Heimrad Backer’s book of concrete poetry transcript (to be published in Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling’s English translation by Dalkey Archive next March) consists entirely of quotations of material relating to the holocaust seen from the perspective of both its victims and the perpetrators. A few rearrangements using techniques such as repetition (all indicated in the notes at the end) are made to draw out the nature of the language used, particularly as regards documents that demonstrate the bureaucratic obsessions of the Nazi butchers. Nonetheless, rather than resorting to representation, through limited and selected citation transcript confronts the reader with a small portion of the Nazi regime’s bloodbath of mass murder and attempted genocide. While much of the material could be misread as banal if viewed in isolation, the accumulative effect is brutal and chilling. The white space on which sparse lines of text swim in is suffocating. It is one of the most effective condemnations of fascism I’ve read….
While transcript might be seen as an attempt to access ‘reality’, for me it continually called up filmic images. For example, the following brought back scenes from Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955): “i need more freight trains if i’m going to take care of things quickly.” (all of page 27, credited in the notes to: “Ruckerl 116. From a letter of Himmler, dated 23 January 1943 to the State Secretary of the Reich Transportation Ministry and Deputy General Director of the German National Railway, Dr. Ganzenmuller.”) Thus while transcript is extremely effective both as literature and a warning against the horrors of Nazism, it simultaneously leads the reader to question their ability to fully apprehend ‘reality’ because of the ways in which our experience is filtered through prior ‘knowledge’ that may be of either a ‘documentary’ or a ‘fictional’ nature.
I have an ongoing interest in the history of cinema and was particularly disturbed by the way in which transcript brought back visual memories of Nazi-themed exploitation films. Take, for example, page 77 (credited in the notes as: “IMT 25:591-607. Methods of generating warmth after hypothermic experiments at water temperatures of 4-6 degrees Celsius”):
warming by cardiac diathermia
warming by two women
warming by women (coitus performed)
warming by one woman
warming by 2 light boxes with 16 electric bulbs
For me this brought back scenes from Sergio Garonne’s SS Experiment Love Camp (1976). There are a number of softcore sex films set in Nazi concentration camps (a sub-genre of the ‘women in prison’ flick) but I find this particular example by Garonne the most offensive of all those I’ve seen. Women prisoners are subjected to sex experiments by Nazi guards and various medical staff, one victim is heated and then frozen in a tank of water (page 77 of Backer’s text brought these to the forefront of my mind). What makes SS Experiment Love Camp even more obnoxious than titles such as Gestapo’s Last Orgy (Cesare Caneveri 1977) and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (Don Edmonds 1975), is its overt racism; at the end of Garonne’s film it is revealed that the doctor in charge of the sex experiments is Jewish (but has taken on the identity of a dead ‘Aryan’ medic), thus the film utilises the classic bigot’s tactic of portraying the victims of racism as the victimisers.
The disjunction between the way transcript conjures up visual memories from my life-long engagement with film and Backer’s apparent desire to get away from narrative in both its documentary and fictional form, is a contradiction from which his poem derives a great deal of strength. The text is both sobering and rich, but much of its effect comes from what we bring to it.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!