BERLIN, Germany – The best art catches even your wildest imagination by surprise.
Try to picture this: a messianic figure, draped in a white cape and robe, confidently riding into modern Berlin on a donkey through the Brandenburg Gate to recapture the German capital for the Jewish people.
For this end-times scenario, artist Yael Bartana created Malka Germania, Hebrew for Queen Germania, an androgynous Messiah who is filmed taking over historically-charged places from the darkest moments of 20th century history, from the Reichstag to the Wannsee, the Berlin-area lake where the Final Solution was drafted.
"The Messiah has come to Berlin and thus to the historic epicenter of Jewish, Israeli and German collective memory," the exhibition catalogue explains, a visitation intended to display "the tension of redemption, a core element of national myths and collective identities."
The video installation — called "Redemption Now" and commissioned by the Jewish Museum in Berlin — is a compilation of politically and emotionally tense moments from its very first scenes. Early on, we see Malka calmly observing as objects are tossed out of apartments in central neighborhoods of the German capital.
It’s clear that these objects have been chosen intentionally, as symbols of mainstream German culture. Christmas trees, photographs of Protestant reformer Martin Luther, German passports, works of German literature, personal belongings like lamps and ceramic busts, tiny German flags: the whole mess comes crashing down on the pavement.
German-language street signs are replaced with Hebrew ones. Soldiers — some with Israeli flags draped around their necks — charge down the streets and pop out of the busy subway stations familiar to anyone who’s been to Berlin.
The analogy, by design, is obvious. The fictional story in the video installation (a term contemporary artists use for videos filmed in a public setting, versus a set or a prepared location) represents a polar reversal of the experience of Berlin’s Jewish residents in the lead-up to World War II, when they were mercilessly stripped of their possessions, in particular those tied to their homes and identity.
For those of us who have newsreel footage from the 1930s and later etched in our minds, these scenes of personal possessions being violated are particularly jarring. Stripping people of their belongings is the first step autocratic regimes take in the process of dismantling the dignity of those they see as inferior.
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At first glance, "Redemption Now" might seem like it wants to transpose the perpetrators and victims in our head. But by depicting only the objects being thrown out the windows and not showing us the owners, it allows the viewer to decide who the victim is – after all, German Jews in the 1930s were such champions of their German identity that the objects in this 'reversal' scene would have been found in their homes, too.
Which makes the scene even more chilling – the viewer assumes the owners are German without it being clearly indicated. Are we, just like the Nazis who did this to Berlin’s Jewish residents, assuming that everyone’s identity fits into a clear cookie-cutter mold?
Berlin, as a progressive hub and a focal point of German Erinnerungstkultur, or the culture of remembrance, and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which encourages debates about a problematic period in a nation’s history, has always paved the way for the country to confront and admit its historical sins and its guilt – and make reparations.
As anyone who’s been to Berlin knows, the city has no shortage of museums and exhibitions documenting the terrors of the Holocaust, memorials to the horrors of Germany’s past, and perhaps the continent's healthiest political rhetoric acknowledging the blame of one’s forefathers.
Yet what would it be like if the city’s pre-war Jewish population came back to redeem their ancestors for what they suffered? "Redemption Now" does not slowly re-introduce the formerly marginalized Jewish community back into Berlin so as not to cause too much of a stir. It presents them as Germany’s modern-day rulers – which unavoidably makes you wonder if a form of historical justice has finally been served.
In one scene, soldiers assemble on the expansive green lawn in front of the Reichstag. One of them stands in front of the grand façade, which bears the bronze inscription: "Dem deutschen Volke" ("To the German People"), while wearing tefillin and blowing a shofar.
The scene conceals a relatively unknown story tied to Berlin’s Jewish community, which is imbued with many layers of historical irony. The inscription "Dem deutschen Volke" ("To the German People") was made in 1916 by Albert and Siegfried Loevy, brothers who owned a successful foundry that, by royal warrant, provided services to the German monarchy and produced inscriptions and bronze fittings for many luxurious homes in Berlin.
The bronze for the Reichstag inscription was, in turn, sourced from "two molten French cannons captured in the wars for freedom in 1815," or the Napoleonic Wars, according to the daily Berliner Morgenpost, indicating its iconic status in that period of nascent German nationalism.
The pressure of assimilation led to Siegfried baptizing his children in 1918 and changing their last name to Gloeden, while his brother Albert maintained their parents’ Jewish faith. Yet their business still fell victim to Nazi policies of Aryanization in 1939, and many of their descendants were persecuted and died at Plotzensee, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.
Journalist Armin Steuer, who researched the family’s history for his book "A German Fate: The Story of the Loevy Family," said in an interview for the New York Times that they were typical members of Berlin’s upper middle class. "They belonged completely to 'The German People,' and they were kicked out, excluded from the nation," he told the Times.
Would these be the people Yael Bartana envisaged as coming back? The idea of suddenly returning to these places from exile, or extermination, is both too simple and too complicated a solution.
What if Native American communities could return to their ancestral regions in the United States, or Greek and Turkish people could reverse the population exchange that took place at the start of the 20th century, or between India and Pakistan in 1947? Or, even more controversially, what about ethnic Germans who were expelled from central and eastern Europe following World War II?
Of course, skeptics would say it isn’t that simple. The descendants of these people speak different languages, and their old homes, whether countries or cities, do not exist in the way they used to. There is also the inevitable, and enormous, political and social upheaval it would bring. But for a moment, "Redemption Now" lets you entertain the idea.
In one of the final scenes, a group of what appear to be refugees of varying ages are huddled at an open-air train station, accompanied by a few suitcases and possessions, whose signage is in Hebrew. Malka Germania is there overseeing, and at one point, the group trudges down the train tracks toward an unknown location. The Germans are sent into exile as the final act of redemption. A single tear is seen streaming down Malka’s face.
For nations whose historical narratives seep with persecution and exile, ancestral homes represent a broken connection to their past. Their identities are infused with expulsion anxiety, transmitted through trans-generational trauma and suffering, of stories about places barely any of them live in anymore.
But the key questions provoked by "Redemption Now" are – what if redemption is achieved within your lifetime and right before your eyes? What is your national myth after something your nation has yearned for forever has been achieved? How do you define this new nation after the biggest historical injustice against you has been rectified? How do you respond to those who wronged you?
Bartana dealt with the topic of Europe as a homeland for the post-WWII Jewish community in her previous collection of works, entitled "And Europe Will Be Stunned."
In that project, she also exhibited her mastery in toying with historical narratives by inventing the "Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland" (JRMiP), a political manifesto where Jews of Polish ancestry "would return to Poland… and build schools, houses and clinics next to the cemeteries. We will heal our mutual trauma once and for all."
A troublingly large number of European leaders, from the UK's Boris Johnson to Vladimir Putin in Russia, Austria's Sebastian Kurz to Serbia's Aleksandar Vucic, and more widely, especially in this current moment, base their rhetoric on the resonant irredentism of regaining past historical glory, displaced Volk or lost territory.
While "Redemption Now" is focused on a community returning to the homeland of their marginalized ancestors, similar mind trips could involve Hungary regaining the territories it lost to the Treaty of Trianon, a common talking point of right-wing populist leader Viktor Orban. Just recently, Putin wrote a 5,000 word essay – his first in English – waxing poetic about the (for now) "missed opportunity" of a establishing a grandiose united Russian-Ukrainian homeland.
Nationalist politicians in particular would be lost in this post-redemption world. The rhetoric and beliefs they rely on would be turned on their head. They would need to shift their focus from historical victimization at the hands of an enemy to dealing with more day-to-day problems – the ones they usually ignore – in order to ensure their own political survival. There would be no hiding behind populist escapism or scapegoating.
This is the beauty of "Redemption Now." To watch it is to experience just such a shocking intervention into our collective imagination. Bartana takes the most persecuted nation in Europe’s history and conjures up a situation where they would be able to go to the source of their suffering – and let loose against those who'd persecuted them.
In a strange and almost confusing way, it feels almost liberating, watching a bad guy's cinematic comeuppance. But it's uncomfortable viewing, because it sets us up to ponder questions of collective punishment, of justice versus retaliation, of what it means to be a minority, or a majority.
Overcoming the initial confusion, you see how trapped we are in narratives of redemption, how the evil deeds of the past continue to shape our desires for the present, and what we consider to be our preferred or even utopian future.
"Redemption Now" should serve as a reminder that redemption, in the political sense at least, is a trap we have set up for ourselves. It sets the limits of what a just society would be within the vicious cycle of retribution, where wrongs can only be righted if we respond in equal or significant measure.
Political manipulators and xenophobes are aware of this, and of the potency these ideas hold even among the most progressive or open-minded among us. Allowing the idea of redemption to take over us is less a blessing than a curse – despite the fleeting moments of fulfillment of ultimate justice it might provoke.
Una Hajdari is a journalist covering central and eastern Europe who focuses on nationalism, the far-right, and identity after socialism. Twitter: @UnaHajdari