Am I dying yet? - bookBlogWar

Am I Dying Yet? is severely pared. Take Day 14, 30 Oct – Part 2

Day 14, 30 Oct –  Not in the book
Part 2

Still resisting the news, I turn to old news still relevant, watch a documentary ‘Berlin 1945’. [i]

It begins with scenes from ‘Symphonie einer Weltstadt’ (Symphony of the world city’). A documentary montage on life in Berlin directed by Leo de Laforgue, shot between 1938 and 39, with lush harp arpeggios and soaring violins. The Third Reich was in confidant mode.[ii]

The streets are crowded, buses and trams criss-crossing. No sign whatsoever that war was imminent, and no sign of the Jewish population, or of their despair, a sense of the future stalled.

What happened to the well-dressed people sipping coffees on the boulevards?
Or to the fat street vendor wearing a white apron and cap, harnessed to his Wiener Würstchen contraption?
Or the man in his fifties, bent over a blonde’s elegant legs, polishing her shoes?
Or the women with multiple chins enjoying a sandwich?

And what of the young boys playing in a park with yachts and motorboats on a pond, all looking up, arms raised appropriately, pointing to the Graf Zeppelin airship, except for one who stares back at us, probably against orders. What happened to him?

What happened to the boy in the black cap and white apron delivering milk?

‘On April 23rd, battalions made up entirely of Hitler Youths were formed to hold the Pichelsdorf bridges by the Havel River. These bridges in Berlin were supposed to be used by General Wenck’s relief army coming from the south. That army, unknown to the boys, had already been destroyed and now existed on paper only. At the Pichelsdorf bridges, 5,000 boys, wearing man-sized uniforms several sizes too big and helmets that flopped around on their heads, stood by with rifles and Panzerfausts [portable anti-tank weapons], ready to oppose the Russian Army. Within five days of battle, 4,500 had been killed or wounded.’[iii]


Watching more documentaries for old news, I find the crucifixion, just a decade before I was born. One used to hang in every room of the house I grew up in.

Two crucifixions, Bergen-Belsen,1945 p1-TV-doco

Two heads, their bodies disappearing into the earth, one has a strap around his wrist, some final effort to . . . to do what?  This is truth, abject truth. When is the viewer a voyeur? When they enjoy the image, and accept the exploitation of a person, or horrendous events?

Cultural theorist Walter Benjamin said using captions would transform the photograph from its ‘modish tendencies’ to beautify any subject no matter how miserable or banal, into an object that contained valuable information that reached beyond aesthetics. Only when a photograph is no longer considered an object of beauty can it become something of value. [iv] What possible caption could I use? Perhaps a note to apologise to anyone who recognises a family resemblance, or who has a connection to that ridiculous, unimaginable, horrific period.

I should have guessed that this haunting ‘crucifixion’ was taken by an artist from the composition. Lieutenant Alan Moore, Australian war artist, serving with the British Army, made several paintings, sketches and drawings at Belsen as a record of atrocities, on April 15th or 16th 1945: ‘One of the most important things [to sketch] was the blind man. Wandering through Belsen, waving a stick to hit bodies and things, he said. A Welsh soldier told Mr Moore he was mad to draw the scene, as no one would believe it. That comment prompted Mr Moore to take photos to back up his sketches. ‘I wanted to make it because I thought it would possibly stop the awfulness, the death of war,’ he said. ‘[But] they’ve never stopped. They go on and on and on, from one country to another.’[v]

What were their names? Did they know each other? Were they married, good with their hands, artists, crooks, good in bed, good at telling jokes?

Crucifixion was invented by the Persians c300BCE and developed by the Romans. The upright wooden cross was the most common technique, and the time victims took to die would depend on how they were crucified. If tied to the crucifix, because they could support their weight with their arms, dying might take a few days. ‘Someone nailed to a crucifix with their arms stretched out on either side could expect to live for no more than 24 hours. Seven-inch nails would be driven through the wrists so that the bones there could support the body’s weight. The nail would sever the median nerve, which not only caused immense pain but would have paralysed the victim’s hands.’[vi]

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (c1512), oil on panel, Unterlinden Museum, Alsace

Peter Conrad remarks on ‘The Passion of the Christ’, a 2004 film produced, directed, and co-written by Mel Gibson: ‘Gibson cast himself as the offscreen extra who positions the first nail and hammers it home because, he has said, he, as a miserable sinner, feels personally responsible for executing Christ . . . Re-enacting the Crucifixion for our horror-numbed times in his sacra mental splatter movie, Gibson seems convinced that such tactics can provoke a spiritual revival. Gobbets of flesh dislodged from Christ’s back by the flagellators stain the flagstones. A nail, helped by a mallet that Gibson personally wielded, pierces Christ’s open palm, through which more blood squirts . . . Gratification nowadays is instant and does not need to be earned by a devout life and a trusting death. Paradise for us is located in a shopping mall, where there will, of course, be a multiplex cinema showing The Passion and a shop selling tools of torture to be worn as ornaments.’[vii]

Fifteen years after Conrad, Louis Chilton wrote, ‘When it was released in 2004, the retelling of Jesus’s death was controversial for its gory violence and alleged antisemitism. After the director’s subsequent scandals, The Passion makes for even more uncomfortable viewing . . . After sitting through two and a half hours of almost uninterrupted bloodshed, including the protracted torture of Jesus Christ . . . audiences uniformly left The Passion in a state of shock.’[viii]

Death is everywhere in entertainment, but hidden in everyday contemporary society. Death is natural. Even in a paradise like Arcadia there is death (Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1637.) The argument for the distribution of pictures of violence death is to engage attention and compassion in a culture drowning images. An alternative view is that shocking images numb attention and feeds a voyeuristic culture. Susan Sontag warned that photographs anaesthetise the pain, the injustice. But it is easy to censor the truth.

In the First World War, no dead were shown; even in the Second, Life showed dead marines two years after the event, near the end of war. Roosevelt released this colour film of dead Marines in Betio lagoon, their bloated decomposed-black floating or piled like kelp on the beach.[ix] There was a worry the images would damage morale, but war-bonds and production rose as some reality struck home.

Fred Ritchin wrote in 2014, ‘A recent slew of situations resulting in catastrophic violence and death, including the Israel-Gaza war, the armed expansion of the Islamic State, the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane in the Ukraine, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and also the spread of the Ebola virus, has led to a renewed debate as to what kinds of imagery media outlets should be expected to show. [x]

There are things we shouldn’t have to see, but are there times and places where and when photographs should not be taken? There must be – but which ones? Sontag suggested that ‘all photographs are memento mori’, whether of a corpse or a family snapshot. ‘To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it.’ ‘To look at an old photograph of oneself, of anyone one has known, or of a much photographed public person is to feel, first of all: how much younger I (she, he) was then. Photography is the inventory of mortality.’ [xi]


[i] Autentic, 2020, Writer, Director Volker Heise. In two parts.

[ii] The Nazis cancelled the premier in 1943 party due to the damage and changes to the city. It finally premiered in 1950.

[iii] ‘Hitler’s Boy Soldiers: 1939 – 1945’,

[iv] Walter Benjamin, ‘Short History of Photography’ published Sept and Oct, 1931, issues of the periodical Literarische Welt. Phil Patton, Artforum, Vol 15:6, Feb 1977.

[v] Seeing his work for the first time in 50 years at the Australian War Memorial in 2014, aged 99. Siobhan Heanue, ‘World War II artist Alan Moore makes pilgrimage to Australian War Memorial to view Holocaust works’. ABC News, 25 Feb 2014.

[vi] Alok Jha, ‘How did crucifixion kill?’, Guardian, 8 Apr 2004.

[vii] Peter Conrad, ‘The art of pain: From Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to Saatchi’s illustrious corpses, modern culture is awash with images of mutilation and gore. But why has carnage become such an iconographic commonplace?’ Guardian, 4 April 2004

[viii] Louis Chilton, ‘The blood, the outrage and The Passion of the Christ: Mel Gibson’s biblical firestorm, 15 years on’, The Independent, 25 February, 2019.

[ix] Tripadvisor review, ‘Most advice is to the effect that one shouldn’t go swimming in the lagoon off Ambo Island. Looking at the rubbish along the shore and the murky water I decided to respect this advice.’ KGB777, Singapore, 25 October 2014.

[x] Fred Ritchin, ‘Why Violent News Images Matter’, Time, Sept 2, 2014

[xi] Susan Sontag, On Photography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977, p15, 70.

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