It would be hard to conceive of a more controversial figure in the Nazi inner circle than Albert Speer. One of Hitler’s closest confidantes, Speer was a master architect who had the ear of the failed-artist-turned-Führer. He was an integral part of the totality that was Nazi Germany, the chief creator of the Nazi public aesthetic, as well as the minister of armaments and munitions from 1942 on. Yet Speer was one of the very few high-ranking Nazis to declare his own guilt and shame publicly and to reveal the inner workings of the German government under Hitler in his memoirs.
Despite his repeated mea culpas, Speer remained an object of suspicion in the aftermath of his release from Spandau Prison, where he served 20 years as a convicted war criminal. He has been the subject of numerous book-length studies, and most of the authors who have written on him remain unconvinced by his recantation. But at least one prominent victim of the Nazis and career Nazi-hunter befriended him. Simon Wiesenthal, who not coincidentally trained in architecture, established a relationship with Speer, corresponding with him at great length and even meeting with him socially on many occasions.
This singularly odd friendship is the jumping-off point for a new video installation by Berlin-based Israeli artist Dani Gal, “As from Afar,” currently on display at The Jewish Museum. Gal’s piece is as peculiar and as compelling as the story that triggered its creation.
“As from Afar” consists of two elements. Viewers first encounter a large, carefully detailed scale model of the entrance to Mauthausen, the Austrian concentration camp in which Wiesenthal himself was imprisoned. It is impressively intricate and, in a rather stern and forbidding manner, quite handsome. With its array of tiny, twinkling lamps and the (fictional) railroad tracks that lead up to the front gate, it inevitably recalls the electric trains of childhood as much as the destructive forces at work inside the prison walls.
Then, turning a corner and walking around a black curtain (past an imposing black marble hearth, a reminder of the original use of the buildings housing the museum and an unintentionally post-modern comment on the threads of Jewish history on opposite sides of the Atlantic), viewers enter you enter a small screening room where Gal’s 26-minute video is shown every half-hour.
The video resets the parameters of the discourse begun by the model of Mauthausen. The fictionalized opening scene shows Wiesenthal and Speer in the workshop of Mr. Kuck, a master model-builder who has created the Mauthausen piece for an American film studio planning a movie about the camps.
Kuck himself is a Jew who survived Mauthausen. He confides to his visitors that he created the entire model “from memory,” but that the Americans requested the railroad tracks and the larger towers that didn’t actually exist. And now one realizes the significance of another element from the model, a second set of shiny, silver tracks on which is mounted a movie camera.
Speer and Wiesenthal eventually retire to a café where they talk of their current lives as authors before moving on to the weightier matter of Wiesenthal’s public support for the ex-Nazi. Speer repeatedly urges him to be more judicious, but Wiesenthal replies, “You are one of the few people who has stood by his actions, accepting punishment without bitterness.”
Finally, the two men walk to the nearby house designed by Ludwig Wittgenstein and wander about its empty halls. It is a coolly distanced piece of architecture, reserved in its profusion of blank white walls, endless interior windows and highly reflective surfaces. The protagonists glide noiselessly through the interiors and eventually descend separately to the street, where they meet once more. Then Gal cuts back to Kuck’s workshop, where we see him completing a model of the Wittgenstein house.
“As from Afar” is a surprisingly densely layered piece of work. Juxtaposed against the meeting of Speer and Wiesenthal is a series of quotations from Wittgenstein’s philosophical notebooks, in which he ponders the nature of human memory and its communication. One of the men observes that Wittgenstein and Hitler were briefly schoolmates in Linz before WWI. It is noted Speer visited Mauthausen in his managerial capacity, (although there is no reason to believe he and Wiesenthal ever met then). And the final images of Kuck recreating the Wittgenstein house add another level to the fiction/reality dialectic that the video and model have invoked repeatedly.
What is one to make of this handsomely constructed conundrum? Like the interiors of the house, Gal’s video is a shiny, reflective (and reflexive) object freighted with multiple meanings that are only revealed upon further contemplation. The echoes of the entrance to Auschwitz in the fictionalized model of Mauthausen are inescapable and disturbing. Gal has said that the project is about the difficult relationship between memory and history, reality and fiction.
Undoubtedly that is true, but Gal leaves the nature of those relationships perilously open. The question that still remains to be answered is, to be blunt, who decides which is which?
“As from Afar,” a video installation by Dani Gal, will be on view at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., through Feb. 1, 2015. For information, go to www.thejewishmuseum.org.