“Somewhere as Yet Undiscovered”: Thoughts on Power, Desk Killing and Resistance

Article 1 May 2008 Platform Admin

Article by Dan Gretton in Vertigo: Volume 3, Issue 9; Summer 2008

‘Reich Secret Business: Berlin, 5th June 1942
Modifications to special vehicles now in service at Kulmhof (Chelmno) and  for those now being built

Since December 1941, 97,000 have been processed by the 3 vehicles in service with no major incidents. However, in the light of observations, the following technical changes are needed:

1. The normal load is 9 per square metre. In Saurer vehicles, which are very spacious, maximum use of space is impossible. Not because of any overload but because loading to full capacity would affect the vehicle’s stability. A reduction in capacity seems necessary. It must be reduced by one metre instead of attempting to solve the problem, as hitherto, by reducing the number of items loaded. That also extends the operating time, as the void must be filled with carbon monoxide. On the other hand, if the load space is reduced and the vehicle is packed solid, operating time can be shortened considerably. The manufacturers told us in discussion that reducing the length of the vehicle would unbalance it. They claim the front axle would be overloaded. But, in fact, the balance is automatically restored because the merchandise during the operation displays a natural tendency to push to the rear doors and is mainly found lying there at the end of the operation, so the front axle is not overloaded.

2. The lighting must be better protected than it is now. The bulbs must be caged to prevent them being damaged. Lights could be eliminated, since it seems they are never used. However, it has been observed that while the doors are closed the load always presses hard against them as light is shut out. This is because the load naturally rushes towards the light when darkness threatens, which makes closing the doors difficult. Also, because of the alarming effect of darkness, cries always erupt when the doors are closed. Therefore light would be useful before and during the first minutes of operation.

3. For easy cleaning of the vehicle there must be a covered drain in the middle of the floor. The diameter should be 200-300 mm. It should be a drain for liquids to escape during the operation. In cleaning, the drain can serve to evacuate more solid effluvia.

The aforementioned technical changes are to be made to present vehicles only when they come in for repair. As for the 10 vehicles ordered from Saurer, these modifications should be made as experience shows their necessity.

Submitted for the decision of Gruppenfuhrer II D SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Walter Rauff.

Signed – Just.’


When an Italian friend first told me of Pasolini’s reaction to the events of 1968 in Italy, specifically the student occupations and the brutal response of the authorities – that he was “on the side of the police” – I remember how bemused I was that a Marxist could seemingly support the status quo in this way. But of course Pasolini was making a far more profound intervention than I realised, which still has power today, about the limitations of what could be called ‘the activism of gesture’. His point was that the vast majority of the middle-class students, so intoxicated with their ‘revolution’, would, ten or twenty years later, have joined the ranks of the establishment and would be exercising the very power they had critiqued before, while the working-class policemen would still be policemen, would still be relatively powerless pawns in others’ games.

Pasolini’s sensitivity to the question of where fundamental power was located runs throughout his films and his writings. His camera relentlessly challenges our gaze, deliberately discomforting us, whether witnessing the breakdown of the factory owner Paolo in Theorem or the humanity of the relationships between prostitutes in Accatone. There is something of Pasolini’s obsessive interest in this power, and how it is used and abused, in the strange and electrifying new film Heartbeat Detector by French film-makers Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Purceval. At its centre is a supposedly fictional French chemicals corporation ‘Farb’ (surely too close for comfort to the infamous, and all too real, German transnational IG Farben) and the company psychologist Simon Kessler (rivetingly portrayed by Mathieu Amalric) who is asked to assess the mental health of Farb’s chief executive, Mathias Just (an equally compelling performance by Michael Lonsdale). The sense of wound and trauma and what lies unspoken, just out of reach, dominates the film. As Just sits catatonic in the back of his Mercedes listening to Schubert, haunted by knowledge that cannot be spoken of, there are echoes of Paolo’s breakdown at the end of Theorem, and the same sense of the power of the father about to collapse, the surprisingly brittle vulnerability of authority in the face of memory. Balzac’s remark that “all successful businesses are founded on a crime” comes to mind too as the film reveals Just’s trauma… the sins of the fathers.

And then, suddenly, devastatingly inserted into the film’s fictional world, a real memorandum – from June 1942, the height of the Holocaust – is read out, from an SS officer who did exist (with hellish irony called Just…), to Obersturmbannfuhrer Walter Rauff. The memorandum concerns how to make modifications so that the Saurer trucks used as mobile gas chambers in Poland can become more effective killing machines. It is one of the most chilling documents ever written, and some may remember that documentarist Claude Lanzmann used it in its entirety in an unforgettable sequence in Shoah.

Watching that, more than 20 years ago now, changed the trajectory of my life and work, and led me to more than a decade of research into the world of the ‘schreibtischtaeter’ (a term that was first used widely in relation to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and which translates, (rather awkwardly in English) as ‘desk-perpetrator’, with the implication of ‘murderer’. This work is currently coming to fruition as a book, The Desk Killer, and focuses beyond the intentionality of murder to examine the more complicated, and politically urgent, question of distanced killing, of how organisations and the individuals within them have been able to ‘compartmentalise’, to evade responsibility for their actions – whether in the rigid bureaucracies of the Third Reich or within the complex structures of corporations today.

Returning to Pasolini’s challenge, implicit in his mockery of the ’68 students for play acting revolution, for confusing the exhilaration of the gesture with actual societal change, I sense that we need a new way of looking, that perhaps we are not yet even able to form the right questions to deal with the immense power of corporations today or the seemingly exterminist impulse of humanity in the face of climate change? But, far from feeling hopeless, there can be an exhilaration in the very process of exploring these questions, trying, like the acupuncturist’s needle, to find the precise spot.

Four years ago, in the depths of winter, I went on a research trip for The Desk Killer with a colleague from PLATFORM. We walked 4 kilometres across the town of Oswiecim (re-named ‘Auschwitz’ by the Germans), from what is probably our dominant image of the Holocaust (the museum with its ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ arch and its piles of shoes and suitcases) to a site which remains almost unknown to the wider world today – the vast chemicals complex at Dwory. This complex, originally called ‘Auschwitz III’, was constructed by IG Farben in 1941 using more than 30,000 slave labourers, housed in nine satellite camps around the perimeter. IG Farben was the second largest transnational chemicals corporation in the world at the time. Today, though not surviving as a single entity, it continues in the form of its subsidiary companies – BASF, Agfa, Hoechst and Bayer, which were de-coupled from IG Farben after the war. Primo Levi was one of the prisoners, held in the Monowitz satellite camp, immediately to the south of the ‘Buna’ chemical plant, so called because of IG Farben’s attempts, in close collaboration with the SS, to create the largest synthetic fuels factory in the world.

Yet, as we arrived at the site of Buna-Monowitz in sub-zero temperatures, we were astonished to find there is no trace of the Monowitz camp, no memorial to the tens of thousands who died here, in stark contrast to the shrine-like nature of the Auschwitz Museum. Why do certain histories remain buried? Why is it that certain realities cannot be seen yet? As writer W.G. Sebald’s narrator puts it in his bookAusterlitz, during a remarkable meditation on how we look at the past: Our concern with history… is a concern with pre-formed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.”

Heartbeat Detector opens at London’s Curzon Soho on 16th May, where there will be a special discussion with the makers, Dan Gretton and writer/critic Chris Darke.

PLATFORM present an evening of readings, film and discussion at London’s Roxy Bar and Screen on 4th June.

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