The images archived at
come from an album of Great War photographs compiled by Fritz Martin, a reserve officer serving in an observation balloon unit of the Nineteenth Uhlan Regiment. The album is at least partly a memoir in pictures, including several of tall, handsome Oberleutnant Martin in the field. It is not a war diary but a finished picture book, formatted with generous margins and captions neatly inscribed in a French script. The captions are separate from the pictures, but the pictures are affected by the script’s insistent readability. They are non-verbal, but we readers are pushed to see them verbally, as history and as history’s words.
Here, for instance, are two of them, paired on a single page. The photographs were probably taken in locations separate from each other, but authorial control has unified them under a single theme: the theme of imprisonment. All of the men here are caged within image frames, but within those frames some of the men are doubly confined. Their defining trait there is the one that’s spelled out below each picture in a caption: the difference between some soldiers in uniform and their prisoners, also in uniform.
In Europeana.eu’s rephotographed archive, a few of the images pasted onto pages like these cast shadows where they have curled up from their browned backing. Most of them don’t, however. They’re so well preserved that some of the words referring to them by means of the twentieth-century technology of blue-black ink still show fresh traces of the blue. Close to the album’s gutter, shut away for a century from light and air, those words are still capable of asking us to read them as Oberleutnant Martin’s family and friends were meant to: instructions directing us to see the photographs as windows through the page into a history on the other side. Even this late in the day, the prisoners on view through those windows need no visual aid beyond a little spiffing in Photoshop. Photoshopped, with the decay of their paper backing compensated for, they become once again immer schon a verisimilar illusion of an event with a name, a date, a place, and a history.
The lights have come back up again there, and we find ourselves staring through the paper into the imaged men’s playspace. There, perspective recedes not to a vanishing point but to a flat plane like a theatrical backdrop, and the actors downstage are elements in another, parallel plane. In that plane, the one closest to the audience, the director has taken extra trouble to individualize the actors through costuming and makeup. One prisoner in the center, for instance, is depicted wearing a conspicuously ragged tunic apparently backward. At stage right another prisoner backs away from the group with a John Wilkes Booth glower, and next to him, for contrast, stands a dead ringer for Ben Turpin, crosseyed star of American silent comedy. Directors of silents didn’t have to worry about language barriers, of course, so in this silent the prisoners and their guards have all been choreographed to count and lunge on the same beat. The planes continue all the way upstage. Then grow some tall, graceful art nouveau trees, and the picture reaches its end.
And we have been freed to turn the page. Through what we thought was a hole in the page we saw a performance featuring men and trees and light, but it was a performance never not under the control of a script written on the page itself. Having been written on the page, it became part of the page’s history, and the subject of that history is to write itself not through our lives but through the prisoners’. In translation, the script reads, “December 1915.” Translation transports it to us across the language barrier, but in the process it communicates the news that an impenetrable fourth wall has erected itself between the action in the playspace and us spectators in the space of reading. It is a wall made of history.
But history builds itself serially, week by week or epoch by epoch. Except in the kiddie matinee’s playspace, it is impossible to anticipate when or whether the “The End” will come.
Consider, for instance, this episode in the historical record for September 11, 1915. It comes to us under a title: “A Free-Balloon Flight.”
The balloon was a German warcraft and it bore a dignified German name, Chemnitz. In retrospect, the reverent thought that went into that christening has acquired a tinge of comical pomposity, for the balloon was directed on its course across the sky only by a few shouting men in a wicker basket. The city of Chemnitz, likewise, underwent what looked like an evolutionary step forward when it was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt, but after the contemptuous erasure from history of the pompously named German Democratic Republic it quietly reverted. But one pictured part of the story of the balloon has proved resistant to erasure.
There it is, yes: the name Lt. Kohn. The face attached to the name is up in the rigging, and it seems to be illustrative. It looks, as Germans began suggesting on more and more of the days that serially succeeded this voyage, Jewish.
We might think of that additional information as an erratum slip tipped into the album. The album is a creature of 1915, but because its compiler followed the procedure for registering himself in literary history as an author, his phrase “Lt. Kohn” has become a literary text. Henceforth (or, as they say in the stories, “forever after”) it will immer schon be subject to revised readings, issuing serially. Unlike the image, it will have broken through the fourth wall and floated free in the direction of a never to be reached final meaning.