Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Peter Nestler's Death and Devil (2009) is available to watch on MUBI from August 2 - September 1, 2017 in most countries around the world as part of the retrospective A Vision of Resistance.
Death and Devil (2009) holds a special place in the filmography of Peter Nestler, marking an intriguing crossroads. Nestler’s work is strongly associated with filmmakers including Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, Alexander Kluge, and Harun Farocki. Like them, he is primarily concerned with history and politics, intent on unveiling the traces of fascism, documenting the processes of the industrialization of cities, and narrating the conditions and struggles of laborers.
But here, Nestler turns his gaze to something more immediately personal: his grandfather, Count Eric von Rosen (1879-1948), a celebrated explorer, ethnographer, and archaeologist. The film seemingly presents itself as a linear biography, giving special importance to an African expedition (1911-1912) that takes up 30 of its 54 minutes. By delving into the man’s contradictory personality, Nestler examines von Rosen’s fascination with primitive cultures, his direct ties with Nazism via his friendship and kinship with Hermann Göring (leading member of the Nazi party, founder of the Gestapo, and pivotal figure in Hitler’s rise to power), and the more indirect but equally important, deeply rooted traces of his motivating ideology, long before it openly manifested itself.
Nestler has said that he was reluctant to make a film about his grandfather (“his path along the abyss gave me an eerie feeling”), but the weight and power of the existing materials convinced him. Von Rosen not only wrote scientific books and anthropological studies, but also documented all his trips with photographs and diary annotations. He made amateur movies, collected objects and utensils from native populations, and wrote political commentaries for the press. Only one scene—showing the unboxing of animal pelts that von Rosen had donated to the Swedish Museum of Ethnography—was shot by Nestler himself. Death and Devil is mainly composed of the visual and written material gathered by von Rosen and his friend, the botanist Robert Fries (1876-1966).
If the richness of all these pre-existing, archival materials constitutes one of the most remarkable aspects of Death and Devil, it is the careful organization and thorough examination carried out by Nestler that makes this documentary great. One of the central questions posed by the filmmaker is: what does it mean to document? This problem is first posed in relation to von Rosen’s anthropological work. On several occasions, Nestler points to how his grandfather did actually capture, in images, the traces of atrocities committed upon an indigenous population. However, by choosing not to comment on these traces, he failed to properly document the situation; by only partially describing what he saw, he falsified its true nature.
At Kimberley, von Rosen visited a De Beers diamond mine; in a particularly strong entry of his diary, he recounted the nightmare he experienced and the living hell he witnessed with his own eyes—but ended up crossing out this passage. As the film advances and such examples keep piling up, we come to understand that the work of this famous ethnographer (“rich in precise observations, photos, and detailed drawings”) was also built on a particular type of blindness: the repression, obliteration, and negation imposed by his own, underlying world-view.
Nestler then transposes this knotty problematic of documentation to his own film. One recurring strategy involves constantly shifting the respective functions assigned to image and voice. Sometimes it’s Nestler’s voice that takes the lead, while the pictures accompany, supplement, or stand as proof of the spoken narrative. At other times, several photographs are presented as if perusing the pages of an album; here, the voice (representing von Rosen’s written captions) merely refers to the images, giving us spare, contextual information, just designating or cataloging what we see. By means of this constant shifting, Nestler exposes us to different regimes of documentation; we slowly become aware of the different effects each one has on our perception.
Such voice/image relations have informed Nestler’s documentary approach from the start of his career. In his first short, By the Dike Sluice (1962), the portrait of a seaside village is juxtaposed with the imaginary narration of an old dike sluice—the effect is reminiscent of the ferocious, maritime poetry of Jean Epstein’s films. In Essays (1963), kids diligently read their school essays over images of their daily life, creating an unusually concrete lyricism. Death and Devil presents an intriguing dispositif: the central narration, performed by Nestler himself, is interwoven with passages from von Rosen’s and Fries’s diaries, read by two other male voices. This three-way chorus enacts an inspection of the past’s traces in present time—or, more strongly, a veritable retracing of them. The explorers’ remarks and observations are telling when placed alongside, and confronted with, Nestler’s inquiry.
Free of flourishes and dramatic effects, Nestler’s own commentary mirrors his attitude as a filmmaker. His narration is defined by a directness and precision that render his critical input even sharper. He picks his words carefully. His fascination with the visual materials can never be mistaken for a fascination with the grandfather himself. There’s no allure in the figure of the explorer, no psychologizing of the man’s contradictions. Nestler unveils the ethnographer’s itinerary while being fair to the man’s passions, qualities, and sensibility, but never misses an opportunity to signal the social structures and historical configurations in which that itinerary is rooted.
In the introduction, Nestler presents von Rosen as follows: “He wanted to be like them [the Sami people and the Indians], a talented hunter who scoffs at death. As a hobby, he reached his goal, but he was not willing to give his land and castle for it.” Later, he defines the home movies shot at the family’s Rockelstad Palace (bought by his grandfather before finishing high school) as “a self-portrayal of Eric von Rosen, his family and his wealth.” Afterwards, in this very same footage, we see a group of ten servants parading in front of the camera. A relation is deftly established.
This is one of the strategies by which Nestler underlines what he sees as essential. Sometimes, he’ll make a historical relation in the form of a direct statement (the genocide in the Belgian Congo compared to the Nazi genocide) but, most often, he indicates, suggests, and halts, letting us complete the links with our own historical memories, knowledge, or research: the measurements carried out by biologists and anthropologists on indigenous people (and the rise of eugenics as a justification for racial policies during Nazism); the fence of a diamond mine in Kimberley (and the fences of the concentration camps); the Swastika as a symbol used by native cultures and adopted by von Rosen as a personal emblem (it will later become the Nazi insignia).
One of the few overt manipulations Nestler performs on the archival images consists of zooming, panning across, or cutting into certain details: the zebra tail used by a black man to protect a British officer from bothersome flies; the hippopotamus whip carried by a village’s chief to punish their men; the amputated hands of persecuted natives… By making these details pop out of the general panoramas, they become revelatory. Nestler’s method, characterized by this restraint or measure, exempt of any sentimentality, becomes, paradoxically, the source of a very particular emotion. Through the tension and attention that he imposes on us, these traces begin speaking to each other.
The Gröning-von Rosen connection—which is, a priori, one of the juiciest, most sensational aspects of the Count’s biography—is tackled with extreme concision by Nestler. Over a photo of the five Flock sisters, the director zooms in, identifying Mary (von Rosen’s wife) and Karin (who would become Gröning’s second wife). Nestler’s clear intentions prevent Death and Devil from becoming a family melodrama or confessional exposé. In fact, by making a biography that transcends the figure of the grandfather, Nestler faces the crossroads posed by this kind of personal project. In von Rosen’s story, in his contradictory personality, we can sense echoes both of the tales of early adventurer-explorers, and also of the last days of Nazis once confronted with their horrendous acts.
But, thanks to Nestler, we come to understand those other stories from a different perspective: avoiding both the epic spectacle and voyeuristic fascination of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) or James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2016), and the intimate coming-to-terms, expiation tales of Costa-Gavras’s Music Box (1989) or Jerry Schatzberg’s Reunion (1989). Death and Devil is the necessary, darker reverse shot of all those films: it doesn’t tell an isolated story, but uses this story to triggers links with History.
In the final part of the documentary, Nestler explains how, at the end of his life, von Rosen distanced himself from Mussolini, after his son related the atrocities he had witnessed in Ethiopia. And, after the Nazi invasion of the former Czechoslovakia, von Rosen burned all of Gröning’s gifts in his courtyard. In another example of Nestler’s succinct critique, he comments: “A private, not public protest.” And his last words before announcing the death of von Rosen are: “He kept quiet.”