Recollections from Our Chromatic Memory: Rainbow’s Gravity

by Mareike Bernien and Kerstin Schroedinger

This text was published on the occasion of Affinities or The Weight of Cinema curated by Greg de Cuir Jr, Kevin Jerome Everson and Joanna Raczynska

MB (Mareike Bernien): For a long time, the working title of our film, Rainbow’s Gravity, was “Chromatic Memory.” It took as a starting point the fact that our own memories, imaginations, and representations of National Socialism were mainly black and white, a mode of remembering conveyed to us in various documentaries about that era—feature films and archival material, like grainy newsreels. Although film and photo material in color existed already at the beginning of the 1930s in Germany, memories of National Socialism have largely been characterized by the absence of color.[1] The unavailability of color images of National Socialism can be read as a symptom of the post-Nazi generations. They were raised with a documentary-style distance from the past, in which their familial memories were tinted just as monochromatically black and white as the images of the Holocaust and National Socialism shown on TV. Black and white created political distance from National Socialism for the post-generations, offering a kind of closure to an epoch thereby safely sealed off deep in a monochromatic past.[2]

KS (Kerstin Schroedinger): Agfacolor Neu was developed in the mid-30s in the laboratories of the Agfa company. Its production began in the Agfa film factory in Wolfen [in Germany] in 1936. Agfacolor Neu is named as one of the first subtractive single-strip (monopack) film stocks worldwide. The development of such a single-strip color film resulted from the demand for a film stock that was cheaper and less materially wasteful than its US competitor, Technicolor.[3] The Agfa material promised easier handling, suitable even for amateur use and outdoor shoots, and the first experiments in motion-picture film were made at the Summer Olympics in Berlin in 1936.[4] 

MB: For our film project Rainbow’s Gravity, we spent time in the spring of 2013 doing research in the color film collection of the Berlin Bundesfilmarchiv [Federal Film Archive]. Our research about film colors, and Agfacolor films between 1935 and 1945 specifically, quickly became a grueling undertaking at the viewing screens. “Cultural,” industrial, and educational films, various documentary material from Nazi propaganda companies, and several color feature films from the era wandered across our monitors. We saw panzers in the sunshine, children with blond braids. [Production company] UFA actor and dancer Marika Rökk reappeared again and again as if in one never-ending dance.

KS: So-called “Colourful monthly newsreels”[5] showed a portrait of youth activities before the war. We saw Hitler Youth boys training as flight controllers. Uniformed BDM [Bund Deutscher Mädel, “Band of German Maidens”] girls dance and thereby their bodies morph into ornamental structures.

MB: These were mostly positive images of daily life under Nazi rule, or kitschy feature and fantasy films that carried the viewer into other times and worlds. As fantasy films, melodramas, “culture films,” or vacation films, these color images participated in the construction of a national ensemble in which the so-called “natural colors” of the images served as a kind of refuge. Free of social antagonisms and historicity, an image of the homeland was designed in which each color appeared to have its natural place.[6] 

KS: If you watch hours of this material, as we’ve done in these visits to the German Federal Film Archives and other archives, the dullness and triteness of the footage’s colors leave their imprints on your memory. But not because of the rather boring contents of an alleged normality or even because of the studied visual absence of any form of violation or aggression. Instead, you recognize a sort of rigidity and harshness. Everything looks regulated and conformist. No one was walking; all were marching in unison.

MB: So it appears to be a fundamental paradox: despite Agfacolor film advertising itself as the first German natural film color to depict “true-to-life” reality, its mimetic and reality-giving functions were used to show a nearly fully fictionalized image of a self-contained world.[7] The promise of “true-to-nature colors” and more realistic portrayals of the world seemed to have flipped and changed into its opposite.

KS: Color could then also take on the character of a coating whose purpose was to amalgamate society with a fiction of a “whole.” Chemical colors perform precisely this kind of reified image of the human, and in so doing they reproduce a mechanically functional image of society: the Volkskörper[8] in color. However, this fiction was materialized. It did not remain merely fictional. The physical manifestations of the colors on the film stock do exist. But at the same time these films somehow projected a futuristic picture—a science fiction, one might say—into the present of their time, thereby taking part in the formation of this very present. One could see how the Nazified body should look, how it should move, how it should become part of the national body in color.

MB: Indeed, National Socialist ideology influenced not only the content of the images, but they were also deeply embedded in the materiality of the Agfacolor palette. While the concealing and reconciling functions of ideology are legible in the semiotic levels of color film, even more explicit clues about the ideological orientation of color film are visible on the material level.

KS: The industrial color film production at the Agfa factories was part of a massive German chemical industry conglomerate formed in 1925 and named IG Farben, which literally translates as “community of interests of dye industries”—IG Color. At the time, the merger made it one of the most powerful trusts worldwide. It contained such a variety of companies and product lines that they could own and control almost all of the production lines involved in the manufacture and distribution of their goods—for example, commercials for plastic products could be filmed on Agfacolor film stock. During the Nazi period the conglomerate played a major part in Germany’s policy of rearmament and in the exactions that were imposed on occupied countries.[9] IG Farben was profoundly involved in the carrying out of mass killings by the Nazi regime. The company built and ran the Buna factory in Auschwitz and exploited thousands of slave laborers in all subindustries, as well as at Agfa. Degesch, a sub-company of IG Farben, produced the nerve gas Zyklon B, which was used in the gas chambers of the extermination camps.[10] The Agfa factory in Wolfen produced all sorts of war-related products, such as synthetic silk for use in gas masks, backpacks, and parachutes. This line of goods was the backbone of the Agfa company’s contribution to war production.[11] From 1943 on, Agfa forced women from the Ravensbrück concentration camp to work in their synthetic fiber factory.[12] 

The workers were contained in the darkness of the production line. The work in the film factory did not gain visibility except in the trivial sense that the film stock was produced and used. Color film production, considered as part of IG Farben’s war production, fulfilled its duty on the home front.

MB: So, what becomes visible in these color pictures produced in the Agfa factory and what is it that we don’t see?

In our film, we chase another specific brand of red. This red carries the tone of the swastika flag, which shows up on an Agfacolor test picture from 1935, taken in the early phases of Agfacolor Neu’s development. The test picture shows two women standing next to a color board and a swastika flag.[13] Technicians used such test pictures to adjust the color range to white skin tones when assessing and experimenting with the color preferences and visual appearances of emulsion layers on the film stock. In addition to the white skin tone, it is the red of the Nazi flag that is imputed with utter significance. Its red color value was reproduced in all the color pictures to come, colorfast and without error. As an invisible reference, the red color code reproduced and re-materialized itself through all the Agfa images that followed. As we claim in our film, the Agfacolor color palette was calibrated on the red of the flag, so to speak. It is a red that dominates other reds as their benchmark: the red of poppy flowers, the red scarves upon the heads of dancing members of the Nazi Youth, and the kitschy rose at the end of Veit Harlan’s film Opfergang (1944). The color palette of 1935 impacted all these pictures and, through them, traveled through time. Thus, the same red appeared on the Soviet flag planted on the Reichstag by a triumphant Red Army soldier in the film The Fall of Berlin (1950), which was shot on Agfacolor film stock surrendered to the Soviet Union by the Germans as a form of reparation payment. The times change, but the film stock remains the same. It is used again and carries its ideological and material orientations within itself, as if a chronic remnant were embedded in the color film stock.

KS: This test picture lays out a fascist aesthetics and language that would soon spread through all the categories of footage that now form the archive of color films. Such an aesthetic is established through the tone of the colors, the repetitive use of the same signal colors—red, white, black—that together make up the Nazi flag. The color palette provides the vocabulary of film jargon: the red standard comes to measure all other tones against itself. This color jargon established the way that Nazi ideology looked and the way that it looks to us today. Their synthetic character seemed to promise implicitly an everlasting imprint. These colors would not fade. And thus the material projected into the future a thousand-year-long Reich in color.

Color—as an active part of the dissemination of Nazi ideology—had never been a neutral coproduct of the time, but had in addition its part in the activation and redistribution of what Adorno had identified as the jargon of authenticity;[14] a sort of coating of reality that served to reduce its complexity. What we see is color as a jargon. Too bright, too yellow, too brown. Obscuring the facts on the one hand, distracting from the everyday on the other. Overly cinematic and anti-cinematic at the same time: the national project color film.

MB: On June 3, 2013, our film team traveled to Wolfen, a small town south of Berlin, to visit the former lm factory there and shoot scenes for our film Rainbow’s Gravity. Around this time, rivers across central Europe were flooding, including the Mulde and Leine, which inundated the areas around the chemical park in Wolfen-Bitterfeld. Bitterfeld had to be evacuated, so our film shoot took place against a curious backdrop: the entire city was empty, the sun shone, and only a few stray guests were to be found in the film museum. The overflowing water created the illusion of being alone in this place, but also brought with its deluge a serious threat: that underground reservoirs of contaminated waste and layers of chemical deposits in the soil would be brought to the surface by the floodwaters. On the third day of shooting, the tap water already tasted unpleasantly bitter. We constantly heard sirens. Film colors are, in the material sense, poison.

KS: The Agfa film factory in Wolfen is referred to as the birthplace of single-strip, monopack color film. Throughout its history, from 1909 until it closed production in 1994, the Agfa factory in Wolfen had been a workplace for mainly female workers. The workers there were involved in so-called unskilled labor that didn’t demand great physical strength. Of course, this was a deliberate misapprehension, since the work, which took place in almost complete darkness, and involved significant exposure to toxic chemicals, was surely physically demanding and exhausting. “Operating perforating machines, operating selection machines, packing up; everything needed swift woman hands. . . . They had to have an incredible finger dexterity, yes, and I do not know if men could have done it as well.”[15] Film stock production takes place in the dark. The work itself remains invisible and in the hands of women. Drawing on Roberts (2012), “factory work has been systematically expunged from cinema,”[16] and Nazi cinema was no exception to this, although work obviously played a distinct role within the Nazi propaganda apparatus.

MB: In our film, we entered the dark rooms of the former factory in which color emulsion layers for film were produced. As we built up the lighting for our film shoot in the former factory, which had been converted into a film museum in 1993, there were hardly any visitors around. The former production rooms were empty and cold, the machines eggshell white. We turned the lights out. In the darkness, only the small green lights that had once oriented the workers in the dark were visible. It takes a very long time for the eye to adjust to the darkness, the outlines and shadows of the machines surfacing from the black. In such a state, the hands become eyes. Unlike the eyes, the camera never adjusts to the dark. It only sees the green lights; everything else is black. The camera feels its way along from green lamp to lamp in order to orient itself. This feeling out, and turning, which reminds one so much of being inside a darkened cinema, became the organizing principle of the film. Working with and in darkness means replacing the visual sense with touch. Orientation and reorientation within history then become physical acts. But feeling in the dark also poses dangers, for instance, of not seeing enough or losing one’s sense of perspective, losing sight of the “bigger picture.” This means running the risk of losing one’s safe distance, but at the same time of giving oneself over to a process of perceiving and navigating one’s entanglements in a history which continues to resonate into the present.

Film brings its material interior to the external surface. Yet at the same time, the performers bring the color pictures produced on Agfacolor film stock during the Nazi period back from the outside world into the dark rooms of the factory, projecting them onto the now-defunct machinery. Various spaces collapse into one another: the space of film production becomes the screen of a cinema, while the black box of the cinema becomes the dark room of film production.

KS: We brought the films back to where they came from, the darkness of the production line. We reprojected into a museum that was itself haunted by the past. We projected into the dark space of the production line that which was shot on the film stock, aiming to create a sort of feedback loop that would lead to a steady white noise.

In Rainbow’s Gravity, we show extracts of film footage that the audience might already know. They might have seen it in feature films and TV documentaries from the 1990s.[17] There is no new or unseen material to discover. In our film on film we rather wanted to reveal the structure of a collective archival gaze. We tried to deconstruct and fragmentize this gaze that also aims to glue together a social if not national body by means of a collective process of memorization. The footage seemed to work against us. It invited us to repeat the formal and aesthetic language of Nazi films. We had to break it apart and at the same time show the dynamics of such repetition.

MB: In our research, we examined every image by proceeding archaeologically, reconstructing their historical contexts and modes of production. The reading again(st) and tearing apart becomes an act of intervening. We edited the footage before we projected it onto the factory walls. We dismembered the images, cut and enlarged them; we reappropriated them. We colored and discolored them, froze the images and turned them into stills. We sorted them according to color and sifted out shots of marching legs, red tones, or blue sky, for instance. We attempted to expose the ideological grammar of the Agfa color palette, no longer looking at what was portrayed in these color schemes but how it was portrayed. At the same time, we wanted to restage the historical context of the images, by bringing them back to the site of their production.

KS: Such a practice to use archival footage involves a coming to terms with our own personal hopes and insecurities and as well our own biographies. An archive fever was not as easy to apply to the footage that we were looking at, since the desires to actually see all this Nazi world in color, is obviously unpleasant to look at.[18] On the contrary, any desires toward the archives were bound to an intellectual and objectivized approach. We were willing to confront ourselves with our emotional and biographical involvements, we thought to have no other way to make ourselves vulnerable in the process, yet to break through the cycles of representation.

We synthesized film sequences out of single frames. Single frames became like molecules; we were the chemists that create new substances. Being contaminated, we began to infect others. We tainted the fascist utopian concept of a purity of substances; contaminated the fascist idea of a pure national body. We couldn’t show pure visual registrations of color on film. We could only show what already had a history of being shown before. You can see contaminated images; you see the digitized scratches and tram lines. You see our bodies in the impossible attempt to escape being drenched in red, green, and blue. Too bright, too vivid. Colors burn the eyes.

MB: At the end of our film, the protagonists articulate a desire for “unreconcilable color,” a “reddish blue” or “violet yellow.” This would be neither a black-and-white nor a color image. Rather, this desire can be understood as our search for a state of non-reconciliation with the past, which thinks of the history of National Socialism as something that will never be “closed” or “finished.” Color has a mediating function in this process, as the film attempts to show the past neither in the black-and-white colors that hold the past at a distance from our colored present, nor in a colorfulness that purports to bring one closer to history and reconstruct it, as was the case with many color film compilations addressing National Socialism in the 1990s. Rather, in Rainbow’s Gravity, we wanted to show and understand how the past shines through the present in and through color.

Maybe unreconciled color has no specific texture in itself but could be considered as a practice or an attitude toward history. It would not coat history as an enclosed fact but try to infiltrate its orifices. Always willing to contaminate the very present with the past and thereby insisting on the view toward its continuities and connections. We might not find the unreconciled color as traces on the celluloid of the Agfa color images, but rather as a chemical left over and “material witness”[19] in the soil around the factory. This calls us to gravitate toward and listen to the contaminated.

KS: Color coproduces an insolubility and also non-reconciliation by seeping into the ground and into bodies as chemicality, as a toxic substance. Film colors contaminate bodies, leaving them intoxicated. A collective memory contaminated with color indicates a will to live in a state of resistance to reconciliation: a collective memory that is not afraid of color, a color consciousness that doesn’t want to control people or occupy space. By these means, and in opposition to a chromophobic narrative that places cleanliness and whiteness above the dirty and the colorful, a color-contaminated history is told. There is no cleansed ideal of history anymore; instead we stand in the middle of a colored mess of everything that ever happened. The contradictions remain unsolved. And yet, they have to remain unsolved. We still have to be affected by the colors and the feelings of closeness and distance they create in us.

This text was compiled with excerpts from Chromapolitics—On the Material, Historical, and Political Dimensions of Color in Film by Mareike Bernien (2015, PhD thesis, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna) and Film Matters—Historical and Material Considerations of Color, Movement, and Sound in Film by Kerstin Schroedinger (2016, PhD thesis, University of Westminster London).