Letter to Iris Gusner

Title Image 01: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010, reconstructed colour still, (c) DEFA Stiftung 

Dear Iris Gusner – 

may I take the liberty to write you a letter via the way of an internet-blog?* I hope, you don’t mind this format, which takes distance from the ultimate manifestation into a printed matter. If anything, it flirts with the intimacy of a diary as an instrument for distancing yourself from what you think, without losing consciousness for the necessity of its public appearance. It is a kind of momentary exposure (soon covered by a further entry in this blog); a space for thought-propositions that wish to move further on. In short, it seems at this moment a good space, somewhat between private and public, to send you a delayed reflection on the question “What do you expect from the year 2000?” that the student Daniel poses in your film Die Taube auf dem Dach? It is your first feature film that you produced in 1973 a few years after your return from studying film at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow to Berlin-East. After the film’s official disapproval by the direction of the DEFA (the state-owned film studio in the German Democratic Republic, under which you worked at that time), it disappeared; and it was re-constructed for public release only in 2009.

Image 02: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. Sequence before the film's title appears. (c) DEFA Stiftung

The delayed reflection, if you allowed, comes with a few constrains:

Instead of undertaking a journalistic inquiry into your film education in Moscow as the only film student from the GDR of the year 1961 (even though this remains extremely interesting) … 

Instead of aiming to deliver a theoretical analysis of your film …  

Instead of reasoning this letter on a certain intergenerational link between you and me who both happened to live physically and psychologically through the existence of real-existing socialism and GDR (you much more than me) ... 

Instead of spectacularizing the release of your film after 37 years as a great discovery for a curator in the field of contemporary art … 

Instead of any desire to celebrate a past figure of real-existing socialism, or even the GDR (far from this) … 

Instead of making my thoughts immobile due to my true admiration for your work (while you’ve raised two children) … 

Instead of all this, I prefer to take us to a particular room in Die Taube auf dem Dach. This room is located in the construction worker’s dormitory where Daniel stays during his vacation work. He is going to work for the implementation of new housing blocs somewhere in the South of the GDR; he shares a small flat with Kerim who is a Palestinian student from Lebanon working in the same brigade. It is very light outside, seemingly a day in early Summer. 

Image 03: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. Sequence with Daniel and Kerim: Daniel got pretty drunk, and he just has climbed up a building crane to jump from it but Kerim convinces him that this is not a good idea. (c) DEFA Stiftung

At his arrival in the dormitory’s room, Daniel’s first thing to do is to mount a A1-large map of stellar constellations and galaxies on the wall – as if he was an artist knowing well what he wants to show – next to two photographic reprints of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and a poster saying ‘Palestine’ on it. Kerim installed them when he arrived in this room before. The act of installing is a minor thing, not important and takes place almost as background noise in relation to the major plot of the film. Also, Kerim’s mounted pieces could easily be overlooked, although, Daniel looks carefully to the poster and examines the wall before he decides on the location for his map. Considering the fact that Daniel stays in this room only for the few months of the university’s summer vacation puts a specific weight on this unfolded map, which reads on the top ‘THE HEAVENS’ with several detailed schemes of the nocturnal sky underneath. In order to remind us on Kerim’s images, let me describe them briefly: The poster has ‘palestine’ in large letters on the top and underneath a drawing-design that seems to consist of a rose signifying the power to break a manifest ground. Its motif is one of many that read as a visual metaphor for breaking through the politics of Occupation and militarization by the Israeli government. 

Image 04: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. Sequence with the photograph which Kerim obviously mounted on the wall of the dormitory's room that he shares with Daniel. The sequence 'portrays' a photograph that shows a situation in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. In this sequence, the photograph turns into an image as another character in the feature film. (c) DEFA Stiftung

One photograph, close to Daniel’s stellar map, shows a small group of children in a refugee camp looking at someone or something that arrives from the left; it is difficult to decipher because Daniel’s body covers it while he considers to hang his piece. The other photograph enjoys a special attention in your film: it also shows a situation in a refugee camp again, where you see tents in the back, and more than a dozen sitting children except of one girl of perhaps 9 years who stands and seems to wait, or wish to protect her seemingly younger fellows, or feels responsibility, or had been called to stand up. This image will be portrayed in a later sequence of your film as if it was another character in the film. The close-up remembers me of a technique in documentary films when film footage is missing and a still image is animated by moving slowly over its surface from one detail to the other; as if you scanned the relations between the various scenes in the image for our eyes. Kerim begins to talk about the feeling of homesickness, his family and his love that he misses so much. The feeling of being alienated in an environment, that is not his home, he later compensates when he is with his brigade on the construction site and speaks Arabic for himself, without anyone around who understands him. 

Image 05: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. Detail of image 04  (cropped image taken from a screenshot). (c) DEFA Stiftung

The focus on this particular sequence in this room is taken for a simple reason. It responds to a concern that is posed by you as a filmmaker already, but also reoccurs in my own research and many further projects nowadays that wish to understand: what is the role of the image for enacting solidarity crossing borders? I know, that you are sceptical about the concept of solidarity for the reason of its ideological abuse during the period of the Cold War amidst state-socialism. Or, as you wrote in an interview with Ralf Schenk that ‘Showing solidarity had become a bureaucratic act; the monthly “solidarity contribution,” which was automatically deducted from your wages, fulfilled your obligation without your having to think about the meaning of it.’ This is interesting. Because, ‘bureaucracy’ is exactly also one reason which the British bogger Mark Fisher introduces to explain why capitalism is not just an economic system anymore (he published his book shortly after the financial collapse on global scale in 2008), but why it turned into a ‘psychic condition.’ Any production of images and words today emerges and feeds from this ‘psychic condition’ and ultimately feed back into its circuit on global scale. It creates a contemporary version of Capitalist Realism that perpetually promotes, particularly after 2008, safety nets to make us believe that ‘we’ are secure. Of course, we have to ask who is this ‘we’ that includes while excludes at the same time. Who is this ‘we’ when I speak from the position of writing this very letter at hand that wishes to create a relation between a filmmaker/writer and an exhibition-maker/writer who both currently live in Berlin, but enjoyed education primarily in East-/Germany, in Moscow (you) and London (me) across system protocols, system collapses, and while travelling. It is difficult, whatsoever, to come up with a precise geography that could locate the figure of the ‘we.’ 

Image 06: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. Sequence of the situation in the dormitory's room when Daniel mounts his map onto the wall, the map called THE HEAVENS showing stellar constellations. (c) DEFA Stiftung

At this point, it seems crucial to add a note: I hope, my letter does not make you feel abused or picked apart. Such a reaction seemingly might be impossible to avoid, because my letter takes your name as the addressee. And perhaps, the format that I have chosen is not the right one, or my thoughts are formulated in a convoluted manner or bad way. All this reflection gives reason to say that my letter does not address you personally. I am also writing you this letter not as a personal note per se. This letter departs from an exhibition maker in the field of contemporary art, who is concerned with the ultimate potential of making things public in times when globalization is the new buzzword but also living condition; and who hopes to learn from the encounter in the worker-dormitory’s room, which stretches the gestures of exhibiting (mounting images on the wall) into a semi-public space. In other words, my reflections do not address the person Iris Gusner, who has talked about Die Taube auf dem Dach already many times, but the filmmaker, who created the figure of Daniel sharing living space with Kerim during the work at a construction site. However, the two faces of existence – private life and intellectual labour – cannot be separated certainly entirely as your film proposes already. 

The question of solidarity walks through the entire length of Die Taube auf dem Dach, exemplified in the moment when Daniel and Kerim come to terms to share the worker-dormitory’s room together. 

Image 06: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. Sequence again in the dormitary's room shortly after Daniel's arrival there. (c) DEFA Stiftung

In short, I would like to use this moment in your film when Daniel mounts this map on the wall in order to arrive in 1973 today, jumping through time and disrupting any sense of chronological temporality. Perhaps, the arrival takes place even earlier, namely, in Moscow between 1961 and 1968 while you were studying and made friends with students from India, Japan, Iraq, and Vietnam as you wrote in your book with Helke Sander. Internationality had been a working condition for you as a result from the official delegation systems of state-ideologies in real-existing socialism that stood in contrast with the informality of social relations and student life. In other words, I suggest to connect my reflection to this cinematic moment of a workers’ dormitory room with the psycho-affective consequences of solidarity that locates its promises to working and living condition below the possession of the state. These two sides of solidarity – the official and the psycho-affective – are permanently in conflict with one and another, at least, this is the way how I understand your questioning of solidarity. At the same time, the impact of ideas of solidarity into aspects of life, intellectuality and work cannot exist without its official structures, as one learns from biographies like yours. (By the way: While you studied at the VGIK, did you meet or hear of the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, who studied in Moscow between 1961 and 1962 at the Maxim Gorki Film Studio? Or had you been working together with Souleymane Cissé from Mali, who – in fact – studied between 1963 and 1969 at the VGIK as well?) 

Image 07: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. (c) DEFA Stiftung

The moment in the room of the workers-dormitory, when Daniel mounts his map of ‘THE HEAVENS’ on the wall next to Kerim’s images of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, comes with so many proposals that makes me think to link it with today’s ambitions in making something public with the hope to enact solidarity, e.g., with people in struggle, ‘zones in conflict,’ revolutionary movements elsewhere, under-represented groups, social riots, and so on. All topics, which the field of contemporary art has been favouring during the last one or two decades anew. Let me try to list briefly the essential elements that link the role of the image (in its multiple formations, i.e., photograph, poster, diagram, film) with a concept of solidarity, without claiming to define what ‘solidarity’ should look like (I take up your critical point when you said ‘showing solidarity had become a bureaucratic act’): 

 The images are not just images. The images do not serve as an evidence of truth. The images are not voiced-over. The images cease to be single stills.  The images exceed into social relations. The images open up a space (for Kerim to speak about Beirut, for Daniel to complain about work).  The images link the domestic space with political problems.   … 

Image 08: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. Sequence when Kerim talks about Raouché in Beirut, which is a rocket at the city's seaside from which those who are wretchedly in love throw themselves to the sea. Kerim is framed in the back by the photograph of a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. (c) DEFA Stiftung

It needs much more to elaborate on these elements. The more I think about the spatiality that your film proposes, the more it reveals the limits to enact solidarity. For example, Iris, I wonder why you have choosen the map of the outer space for Daniel and the photograph showing children in a refugee camp for Kerim? Why did you portray Daniel along the prospect to imagine a future, concretely 'the year 2000,' when he imagines to be able to work under the conditions which he requests throughout the film? And why did you portray Kerim with an image that has become a stereotype for a people suffering from Occupation? The photograph for Kerim does not do anything for the people. It is difficult for me to see this image as an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians because it is an empty signifier of the actual situation of people living in the camps; it rather almost supports the danger to turn the people of the Palestine into an object that appears on public display, exposed to the foreigner's pitying gaze. It seems as if this photograph was taken for the foreiger's gaze for the sake to evoke a pity, which is a strange and somewhat dangerous condition for enacting solidarity. But, Iris, the early 1970s had been a period of the 'militant cinema' in Palestine, which actively aimed to invent a visual grammar for the people by the people. The possibilty for such type of cinema provided the same motivation for filmmakers like Ousmane Sembene to study film, for which he came to Moscow. The only detail that I ought to add in defense of your choice for this image is the standing girl whose upright posture makes me imagining strength and resistance, not only against the state of Occupation but also against the viewer's gaze. 

Image 08: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. Kerim and Daniel prepare the table for something to eat together. (c) DEFA Stiftung

For now, however, we can realize through this particular spatiality, enacted by cinematic means, that a film can provide a practical response to the question of solidarity. It takes place in the background, in quotidian life, outside of public stages, in a dormitory room. It takes place with a camera that looks for relations in time and in geographies; that suggests a connection between you and me; and takes place without shouting big slogans and request ‘the’ political action. That needs, finally, the break-down of structures that seek to secure the grounds on which solidarity is announced. It totally exceeds the frame of a single image, but needs its presence in order to conceive a spatio-geographic distance, which collapses into the proximity of a cinematic space. I truly wish this to happen in the public moment of an exhibition as well. 

After all, I am not sure whether I even touched the possibility to provide a response to Daniel’s question. But a response is not necessarily an answer, and must arrive always delayed in the measurement of time. 

Dear Iris Gusner, thank you for reading these lines. 


All best wishes –

Doreen Mende 

Berlin, December 23, 2013


 P.S. The first time, that I saw your film, was in a fantastic screening-workshop at the Summer Film Institute (SFI) in Northhampton during the heatwave in 2011, conceived by Barton Byg and Sky Arndt-Briggs. It immediately reminded me on Franziska Linkerhand by Brigitte Reimann, who worked on her novel for ten years before it was published posthumously in 1974. Hence, you could have known it and I was sure to find a link to Franziska Linkerhand in your ‘biografisches Zwiegespräch’ with Helke Sander when you describe the trouble to realize Die Taube auf dem Dach. But I was surprised indeed that Reimann’s novel obviously was not mentioned in any reflections on your film at all. Did you know about Franziska Linkerhand while making your film?

 P.P.S. I also should mention that my letter to you borrows few conceptual ideas how to link image with text from the film Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still (1972) by the Dziga Vertov Group; and it also borrows the promises from the essay-film collapsing any concept of linear chronology in history, which I learned to understand through many films of The Otolith Group in London, and particularly the idea of ‘Afrofuturism’ suggested by Kodwo Eshun in his book More Brilliant Than The Sun

 * This letter is the fifth entry in a blog. I’ve framed the blog-project under a quote by Jean Genet: ‘Put all the images in language in a place of safety and make use of them, for they are in the desert, and it’s in the desert we must go and look for them.’ My letter to you considers your film Die Taube auf dem Dach as a desert, whose spatiality I propose to understand as an archive of images (and images in language) from which to chose while watching and hearing in order to make use them. However, a concrete reason to link you with Genet also lies in the fact, that Genet’s sentence is taken from top of the manuscript of the final proofs of his book Un Captif Amoureux that reflects on his support for the Palestinians and Black Panthers. As far as I know, you are the only filmmaker from the GDR that addresses the geopolitical entanglements between the Arab world in the Middle East and (socialist) Europe through the format of the feature film, including the problems with the concept of solidarity. 

Image 09: Iris Gusner, Die Taube auf dem Dach, 1973/2010. Sequence in the office of Linda, who is an engineer / architect and responsible for the coordination of a construction side of new housing blocs. Linda is one the phone (right) and next to her a working partner plus Angela Davis in the back. (c) DEFA Stiftung