The Atonement Complex

This article was originally published in Café Americain.

Supporters of either side in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas have made contradictory arguments rooted in social understandings of guilt developed in the decades after the Second World War. The Western cultural industries, often partial to political sloganeering, are one of the social strata torn apart by a bitter disagreement over who is morally responsible and which actions should count in the balance. 

This conflict isn’t surprising given the politicised nature of the art world today. Art’s aesthetic role in the questions of guilt and responsibility, however, stands apart from the sometimes naive activism of art communities and institutions whose track record doesn’t measure up to their claims of art’s righteous power. A decades-long development and the recent collapse in the aesthetic industry of remembrance explain today’s stalemate.

The work of the German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer defies superlatives. His gallery describes his oeuvre as “monumental” and the artist himself as “bombastic”. Kiefer is known for his paintings rendered in materials like burnt hay, whose scale is only limited by the structural capabilities of the grandest museums. His sculptures include endless libraries of books made of lead. The largest of his installations spans 35 hectares. 

Kiefer might be dismissed as one of the art market’s numerous megalomaniacs. But he suffers from a Messiah complex, too. Either directly or in thinly veiled subtext, his grand works root themselves in the desolation of the Holocaust. The flames, char, and shock damage recorded on his canvases are a language of guilt and atonement, with the artist its greatest poet.

Kiefer came to prominence in the late 1960s when he posed for a series of self-portraits with his right arm extended in a Hitlerian salute. This gesture shocked Germany which then suffered from a mixture of profound denial and cultivated ignorance of its role in the industrial murder of Jews. By the 1980s, when attempts to accommodate the nation’s historiographical legacy reached a crisis point in the Historikerstreit (“Historians’ dispute”), Kiefer became the culture’s rememberer-in-chief. 

The artist’s immense, self-appointed mission was so consequential that when Kiefer’s contemporary Wim Wenders came to make his hagiographic portrait Anselm, he reached for an extra dimension and filmed it in 3D. Yet this arthouse picture which played to empty theatres last winter may amount to little more than the product of ageing boomer memories. Kiefer’s and now Wenders’ contributions to the kitsch “never forget” canon are anachronistic tokens of cultural atonement which foreground the singular figure as a conduit to absolution. In Anselm and his larger practice, Kiefer’s stage-managed anguish has helped a generation of Germans to look into their conscience and return to reality unscathed.

Anselm, 2023, dir. Wim Wenders.

Wenders treats Kiefer with the reverence usually reserved for Christ. The camera follows the artist striding through his vast, hangar-like studios and his private memory playground estate in Southern France, as though these were deserts into which Kiefer had been banished as a scapegoat. The artist dulls the pain of the past as he weeps for the future in his fortress-like artworks. In a scene Wenders may have thought would be subtle, dust falls into a store vault like Zyklon B did in the chambers at Auschwitz. 

In this paradigm, even the most heinous crimes can be forgiven. Kiefer’s oeuvre responds to a collective need to see the perpetrators humbled by the vision of their own nature. Hannah Arendt’s oft-misinterpreted characterisation of evil as “banal” drove the need for such performance after the War. The shadows of Kiefer’s canvases, therefore, and the eerie, cavernous spaces of his installations – not to mention his contribution to the 1980 Venice Biennale which sparked accusations of Neo-Nazi sympathies – leave their viewers believing that they have confronted and challenged the very source of evil. 

Kiefer coats the Holocaust with gold, as the poet John Yau had it. The poignant ambiguity of Theodor Adorno’s suggestion that to write verse after Auschwitz is itself barbaric is all but lost. In Anselm, Kiefer weeps over Paul Celan’s concentration camp verse, rendering art complicit with suffering. But Kiefer is only one of countless artists engaged in the industry of forgiveness. Even today, specific exhibition opportunities and scholarships exist in Germany for artists of Jewish extraction, suggesting that the art world remains geopolitically, if not commercially invested in atonement. 

This logic explodes in the Holocaust film genre whose popularity rises and falls with the needs of the societies which produce them. Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest makes a radically different pact with evil. This film closely follows the career and domestic life of the Auschwitz camp commander Rudolf Höss in his family residence at the concentration camp’s gates. Glazer’s technique, which has the actors under surveillance like the contestants in the Big Brother house, allows for no distinction between the villains’ private and official thoughts. 

The film never breaches the camp’s perimeter, although the soundtrack of its factory-like operation is constant. Despite the presence of nameless inmate servants in the Höss household, Glazer barely pictures their suffering. This is a departure from the conventional Holocaust film which relies on the victims to drive tears and against whom the villain’s character is defined. 

Instead, The Zone of Interest barely gestures at the scale of death for which Höss is unequivocally responsible, save to portray his professional frustrations. Rudolf believes that the military administration must follow the spirit of German industry. Such forward-thinking earns him a promotion that, in turn, breaks up his family. Meanwhile, his wife Hedwig is as preoccupied with the upkeep of her garden as he is with commissioning a more efficient mass crematorium. She plans to cultivate vines to conceal the concrete fence at the boundary of their land and the death machine. Rudolf, a man of few words and even fewer emotions has no need for such cover.

The Zone of Interest, 2023, dir. Jonathan Glazer. A24.

With only minimal edits, this film could be sold as a family drama in which Höss’ stressful day job causes rifts but is also the source of the family’s income, social standing, and self-respect. The tight, matter-of-fact portrayal of these lives means that audiences have no choice but to empathise with the villains. Only in a handful of scenes does Glazer remind his viewers that someone must be condemned for the Nazis’ murderous programme. Yet even as he offers Höss as a culprit, he double-plays Arendtian “banality”. In an uncharacteristic scene in which Rudolf fantasises about gassing his colleagues, his thoughts verge on fetish.

There is no redemption for Höss and no absolution for the film’s viewers, either. Unlike Kiefer, Glazer has no interest in atoning for Germany’s original sin. But the director suggested in interviews that his film also describes today’s Western societies. Indeed, one needn’t look to war zones for confirmation. Plenty of atrocities like the pervasive violence and poverty in the plantations of the Congo are perpetuated with our indisputable complicity or even approval. Glazer exposes us as again capable of and, indeed, engaged in mass slaughter.

But this realisation terrifies him. In a gratuitous, although historically accurate sequence, Glazer introduces Oświęcim’s local resistance who vainly tried to save the camp’s invisible victims. This gestures at a naïve, instinctive morality that might somehow be a lifeline for anyone too shaken by the film’s implications. Glazer repeated this call on account of the people of Gaza in his Oscar acceptance speech, soliciting applause and tears from his fellow artists. This undermines his film’s most profound message. In light of the Palestinian conflict’s unending barbarity, Jordan B. Peterson’s infamous stipulation that the lesson of the Holocaust is that “you”, indeed, “are the Nazi” would have been a more appropriate conclusion.

Catharsis was once art’s key social function. Kiefer’s job was to tie up unthinkable evil in a singular, aesthetic concept and offer it in sacrifice to those who might forgive. Poignantly, it was Jewish American collectors who supported Kiefer’s practice long before Germans embraced him. This dance of remorse and industrial culture worked well enough for decades. Now, Glazer’s full-complicity drama produced by the ‘critical lifestyle brand’ A24 targets Millennials and Zoomers, leaving them with no exit. The film marks a rift in the generations’ understanding of guilt.

Today’s paralysing, distributed culpability exploited by Glazer may be a regression to an earlier mode of shared and totalising shame. It is easy to imagine, for example, that for a brief moment in the victory chaos of 1945, even the War’s heroes experienced remorse. Glazer wants his audience to feel guilt even if they, like him, believe themselves to be on the right side of history. The kind of brutal honesty commanded by the film, though not its director, should be freeing. But it isn’t. Glazer offers no return to the Kieferian moral order. To live in this universe is to always know of one’s complicity with evil. This is akin to Glazer instilling the knowledge of original sin in his viewers but failing to introduce them to John the Baptist. 

Appeals to such shame are rife in today’s culture. Environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion, for example,insist that even zealous recyclers are killing the planet. Greta Thunberg chose not to become the movement’s saviour and death remains its only future. The 2020 race reckoning that spread from the US to Europe, likewise, imagined no absolution because it posed one’s unchangeable skin colour as the source of evil. In the resulting regime, there is no way to stop sinning, and no one to ask for forgiveness, either. 

Can this paradigm of irredeemable culpability be sustained? New atrocities are committed daily and brought to our intimate attention on social media feeds. Attempts to halt these evils, such as the now regular pro-Palestine protests fail and thus only reinforce their participants’ dissonant feelings of guilt. 

Historically, cultures have ritualised condemnation and forgiveness because living with the knowledge of evil is too taxing. Events like Israel’s current assault on Gaza whose scale grips the cultural imagination could, in time, precipitate the reintroduction of an atonement mode of historiography. A return to the Kieferian solution, however, requires a trade-off with truth. Because the very purpose of remembrance is to facilitate the corruption of memory, we should today be wary of artists offering simplistic attributions of guilt. 

The stasis The Zone of Interest induces is, likewise, susceptible to exploitation. In Germany, a wave of Historikerstreit 2.0, debates which challenged the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust raged in the past years. This time, they involved social media hot-takes as much as scholarly publishing. At least in part, these conversations suggested that a society might rationally argue its way to atonement, rather than earn absolution through aesthetic or moral means. Israel’s justification for its war with Hamas, perversely, uses similar logic. Glazer’s project of never-ending reckoning might thus usher in a new mode of atonement, despite the director’s only tentative understanding of its consequences.

Main image: Anselm, 2023, dir. Wim Wenders.