet their backgrounds and approaches are very different. Nicola was born in Germany but grew up in South Africa until she was a teenager. Tina was born in Austria and left the country at the age of 21. The issue of guilt is something they both consider.
Tina Schula Nicola, you talk about your interest in the unraveling, construction and consequences of German social identity and history. What exactly do you mean by that?
Nicola Kast This is a loose statement that I use to describe my photography. My work is very personal—it’s a part of who I am. Often it’s difficult to describe to other people why I have chosen the subject of German history because it’s evocative by nature. I create work about Germany because I cannot avoid it. I was born in Germany, moved to South Africa as a baby, and then moved back to Germany when I was almost 12. I didn’t know much about German history before that and as a child had never identified myself with a country or heritage.
There is a certain atmosphere in Germany. It’s a feeling in the air, something you can’t quite shake. For me this atmosphere is the lingering presence of the war and it’s effect on the cities and people of Germany. This feeling stirred something in me as an adolescent and translated itself into the guilt of being German, of the atrocities that happened and myself somehow feeling responsible because of my nationality.
NK You come from a film background and your photography is based on personal anecdotes and fiction. Your recent series, Ratline, shows staged photographs of a family shadowed by a Nazi past. Where the characters and scenes influenced by personal experiences?
TS Yes. I made films before I took up the still camera. But it does not feel like I changed a lot in the way I work. I just cut down to a single movie frame, without sound. I still hold on to the process of filmmaking when I take a photograph. I usually start with an image of a person I know or a peculiar situation in my life. An old aunt who exposed her brown past to my family during afternoon tea inspired Ratline. I also look at sources from literature, film, theatre and photography to get further inspirations. For Ratline I have watched every single film I could find about Nazi criminals during and post WWII, mostly to figure what I don’t want to do. Hollywood and fashion photography have totally exploited the image of the Nazi. Ranging from Kubrick’s genius character of the mad Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove’ to flat Nazi caricatures in action B movies. Casting is extremely important to me. I usually work with friends. For Ratline most of my actors were German or Austrian. So I try to build in some of their personal traits into their characters.
NK Let’s talk about Tarantino’s Basterds. What did you think of the film?
NK I have to say that I didn’t want to see the movie at first. I don’t agree with using such a sensitive subject and making it into a splatter crowd-pleaser. What about all the people that were killed during the war? The aftermath still effects so many. I don’t think it’s a laughing matter.
TS I think it’s a pretty good movie, though. It raises so many questions about cinema, about history. We both deal with the aspect of history, in particular with the history of the Nazi regime in our work. Though, our approaches and interests are quite different. Can you talk more about your move toward history and how it is reflected in your images?
NK It was only in my Junior year at the School of Visual Arts that it became clear what I wanted to say as an artist. After studying August Sander, the Bechers, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter I knew I uncovered my niche and I wanted to contribute to German art history as a part of the new German art generation.
I think it’s important to have accuracy in my props, and the places I photograph. For example, this May I went back to Germany and shot at historical sites in Berlin, Düsseldorf and the Black Forest. My work is performative, and it’s vital for me to place myself in those historically accurate situations. In New York I mostly work in the studio to add images that tie my narratives together.
Nicola Kast. Yellow Flowers (Heidegger’s Hut), 2009.
NK How does history play a part in your photography? And coming back to Tarantino, how do you feel about his use of Nazi iconography in Basterds?
TS History is fascinating to me as it tells about people, their lives, beliefs and actions.
Growing up in Austria the history of the Nazi regime raised a lot of questions for me. I have learned about it from books, films and from the stories my grandmother and others of her generation told me. The human aspect of Nazism has always interested me the most.
Ratline, my series about a family burdened by a Nazi past, shows the impact of history on an interpersonal level. I’m also exploring how each generation reacts to the history of the Third Reich differently. I think this generational aspect is very complex and very hard to approach.
In terms of Tarantino, I think it is ok to use WWII as a cinematic backdrop. His job is to create fiction and to me Basterds is clearly a fantasy and not a historical war film. However, I think, Tarantino went too far with his depiction of Hitler. To show Hitler as a mere helpless clown dressed in a red cape I find very problematic. Hitler was a strategic mass murderer causing the biggest genocide of the twentieth century.
NK Is it important to you, to use historically accurate props and places in your photography?
TS No. I am not interested in a historical reconstruction of the Nazi theme in my work. My work is about post-war Nazis and their families. Not today, but maybe 30 years ago. And they would certainly not run around in SS uniforms and pose in German forests. The props, costume and locations I choose in my work have more of a symbolical meaning than a historically literal one. I don’t want my characters to look like Nazis from a Hollywood film. I want to capture them in situations that evoke feelings. For instance, the feeling you get from sitting in a car with your Nazi dad.
NK What did you think of the Jewish versus German representation in the movie? Did you feel offended by the representation of the German side at all?
TS The SS elite were deeply perverted criminals. So why should it offend me? Why not show them as creeps in a movie? In fact, I love the variety of the film’s Nazi characters. There is the perversely charming, eloquent SS man Landa, the sleazy Goebbels, the self-indulgent war hero Zoller and the dumb German soldier Wilhelm. The character of SS man Hans Landa seems to be the most complex. He offers you an insight into the twisted thinking of a Nazi “who thinks like a Jew.”
The portrayal of the dull, Nazi scalping, swastika carving Jews I find much more offensive. It flattens their mission into cheap slapstick splatter. It feels, here, Tarantino wants to simply provoke and radically subvert our expectations of Jews. No other filmmaker has ever shown blood thirsty Jews. So Tarantino had to do it. His mannerism got in the way of his craft as a screenwriter.
NK The movie had heroes and villains, good and bad, and Tarantino made a very clear point of this. But in the end everyone seemed like a villain. I don’t subscribe to his “eye for an eye” policy.
In war there are no winners. A war is always a tragedy.
TS One of the things I found really interesting about the film is its clever use of language. Language is at once used as a strategic weapon to win over a situation, in the example of the delicate words of the SS colonel Hans Landa, but also as a destructive measure to bring down an entire operation, for instance by the exposed accent of a British undercover officer. The superimposed yellow graphic titles pointing us to the “Who’s Who” of the Nazi elite (Goebbles, Borman, Goering, etc.) also reflect Tarantino’s playful use of language and text.
Titles seem to play an important part in your photography, too. With titles like “Sachsenhausen Forest,” “Leni Riefenstahl in Das blaue Licht” and “Aryan Boy” you clearly link your images to the history of the Third Reich. What’s the idea behind such literal use of text?
NK Yes titles do play an important role in my images. I think it’s clear that there is an uncanny feeling in my photography, and the titles tell exactly what you are looking at.
At the same time I know that titles can sometimes be the last thing that the audience refers to after looking at imagery. There is a narrative between the images, and I want the viewer to draw their own conclusions, after which the titles will then piece the puzzle together.
Nicola Kast. Leni Riefenstahl in The Blue Light, 2007. All images courtesy of the artist.
TS Another thing that strikes me about the ‘Basterds’ is its heavy use of metaphors and double meanings. There is the Sherlock Holmes pipe smoking and milk drinking SS man, all the references to German culture during the drinking game scene in the bar and Leni Riefenstahl and the cinema of the Third Reich are predominant in the film.
The reference to Winnetou, the Apache leader and protagonist of Karl May books, I find most fascinating. Karl May was one of Hitler’s favorite writers, mainly for the fact that May dared to write about countries and wars he has never visited. Similarly, Hitler fought wars in countries he has never before stepped a foot in. Winnetou also appears on a TV screen in one of my images of my Ratline series. I used it to suggest the racist ideology and Fuehrer devotion of one of my female characters.
Nicola, you have photographed yourself dressed up as Leni Riefenstahl, can you talk more about the idea behind that?
NK I was surprised that Leni Riefenstahl’s movies played such a big role in the Basterds. I found out about Riefenstahl’s movie and dance career after reading her biography Leni by Steven Bach.
TS Really? That’s interesting. I use this very book for its title Leni as a metaphor in one of my photographs. Leni Riefenstahl’s shady life has always captivated me, too.
NK I am fascinated by the genre of German mountain cinema and Riefenstahl’s role in its development. She made the movie before she became Hitler’s propaganda filmmaker. I am intrigued by the loss of innocence, which is why I decided to portray her character in Das Blaue Light (The Blue Light).
TS What do you think of the comical portrayal of the Nazis in the film? They certainly feel like caricatures at times.
NK I found it very difficult to watch the movie, and was very aware of the audience and their reactions around me. I think that Tarantino set up the movie so that one was supposed to laugh at the portrayal of the Germans, and many of their actions were laughable. I’m thinking about the large pipe you mentioned, and Hitler in his King’s robe. Of course these things are ridiculous. I don’t see a deeper meaning in it. Again, I have to reiterate that I am against rewriting such a tragic history.
TS% I agree. The parody like representation of Hitler in the movie is tricky. It is clearly a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant performance in The Big Dictator>>. However, it comes nowhere near it. ??The Big Dictator was a sharp social critique of the time. Tarantino’s Hitler is a case of mere slapstick.
NK A pivotal scene in the movie is when Brad Pitt’s character declares that a Nazi should never be able to remove his uniform and forever be recognized as a Nazi. What are your thoughts on this statement and the drastic measure that Pitt’s character takes for a Nazi to be recognized as a Nazi?
TS I think this statement is very to the point. Nazis should always be recognized as Nazis. Unfortunately, at the end of WWII a lot of them managed to escape and re-established themselves abroad under a new identity. Some Nazi scientists were even hired by American and Russian Intelligence after the war. The Germans were in high demand for their advanced technology.
In Austria and Germany a lot of Nazis have been able to quietly slide back into politics, science or corporate management. They often escaped any prosecution. The problem is that people do not want to confront the horrors of the past. It’s much easier to look away or forget. Tarantino’s radical version of ‘Never Forget’, however, seems like a pretty cheap pun to me.
The scalping and the marking of the Nazi’s were very intense scenes. Of course Nazis who committed crimes should be punished for their acts. I’m not arguing this fact. But I wonder if the markings and scalping solve anything. These extreme actions just felt like more acts of violence, and brutality.
NK Inglorious Basterds rewrites the outcome of WWII. I deeply object to history being rewritten by movies like this one. Hollywood is an entertainment vehicle and I fail to see any value in the entertainment and mockery of one of history’s worse genocides. The consequences of this war are still very real, and will be for years to come.
Do you, as a filmmaker/photographer think it’s justified for Tarantino to rewrite history?
TS As I said earlier, cinema or image making is about fiction, about inventing stories. I invent a family shadowed by a Nazi past in my photographs. Tarantino goes further and invents provocative alternatives to historical Nazi figures like Hitler, Goebbels and Borman. He shows us his fantasy about the downfall of the Third Reich. The power of film and photography is to construct reality. Only in a film you can actually burn down Hitler and his regime, locked inside a movie theater.
Is it OK, though, for Tarantino to use cinema to rewrite the history of Hitler? Yes and No. I think it all depends on who is watching the movie. History is viewed differently from generation to generation. A Holocaust survivor might be deeply repulsed by Tarantino’s film and walk out of it. A teenager or someone without any relation to the history of the Third Reich might enjoy this as pure entertainment. Why not make a movie about Hitler as long as it’s fun to watch and comes with a cool soundtrack?
In one of my pictures you see an old man and a young girl sitting in the darkness of a movie theater. Their faces reveal utterly different reactions to the film they’re watching. The girl appears totally engaged with the action onscreen while the old man drifts off into dark corners of his troubled mind. Tarantino’s film could have easily been playing.