Academic journal article Afterimage

Brecht's War Primer: The "Photo-Epigram" as Poor Monument

Academic journal article Afterimage

Brecht's War Primer: The "Photo-Epigram" as Poor Monument

Article excerpt

Kriegsfibel (literally, War Primer) is a collection of what Bertolt Brecht called "photo-epigrams"--four line verses captioning photographs clipped from newspapers and magazines. They were mainly composed during World War II, while Brecht was living in Scandinavia and the United States as an exile from Nazi Germany. Edited by his Danish collaborator, Ruth Berlau, they were finally published as a book in 1955 in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Brecht's home base from 1949 until his death in 1956. Astonishingly, an English language edition only appeared in 1998. (1) This book merits attention for two reasons: first, it represents Brecht's most sustained, practical engagement with photography and second, it was notably absent in the discussions about Brecht and photography which reached their apogee in the 1970s, in Britain at least.

The title, War Primer, deliberately recalls the textbooks used to teach elementary school children how to read. Brecht's "primer" also has a didactic function, but aims to teach visual literacy to adults. In her introductory note, Berlau challenges the idea that the meaning of a press photograph is self-evident: "The great ignorance concerning social relations, an ignorance nursed carefully and brutally by capitalism, reduces thousands of photos in illustrated journals to hieroglyphs which are undecipherable for the unsuspecting reader (2). Like an ancient hieroglyph, the press photograph is "undecipherable" for anyone who lacks the appropriate training. Brecht's book is offered, therefore, as a practical manual, demonstrating how to "read" or "translate" press photographs. At the same time, it seeks to provide some basic lessons about the nature of modern warfar.

The place and date of publication (the GDR, 1955) is significant. Attempts to publish the book in the early 1950s had run into difficulties, ultimately related to global politics. The start of the Cold War had encouraged the Soviet Union to maintain a tight grip on its satellites in Central and Eastern Europe, including the GDR. Culturally, this meant the strict imposition of Socialist Realism, and it was now reduced to a crude checklist which allowed any cultural artifact to be categorized as progressive or reactionary. Initially, War Primer posed problems for cultural inspectors. Most obviously because it does not present World War II as a modern morality tale whose conclusion confirms the superiority of the Soviet system. Yet by the mid-1950s the situation was more favorable for Brecht's book. The Cold War was not over but a temporary lessening of international tensions was discernible, registered by the meeting of Soviet and Western leaders at the Geneva Summit Conference in July, 1955. Socialist Realism was not abandoned, but it was less rigidly defined. This was the moment when the project developed in World War II could finally be published as a book.

While working on War Primer in the early 1940s, Brecht kept workbooks that also contained press photographs, including early examples of the "photo-epigrams." This material became part of the Arbeitsjournal (3), published in English as Journals 1934-1955 (4). In a rare English-language review of the original German edition, John Brady notes that Brecht appears to be using the illustrated press as raw data for the ongoing training of an epic dramatist in exile, who was deprived of a regular theater audience (5). War Primer, too, can be approached as a continuation of epic theater by other means.

The Gest

For Brecht, the gest has a restrictive and an expansive meaning. Restrictively, it refers to an approach to acting which assumes that an understanding of the world comes from the observation of human behavior. The epic actor uses gestures, but not every gesture constitutes a gest. "Only when the strutting takes place over corpses do we get the social gest of Fascism" notes Brecht (6). In other words, the gest always aims to foreground the social significance of an action. …

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