Nothing Can Fall Out of an Image: Heinz Emigholz on Slaughterhouses of Modernity
Slaughterhouses of Modernity, the latest film by Heinz Emigholz, has arrived in New York. The filmmaker refers to it in passing as a work of propaganda, which means, he reminds me, that it is a film designed to advance an agenda. To this end, Emigholz has adopted a mode of direct address. With John Erdman, Stefan Kolosko and Arno Brandlhuber acting intermittently as chorus, Slaughterhouses of Modernity castigates the works of art, architecture and philosophy—collected post-hoc under the banner of Modernism—nourished by the conditions of genocidal, colonialist, “Western values.” For Emigholz, the century that seemed to place the individual at the center of its aesthetic and social movements was nothing but the slaughterhouse of market capitalism: territorializing cultural and semiotic space under the guise of art and progress, it manufactured intellectual confusion before erasing the Modern subject as quickly as it had been constructed.
That said, to indulge his audience in a working definition of Modernism is of no interest to the filmmaker. Instead, Emigholz works by sample. Slaughterhouses of Modernity is divisible into three distinct acts, bookended by a prologue and epilogue, each concerning itself with portraits of places where, the narrator tells us, Modernism has committed slaughter, and places where it has been slaughtered. The Italian fascist and Art Deco-influenced slaughterhouses built across Argentina by architect Francisco Salamone; the recently-reconstructed Stadtschloss of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin; and the Utopian, anti-Modernist festival halls designed by the indigenous architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre in El Alto, Bolivia: these spaces allow Emigholz to hone his argument, making Slaughterhouses of Modernity historically-specific without ever instrumentalizing the buildings at its center. In the case of Salamone’s slaughterhouses, which lay mostly-abandoned across Argentina, Emigholz argues that state power and academicism detached these structures from “real” proletarian society long ago. Their remains, sacrosanct monuments to the failure of the Modernist project, reveal instead a “Brutal Modernism” that endures today through the restoration of imperial architecture and new museums of 20th century art. It is no wonder he photographs these buildings vacant of inhabitants: even their butchers were fed to the slaughter long ago.
In July, I met Emigholz at his apartment in Berlin, where we discussed his filmmaking practice in addition to the mounting historical and political forces that compelled him to finally realize Slaughterhouses of Modernity, a project he has had in mind for years. The following conversation, condensed and edited with the filmmaker in the period since our initial encounter, captures a clear-eyed avant-gardist in fine form.
Filmmaker: Slaughterhouses of Modernity opens on the streets of El Alto, Bolivia, to piles of stones and views of doghouses, before ceding to images of dogs rifling through rubbish.
Emigholz: The filmmaker in Streetscapes [Dialogue] says to his analyst: “I can film a Le Corbusier building, but I could film a dogshed instead, and it would be a nice film, too.” I always had the desire to do just that. There are “Gehry”- and “Hadid”-kennels, doghouses in all possible modern styles.
Filmmaker: If a house, represented as two parallel, vertical lines with a unifying horizontal placed overtop, may be seen as the starting point for any conception of interior and exterior space, everything that follows might well be mere ornamentation. We’re well within the territory of architectural functionalism.
Emigholz: Don’t forget the cave, no right angles there. To build a safe place against the cold and the heat, against the rain and snow, is not at all trivial. But your statement reminds me of a joke by Adolf Loos: “When we find a mound in the forest, six foot long and three foot wide, with the shovels formed into a pyramid, we become serious and an inner voice tells us, someone is buried here. That is architecture.”
Filmmaker: In the hands of another filmmaker—Wim Wenders, for instance—this could have been an elegy to Modernism and its regimes of representation. But as John Erdman’s sardonic voiceover recapitulates a critical history of the 20th century, it is clear you have an ax to grind.
Emigholz: Slaughterhouses of Modernity is building up an argument, very slowly, discursively; through architecture and dog houses; through the “New Man” that the various ideologies wanted to build in the last century, and the aesthetic regimes that came with them; through the aftermath of the First World War, which lay the grounds for the Nazis; the activities of the Bauhaus; by paraphrasing a text of Jorge Luis Borges, and so on. It makes a point, right from the beginning, that something turned out to be deeply wrong.
Filmmaker: Erdman’s narration locates the origins of Modernism at the outset of the 20th century, in the “revolutionary findings of theoretical physics,” which led artists, writers and philosophers to “distance themselves from traditional beliefs about space.” I wonder if you could offer a personal, clarifying definition of Modernism that is beyond the works of art and literature that are often prescribed that label.
Emigholz: I am referring to existing definitions of Modernism, but I have no inclination to define it myself. I think there is no real substrate there anymore. “E=mc2,” of course, is one.
Filmmaker: Your inquiry is directed towards the European-inflected Modernism that made its way into South American architecture via colonial activities. You take us to Argentina, to see the slaughterhouses of Francisco Salamone and to Bolivia, to the festival halls designed by the indigenous architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre. A significant portion of the film also takes place in Berlin, where you live. What brought you back?
Emigholz: The film is ultimately about the Stadtschloss in Berlin and Wilhelm II, the last German Kaiser. He was an ur-Nazi. I am still personally attached to him, because he killed my grandfathers. The European aristocratic regimes got rid of the social movements by killing off their proletarians. My grandfathers were both carpenters in their twenties. Their wives were poor and left alone with children to take care of, both families were destroyed. So, the set was prepared for the appearance of a “strong Führer.”
Filmmaker: Then why spend a large part of the film in Argentina around abandoned slaughterhouses?
Emigholz: The problems I am dealing with are universal, a global network of destruction. The architect of the slaughterhouses, Francisco Salamone, was greatly influenced by fascist architects in Italy. As the film turns to his cemetery portal and slaughterhouse designs, slowly we begin to travel down the drain of Modernism. At the time of their construction, Argentina was incredibly rich: during the war they sold meat to all belligerent parties. That the slaughterhouses were built as monumental symbols is just nuts. The province of Buenos Aires had so much money that Salamone could realize his fantasies as a surplus. The slaughterhouses were eventually abandoned because of economic forces, the need to centralize the business. Few people outside Argentina know about them. I like to do research work with film.
Filmmaker: You compare the slaughterhouses to churches, whose designs, at a time, were also an expression of state power. Each slaughterhouse has a processional quality married to its design. But unlike a church, where a definite religious ideology allows us to interrogate the sort of individual these spaces were producing, your question seems to be more fundamental: why design a space with such extravagance unless a regime wanted a visual expression of its own power, and further, what is the state-manufactured ideology that is reproducing that power?
Emigholz: The ideology was to prove that a country owned by very few rich people is productive and ruled well. In the rear front, the animals walked one by one in, they were slaughtered one by one in a little cabin, and in the representational front, there was a truck that took the meat away. It was a modern, economic industry, and they made a lot of money with it and were proud of it. The surplus created that strange culture I am depicting. Salamone’s cemetery portals tell us that we are slaughtered cattle, too.
Filmmaker: Additionally, as the excerpted material from Bolivia and Argentina derive from the two other films you will release this year, I’m curious as to how you conceive of these spaces as contributing to an argument. Basically, for you, what is the discursive function of an architectural space, and how do you build an argument, with a space, in the edit?
Emigholz: It was the other way round: We filmed those buildings for the film Slaughterhouses of Modernity, which is very different in comparison to my monographical architecture films. Spaces produce thoughts and arguments. They represent something, you have to read them. What we filmed was so rich and interesting that we decided to produce two monographical films along with the main feature: Mamani in Alto (95 min) and Salamone, Pampa (62 min), about the buildings of Francisco Salamone (1897-1959) in Argentina and Freddy Mamani Silvestre (born in 1971) in Bolivia. For me it is an almost natural process: one film produces two more, by cell division.
Filmmaker: The film’s argument reaches an inflection point in the abandoned village of Epecuén. For the last 35 years the city has been submerged underwater, because it was built on false assumptions. Today its ruins arise from the waters again. A diver retells Borges’ short story “German Requiem,” about a Nazi KZ commandant on trial for crimes against humanity.
Emigholz: Borges had this strange fantasy about the Nazis at the same time as they arrived in Argentina in the late 1940s. His text is an elegant alternation between understanding, excuse, apology and a subsequent justification of a rotten intellectuality. A projection that became reality insofar as this exact melody of the self-sacrificing sense of duty was sung in the discussion rounds that Willem Sassen held and recorded with former SS men, including Adolf Eichmann, in Buenos Aires in the early 1950s. They were discussing how to get back to Germany and install the Fourth Reich. Borges is such a giant in literature. Some people will say you cannot criticize literature or fantasies, but I think you can on this topic. I don’t cite his text, I just retell it and give my interpretation.
Filmmaker: The story of Modernism is also the story of fascism and prefascism. You mentioned earlier that the film is ultimately about the Stadtschloss, recently rebuilt here in Berlin, which has been the subject of much controversy.
Emigholz: The Stadtschloss is a giant and unforgivable example of slaughtering a rational modernity. They restored the most idiotic and ridiculous thing, a façade with a brutal modernism behind. They should have kept the DDR’s Palace of the Republic instead if they are so keen to save certain monuments of the past.
Filmmaker: Why not level it and leave the rubble as a reminder to future generations?
Emigholz: Sure, a plain meadow of green grass would have been comforting. My suggestion is to transport it brick by brick to the Alti Plano, next to El Alto in Bolivia, as an example of a toxic European culture to be studied. If they really take the idea of cultural exchange seriously, which they don’t, they should do that. Of course, people will say that that suggestion is absurd. But to build a piece of crap like that is the most absurdist thing to do. It’s just the power of so-called reality that makes my idea look absurd.
Filmmaker: Another related issue is the castles in Potsdam, and all the art originally in the possession of the Kaiser’s aristocratic family. Nowadays his living relatives are seeking to claim these spaces and works as theirs.
Emigholz: The Stadtschloss was bombed during the Second World War and then levelled by the GDR in the beginning of the 1950s, so it is not the main concern anymore. But the castles in Potsdam and all the paintings—millions and millions worth—they want it back, because they say it “belongs” to their family. Now the German state has to prove that the offspring of the Kaiser were Nazis, and most of them were. The Hohenzollern clan is countersuing the state, claiming that they were not, all so that they can get their castles and stuff back. The claim to “private property” is a joke here. Those folks are under a delusion.
Filmmaker: We move from Berlin to Bolivia, towards a documentation of festival halls designed by the Bolivian architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre. They provide not only a counterpoint to the influence of “European-influenced Modernism,” as you put it, in Salamone’s slaughterhouses, but also offer a satirical solution to the problem of so-called “cultural exchange.” I’m curious why you choose to include his buildings in the film. As satire, they seem to lay bare the issues at the heart of Modernism—and remain connected to state power—but nonetheless seem to play a role in the life of, as you put it, “real society.”
Emigholz: Freddy Mamani’s work is rooted in the Aymara culture in Bolivia, its colors, ornaments and symbols. He is an Aymara himself. He transferred the rural tradition of gathering places for festivities into an urban setting. He is the inventor of the modern urban Cholet-style in El Alto. It has nothing to do with European modernism, for a change.
Filmmaker: The fundamental issue of the film is nothing new: state power is running away with itself as global inequality grows. Do you see the Stadtschloss, and Salamone’s slaughterhouses, equally as expressions of arrogance and hopelessness? Beyond serving a satirical point, how, then, to read the buildings of Mamani (where this certainly isn’t the case)?
Emigholz: I built up a contrast in that film using his buildings. But it would have been unfair to Freddy Mamani and his work just to use it as an illustration of a contrast. Therefore, we produced the film Mamani in El Alto to praise his unique work.
Filmmaker: You taught at Berlin’s University of the Arts for twenty years. Do you think it’s possible to teach resistance?
Emigholz: Resistance to what? To politics? No, it has to reverberate, or it has to go into something you know already, that you are already connected to in a mysterious way. When I resisted joining the army, I was 16 or 17. In Germany, to become a defector, you had to go to a kind of committee. There were these three old guys sitting there, and they asked you whether you could kill a fly. And then you had to say, “No, I can’t,” or you had to go to the army. Ridiculous. I said, “I’m rather red than dead”, which was a total confrontation. And I still believe that (and that Ayn Rand wrote stupid stuff). Then they said, “Your body is not worth anything in the army anyways, so we won’t use you.” But to build up that resistance when you’re that young is quite something. I don’t know where it came from.
Filmmaker: Do you see any solution to the problems you set in the film?
Emigholz: The solution is to think about what has been done and how absurd what we see is, and not take it for granted. Rebuilding the Stadtschloss was an expression of political power, and the result of ridiculous and inexcusable decisions. There was a political movement against it: it wasn’t heard. The next idiotic thing is already in the making, and that’s the Museum of the Art of the 20th Century they’re building for hundreds of millions of Euros next to the Sony Center in Berlin. Nobody needs that building—only big collectors, for tax evasion purposes. They will show the same kennels we’ve already seen in all the other museums. I think it’s overwhelmingly awful what’s going on.
Filmmaker: Of course it’s awful. But you see no path forward beyond, what—idle pessimism?
Emigholz: A lot of people think it is not “awful,” so how do you talk to them? If I would bath in “idle pessimism,” I would stay at home, declare all images being made already, fiddle around with some found footage and put some strong criticism in the off-commentary. But you still see me filming, looking at things and situations from all sides with my own imagery. For me that makes the difference: epistemological filmmaking.
Filmmaker: That you so often compose an image with a canted angle not only opens up the space to the possibilities of composition, but it reminds the viewer of the human agent behind the camera. In the case of Slaughterhouses of Modernity, it is a reminder of the person behind the camera as well as the argument. If the camera is an extension of your positionality, is it also an extension of the eye?
Emigholz: The filmmaker in Streetscapes [Dialogue] says it all: “The camera is not the eye, the camera is a camera and it is sitting away from the eye. You actually look into it and make decisions inside. It is a three-parted system and not a two-parted system.” Your viewpoint is important, and the framing that you construct within the camera. What I do is projecting gazes onto a building and record them as a human viewpoint.
Filmmaker: Alternatively, even if you implicate the human eye, and your own literal positionality as filmmaker, your images nonetheless reach the viewer estranged and alienated from that context, so much that one could argue your films as digitally imagined renderings of buildings. Cinema is a child of Modernism, after all.
Emigholz: When I look at architectural renderings, I don’t experience something real. I experience an economic argument for something to become real, a chimera. I do not move the camera when I portrait an existing building. The shot cements my position. You can actually study something this way. I rather create new views on existing reality, instead of replicating old viewpoints in virtual realities, which is quite re-actionary.
Your head is not screwed ninety degrees on your vertebrae. I don’t care about horizons or gravity, because nothing can fall out of an image. I care about composition, the inner life of an image. We were taught by conventional cinematography and photography how to look, but in reality our eyes are much freer to wander and discover relationships. Of course, when you have a rectangle, which already implicates a horizon and therefore gravity, everything within that shape exists in relation to it. Nonetheless, inside of that rectangle I can do whatever I want.