Introduction | Terrorism and its Legacy in German Visual Culture

5-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.TGVC.5-2.1 | Soltau | Stehle PDF

Noah Soltau and Maria Stehle

Terrorism and its Legacy in German Visual Culture

How else to get atten­tion for one’s prod­uct or one’s art? How else to make a dent when there is inces­sant expo­sure to images, over­ex­po­sure to a hand­ful of images seen again and again? The image as shock and the image as cliché are two aspects of the same pres­ence. (Son­tag 23)

The idea for a spe­cial issue on visu­al depic­tions of ter­ror­ism in Ger­man cul­ture came out of a grad­u­ate sem­i­nar on Rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Rad­i­cals and Ter­ror­ists in Ger­man Lit­er­a­ture and Film in the 20th and 21st Cen­tu­ry that Maria Stehle taught at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ten­nessee in 2011. Based on our dis­cus­sions in the sem­i­nar, we decid­ed to put togeth­er a spe­cial issue that exam­ines, based on the Ger­man case, how his­tor­i­cal­ly trau­mat­ic events inform visu­al cul­tures in the twen­ti­eth and twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. The specter of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism has influ­enced the aes­thet­ics of a wide range of art­works pro­duced in and about Ger­many, from film to pho­tog­ra­phy to visu­al art. A clos­er exam­i­na­tion of these visu­al art forms aims to fur­ther devel­op the under­stand­ing of and vocab­u­lary for deal­ing with the effects of both domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al social trau­ma. The arti­cles in this spe­cial issue exam­ine artists’ rep­re­sen­ta­tions of acts of ter­ror­ism and of their social and polit­i­cal effects. We ana­lyze the aes­thet­ic and social dis­cours­es in which these cul­tur­al prod­ucts engage and how art­works inform or influ­ence audi­ences’ con­cepts of and respons­es to ter­ror­ism and polit­i­cal violence.

Our edit­ed vol­ume is posi­tioned at the tail end of a surge of engage­ment with West Ger­man left-wing ter­ror­ism, the stu­dent move­ment and so-called “six­ty-eighters,” and the social and polit­i­cal lega­cies of the 1960s and 70s in gen­er­al.[1] By also look­ing beyond Ger­many, we posi­tion this vol­ume at the begin­ning of a more com­pre­hen­sive schol­ar­ly engage­ment with visu­al depic­tions of vio­lence and ter­ror­ism in a post-9/11 world. In Philip Hammond’s intro­duc­tion to the edit­ed vol­ume Screens of Ter­ror: rep­re­sen­ta­tions of war and ter­ror­ism in film and tele­vi­sion since 9/11 (2011), a col­lec­tion of essays that seeks to “brings togeth­er Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can schol­ars work­ing in pol­i­tics and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions as well as in lit­er­a­ture, film, media and cul­tur­al stud­ies to take stock and assess the shape and sig­nif­i­cance of the post 9/11,” (17) he writes:

After a decade of tur­moil and insta­bil­i­ty in world affairs, after two wars that have left hun­dreds of thou­sands dead and injured, it may seem friv­o­lous to focus on fic­tion­al film and tele­vi­sion dra­ma. The impulse to do so, how­ev­er, is in part giv­en by the nature of the war on ter­ror itself, designed by its archi­tects to be a media-friend­ly event. Stag­ing the spec­ta­cle of ‘war on ter­ror,’ com­plete with sound-bites and pho­to-oppor­tu­ni­ties inspired by Hol­ly­wood, was an attempt to off­set the West­ern elite’s loss of pur­pose and vision, to fill the ‘void of mean­ing’ in Halland’s phrase. It could nev­er accom­plish that. But what it did do—not so much through the meet­ings with enter­tain­ment indus­try exec­u­tives as through its very fail­ure and incoherence—was to prompt oth­ers to try to make sense of the con­tem­po­rary expe­ri­ence of war and ter­ror in ways that aimed to con­nect with pop­u­lar audi­ences. (17)[2]

In our spe­cial issue, only the arti­cle by Thomas Riegler dis­cuss­es main­stream Hol­ly­wood films in more detail; the oth­er con­tri­bu­tions relate their dis­cus­sions specif­i­cal­ly to the Ger­man exam­ple and dis­cuss pop cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and com­mer­cial aspects of artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of polit­i­cal vio­lence. Most of the films we dis­cuss and cer­tain­ly the artist we intro­duce would prob­a­bly under­stand their work as intend­ing to “prompt oth­ers to try to make sense of the con­tem­po­rary expe­ri­ence of war and ter­ror in ways that aimed to con­nect with pop­u­lar audi­ences,” (Ham­mond 17) rather than as try­ing to re-estab­lish the pow­er and con­trol of West­ern nations, here main­ly Ger­many. We would argue that in most cas­es, the films are engaged in a project that tries to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly do both: at the very least gain con­trol of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but also incite a crit­i­cal dis­course. The fact that ter­ror­ism and the fight against ter­ror­ism are media-friend­ly events also applies to Germany’s spe­cif­ic past expe­ri­ences with left-wing and glob­al ter­ror­ism. This is cer­tain­ly the case for the ter­ror attacks dur­ing the Munich Olympics in 1972—a vio­lent ter­ror­ist attack and glob­al media event dis­cussed in Thomas Nachreiner’s arti­cle as well as in Sebas­t­ian Baden’s inter­view with the artist Christoph Draeger—and the ter­ror attacks of the RAF in the 1970s and into the 1980s. The film­mak­ers and artists we are dis­cussing in this col­lec­tion use sen­sa­tion­al­ism, the use of “the image as shock and as cliché” (Son­tag), which makes their prod­ucts both effec­tive and mar­ketable, a fact that Noah Soltau illus­trates in his dis­cus­sion of the rather suc­cess­ful Ger­man film Der Baad­er Mein­hof Com­plex. Most of the films and cer­tain­ly the art­work, how­ev­er, also make attempts to crit­i­cal­ly engage with the prob­lem of vio­lence and media sen­sa­tion­al­ism and the pol­i­tics of fear. These two seem­ing­ly oppos­ing aspects of “ter­ror­ism films” might sug­gest that they fail to send a clear polit­i­cal mes­sage and, con­se­quent­ly, remain polit­i­cal­ly inco­her­ent. Anja Seiler’s essay on the doc­u­men­tary film Black Box BRD and Eric Johnson’s dis­cus­sion of genre con­ven­tions in the film Die fet­ten Jahre sind vor­bei (The Eduka­tors) and the vac­il­la­tion between ter­ror and ter­ror­ism film illus­trate the com­plex­i­ty of this strug­gle for polit­i­cal coher­ence and com­plex­i­ty. Maria Stehle’s essay on rep­re­sen­ta­tion of chil­dren in films about ter­ror­ism shows that an hon­est engage­ment with ques­tions of vio­lence and rep­re­sen­ta­tion con­firms that there is no com­plete, eas­i­ly digestible answer, but there are hon­est and impor­tant polit­i­cal ques­tions that need to be addressed. The con­tin­ued strug­gle against and with glob­al ter­ror­ism and the images this ter­ror pro­duces cer­tain­ly con­firms this point.

Our essays hope to spark fur­ther dis­cus­sions about the com­plex ques­tions sur­round­ing images and dig­i­tal images in a glob­al media land­scape. The increas­ing reliance on images over text, of breadth rather than depth of cov­er­age in the dig­i­tal age, adds urgency to this dis­cus­sion that is only com­pound­ed by recent geopo­lit­i­cal events and their rep­re­sen­ta­tions, which have as of this writ­ing dis­placed 51 mil­lion peo­ple and result­ed in hun­dreds of thou­sands of deaths.[3] When we can rely on the Insta­gram feeds of ISIS fight­ers for our break­ing news from the bat­tle­fields in Syr­ia and Iraq, rather than in-depth print report­ing or even the night­ly news, the abil­i­ty to parse and ana­lyze the rhetoric and ide­ol­o­gy of images becomes increas­ing­ly vital. Devel­op­ing the­o­ret­i­cal argu­ments about the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of ter­ror and ter­ror­ism from events that rep­re­sent less recent his­tor­i­cal trau­ma cre­ates an intel­lec­tu­al space for crit­i­cal engage­ment that can­not be found in this morning’s images of the battlefield.

With this col­lec­tion, we hope to pro­vide a blue print, a few ini­tial pos­si­bil­i­ties, for ways in which we can pro­duc­tive­ly cri­tique arti­facts of visu­al cul­ture and the aes­thet­ics of “ter­ror­ist” nar­ra­tives. We view our work as part of a grow­ing need to exam­ine visu­al cul­ture and incor­po­rate it into wider con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al debates. As our every­day expe­ri­ence becomes increas­ing­ly medi­at­ed and dig­i­tized, we have to con­tin­ue to work on new ways to crit­i­cal­ly engage that media.

Works Cit­ed

Ger­hardt, Christi­na. “RAF as Ger­man and Fam­i­ly His­to­ry: Von Trotta’s Mar­i­anne and Juliane and Petzold’s The State I Am in.” The Place of Pol­i­tics in Ger­man Film. Ed. Mar­tin Blu­men­thal-Bar­by. Biele­feld: Ais­the­sis, 2014. (in press). 166–84.

---. “‘Aus den Orten eine Geschichte Gewin­nen’: Chris­t­ian Petzold’s Etwas Besseres als den Tod,” Ger­man Stud­ies Review 36.3 (Octo­ber 2013): 617–25.

Ham­mond, Philip. “Intro­duc­tion: Screen­ing the War on Ter­ror.” Screens of Ter­ror, spec. issue of Jour­nal of War and Cul­ture Stud­ies, 4.2 (2011): 7–18.

Rasch, Ilka. “The Gen­er­a­tion Gap: The Reap­pro­pri­a­tion of the Red Army Fac­tion in Con­tem­po­rary Ger­man Film.” Gen­er­a­tional Shifts in Con­tem­po­rary Ger­man Cul­ture. Ed. by Lau­rel Cohen-Pfis­ter and Susanne Vees-Gulani, Rochester: Cam­den House, 2010. 184–203.

Rin­ner, Susanne. “From Stu­dent Move­ment to the Gen­er­a­tion of 1968: Gen­er­a­tional Con­flicts in Nov­els from the 1970s and 1990s.” Gen­er­a­tional Shifts in Con­tem­po­rary Ger­man Cul­ture. Ed. by Lau­rel Cohen-Pfis­ter and Susanne Vees-Gulani, Rochester: Cam­den House, 2010, p. 139–160.

Son­tag, Susan. Regard­ing the Pain of Oth­ers. New York: Far­rar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.

End Notes

[1] His­to­ri­ans have engaged with these top­ics for the last decade; for inves­ti­ga­tions of cin­e­mat­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions, see, for exam­ple, the work of Christi­na Ger­hardt or Ilka Rasch; for rep­re­sen­ta­tions in nov­els, see Susanne Rinner.

[2] See http://​www​.amer​i​can​quar​ter​ly​.org/​i​n​t​e​r​a​c​t​/​b​e​y​o​n​d​_​d​e​l​m​o​n​t​.​h​tml

[3] Nick Cum­ming Bruce, “Refugees at lev­els not seen since World War II,” New York Times, June 20, 2014, accessed June 20, 2014 http://​www​.nytimes​.com/​2​0​1​4​/​0​6​/​2​1​/​w​o​r​l​d​/​r​e​f​u​g​e​e​s​-​a​t​-​l​e​v​e​l​s​-​n​o​t​-​s​e​e​n​-​s​i​n​c​e​-​s​e​c​o​n​d​-​w​o​r​l​d​-​w​a​r​.​h​t​m​l​?​_​r=0.

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