During World War II, German cavalry captain Harald von Vietinghoff-Riesch had a relatively easy job. Rather than fighting at the front, the captain’s post involved finding officers’ quarters for the advancing German troops – first in Belgium in 1940 and the following year in Ukraine. This left him enough time to shoot films with his 16mm camera. Sometimes he could combine his cinematographic interest with his duties, such as when horses required inspection before commandeering. Von Vietinghoff-Riesch left behind a good two and a half hours of material – a historical source with which Clemens von Wedemeyer is familiar for personal reasons: Von Vietinghoff-Riesch was his grandfather. For years these films lay in the family’s attic, where a scene in Von Wedemeyer’s 2012 film Muster tells us they were found. Later, they were given to Germany’s Federal Film Archive. For his exhibition ‘P.O.V.’ at Neues Berliner Kunstverein, Von Wedemeyer uses these films to artistically explore eyewitness testimony and its technical and theoretical implications.
P.O.V. – for point of view – is now a familiar abbreviation demarcating an epoch-making paradigm shift in filmic perspective. In digital cinema, there are signs that traditional imagery will soon have competition that allows the audience to step out of its static position facing the screen. Such images can be virtually entered into, and from then on everything becomes a matter of the perspective from which the action is viewed. In computer games, especially first-person shooters, this shift has long since taken place. Today, it is hard to predict what impact this might have on the connection famously made by French New Wave cinephiles like Jean-Luc Godard or Luc Moullet who, in the late 1950s, suggested that ‘tracking shots are a question of morality’. What happens if the audience is itself mobile?
As Von Wedemeyer puts it, these images 'point to the death of others' – casualties on both sides.
Much in Von Wedemeyer’s exhibition focuses on such questions. He refers half-jokingly to a ‘group show’ in which he plays all the parts. This is a reference to the range of modes he adopts – playful, experimental, analytical, investigative. Contrary to expectation, given the provenance of the films, autobiography plays a minor role in the films – partly due to the fact that Von Wedemeyer never met his grandfather, the cavalry captain, in person (he died in the 1950s). Originally only shared within the family, the films were later donated to a public archive, from which Von Wedemeyer borrowed them for his exhibition. He subjects the material to various treatments, ranging from essayistic viewing through to technical image processing procedures. The result is an archive of current possibilities for working with historical images that are considered as sources by academic historians, but which do not always permit desired objectivity. ‘These images are noticeably complicated’, says Von Wedemeyer, summing up the 18 months he spent working with the footage in the run-up to ’P.O.V.‘: ‘They captivate you more than anything. When you start looking into them, you find plenty of information, but rarely anything that can be clearly matched with the images.’
Von Wedemeyer invited German socio-logist and writer Klaus Theweleit to view the material, and filmed their session to include in the exhibition. Theweleit, who has a background in psychoanalysis, begins by underlining the touristic character of the cavalry captain’s footage. On the western front, châteaus were commandeered by senior German officers, who found those lodgings fitting for their social rank. As Von Wedemeyer puts it, these images ‘point to the death of others’: the horses, in which Von Vietinghoff-Riesch was especially interested, stand in for the fallen soldiers on both sides. One of the films shows a street strewn with wrecked cars and dead horses, a scene that calls to mind Godard’s film Weekend (1967), which in turn takes on an unexpected historical resonance.
The sequences shot in 16mm never last longer than two-and-a-half minutes (larger reels don’t fit in the camera). This defines both the character of the material, and the way the project relates to Von Wedemeyer’s previous works, which have often featured point of view (subjective camera) and sequence shots (extended, choreographed takes). His most important P.O.V.-related work, however, is Gegenüber (From the opposite side), the film he made for Sculpture Projects Münster in 2007: the movements of a homeless person through the Essen railway station, which is more or less where this person lived. The point of reference for this hour-long tracking shot was provided by a cinema near the station whose obsoleteness pointed not least to the status of the figure ‘behind the camera’ – a similarly discarded person whose gaze one tries to avoid. The site-specificity of the work, which was supposed to be viewed as a sculpture, also gave rise to a critical model for the replacement of cinema by newer image-capture practices such as body-worn video cameras.
Here there is a clear link to P.O.V.: ‘We see the edges of the horror on the eastern front,’ says Von Wedemeyer, and at one point this can be taken quite literally – when one of the sequences is slowed down, an execution is visible in the background. One detail makes it clear that the cavalry captain must have known about the killing of Jews in Ukraine that began immediately in 1941 as part of Operation Barbarossa: around Artemivsk in the Donbass, there were conflicts between the German army and the SS. The fighting troops felt that the ‘Jew actions’ were getting in the way of their campaign.
The familial serendipity by which Von Wedemeyer came to the material he works with in P.O.V. also bears a generational aspect. It is no coincidence that some of the issues here match those that came to the fore in Germany above all in connection with two 1990s exhibitions produced by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research on the crimes of the German army. Photographic documentation was critical to the arguments put forth in these exhibitions. Following the original travelling version shown from 1995 to 1999, debates about the interpretation of key images made it necessary to present a revised version in 2001.
Based on pictures that might have played a part in these disputes, Von Wedemeyer is interested not in historiographical meaning per se. His concern lies in how films can show not only everyday life behind the front but also the aftermath of fighting. A key scene, filmed at a pontoon bridge in Belgium, becomes a pivotal point and the motif from which Von Wedemeyer reaches especially far into the present, if not into the future of ‘historical’ images. At this bridge, the cavalry captain records two interlocked movements. Troops advancing westwards encounter people fleeing to safety behind the front. Among them is a mother who does not want to expose herself and her two children to the camera’s gaze: she covers them with her shawl and turns away.
Von Wedemeyer develops his treatment of war as a virtual scenario – one where the perspective can always change.
In P.O.V., the mother’s resistance against the soldier, then still certain of victory, ‘bags’ civilian victims with his camera becomes a central motif. This is the point of departure from which, especially in the 2016 video Against the Point of View, Von Wedemeyer develops his treatment of war as a virtual scenario – a computer-game aesthetic where the perspective can be changed at any time. The fact that soldiers today are accustomed to training in ‘virtual battlefields’ is only one aspect. More significantly, the concrete moral decision faced at the time by the cavalry captain loses significance in this virtual space. In Belgium in 1940, the situation was clear: a representative of an aggressive power stood opposite a victim of war with a device that captured defeat and humiliation with its media apparatus ‘for all eternity’: the man was making a victor’s document, and the fleeing woman made a spontaneous attempt to prevent this from happening to her and her children. The fact that the virtual reconstruction inside the computer game turns such a moment into something that can be revisited at will, that one can literally stab the woman in the back, the fact that one can also virtually challenge the gaze of the cavalry captain’s camera that becomes a factor within the visual space – in the P.O.V. exhibition, all of this multiplies the options for action in a technological constellation that dissolves subject positions into (moral and ontological) positionlessness.
This highlights the clear differences of an exhibition like P.O.V. as compared to exhibitions on the crimes of the German army, though also with regard to comparable artistic works using found footage like those by Harun Farocki (Respite, 2007) or by Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucchi (Pays Barbare, 2013). It is no mystery that Von Wedemeyer has spoken of ‘time travel with the material’. He was referring specifically to his film Muster, made for Documenta 13 (2012). The film, which exists as an installation and as a full-length feature version, centres on a place: the former Benedictine monastery in Breitenau near Kassel. From the late 19th century into the Nazi period, Breitenau was home to a ‘house of correction’ that was also used as a concentration camp. In Muster, Von Wedemeyer operates on the level of an auteur, with the corresponding authorial registers: elaborate tracking shots, motifs that overlap on different time levels. The film is an outstanding example of the staging of historical experience.
With the exhibition ‘P.O.V.’, Von Wedemeyer departs from his position as self-assured creator to formulate fundamental doubts about the logic of representation with which film, for much of its history, seemed to be inseparably linked. In this context, another treatment of the material left behind by the cavalry captain is perhaps the most relevant: the two and a half hours were digitally compressed to under five minutes and then exposed back onto 16mm. The result is a film that generates an aporetic position for the observer: ‘If flickering images don’t bother you then you can make out quite a lot’, says Von Wedemeyer. ‘But physically it’s not really possible.’ And this overload stands for the moral challenge such a legacy represents: images that paved Germany’s way toward a war of annihilation.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 24