I had a conversation recently with a photo student, who wants to do a work on some Stasi related issue. She was mentioning to me, that she was planning on taking pictures in a former Stasi prison in Berlin. Since the Wall came down, this has been turned into a museum. When asked why, she said something about the authenticity of this place and quoted some people that had been imprisoned there saying something like “the smell is very special and authentic, the real smell the place had back then”. To that I say: bullshit.
The wall came down 28 years ago and the prison was closed shortly after. No smell in the world lingers on for that long. No matter what chemicals would constitute the smell, their composition would change over time and therefore the smell would certainly not be “the same” as thirty years ago. Plus, back then, the building was in use. People worked their every day and other people were forced to live in this very building. We all have experienced that the smell of our apartment seems to change, while we were on vacation for a week or two. It might be that the smell did not change, but our perception of it has, but in the long run, we certainly play a role in the olfactory composition of the place we live and work in.
I am not that interested in the mechanics of smells, rather the way this student was talking did remind me of a general issue I am having with the culture of memory.
We tend to expect of certain places of historical importance, to give away part of their story through their outside appearance. A terrible place needs to look devastating to fully trigger our moral switches, and a bad scent certainly helps in this regard. The more devastating a place looks, the more devastating a place it must have been back then. I guess, this can easily become a feedback loop.
When talking to the student, I asked her, what the place looks like right now. I have been there twice myself, but I wanted to hear it from her. Of course, everything looks grey, there are cracks in the plaster on the wall and in some places chunks have fallen off, the furniture looks very outdated, the bathroom fixtures were terrible. How is this authentic? I am quite sure that back, when the prison was still operational, the paint would have been much fresher, cracks in the wall would have been taken care of, and both the furniture and the bathroom fixtures were quite close to what people had at home.
I am not saying that back then this place wouldn’t have been a terrible place to be imprisoned. I am trying to make the point that a place does not need to look terrible to be terrible. Take Auschwitz for instance – just as a thought experiment. There was a time – maybe a very short one, but still – when the barracks were brand new. Maybe they even smelled of fresh sawn lumber, the paint was fresh and maybe the trees outside were in full bloom. Auschwitz at such a moment was as much of a terrible place as Auschwitz at the time the Red Army liberated the place. But it does not really fit our mental image.
Now, when these places – Auschwitz and the prison in Hohenschönhausen – are preserved for the future, much care is taken to preserve the general spirit of the place. But what spirit might that be? I guess it is the spirit we expect to find. If the decision is made to do some work on the place to preserve it for the future, this work is one of restoration, rather than renovation. But wouldn’t a place like the Stasi prison be better off with a fresh coat of paint, that aims to set the place back in time by 20 years, rather than a careful touch-up of the weathered paint that has come to represent the grey image we expect?
This also reflects in movies that try to show the terrors present at these places. To me, this seems quite natural. A location scout is sent to document the place, the movie is going to depict. He or she finds it in a carefully preserved state of despair and comes back with a set of images that depict precisely that. This material then is given to set designers to replicate. If a movie-goer, after seeing the film, visits such a place, the images encountered in the movie tells what the place needs to represent to “feel” real. This is a circle.
A similar thing can be seen in the depiction of inmates. Of course, places like Auschwitz did provide a terrible sight and starvation and murder were rampant and these things did take a toll on the inmates. But there might have been many people suffering, where this did not present itself in a similar fashion on the outside. Well-fed people with clean clothes and tidy faces can be killed and traumatized as well.
I believe that this isn’t merely a question of aesthetics, but this carries with it real life consequences. We may have reached the point, where we distrust a place or situation to be terrible, if it does not appear the way we expect these things to appear. During the current refugee crisis, politicians took the stage pointing out that many of the refugees carried smartphones and had nice clothes. The logic behind that seemed to be that only those in rags with dirty faces could be the ones that had an excuse to flee their countries. Surely, a nice-looking environment cannot be filled with trauma. Right?
This might exactly be the point the US government was aiming for, when creating the new housing at for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Many of the images coming out of this place, look more like a very clean hospital, than a place we’d associate with torture. This is not done by accident, but our expectation that terrible places look a certain way, makes it very easy to fool us. And just because a camp for refugees is made to look nice, does not mean that it isn’t a terrible place.
But back to the smell at Hohenschönhausen prison. I find it fascinating that not just we, the spectators, fall for this trap. But even people who had been imprisoned there alter their memories over time. That way, the place is going to look more and more like the place should look like to suit the terrible things that took place there. I wonder though, how much the growing despair in the outside appearance, is going to influence the way the stories of despair are told – and maybe even the way they are remembered?