Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
Four Parts of a Folding Screen is part of the GRAMNet/BEMIS Film Series 2019/2020. The screening takes place on 22 January 2020, from 6pm at CCA Glasgow followed by a conversation with the filmmakers.
Directors’ Note: Anthea Kennedy and Ian Wiblin
The starting point for our film, Four Parts of a Folding Screen, was a friend’s discovery, in Berlin archives, of a number of documents. These related to the Koch family, Jews from Berlin who emigrated to London to escape Nazi oppression. The most revealing of the documents was an inventory from an auction of household objects that occurred in 1941. The lots on offer, generally ordinary family possessions of no great financial value such as kitchenware, linen and furniture, were itemised along with their price, the names of buyers and sometimes their addresses. These things belonged to the Koch family who had put the contents of their house into storage to be sent at a later date to London by a removals company. However, they never arrived – everything had been stolen by the Nazi regime and then sold by auction to members of the public. The money raised went to the German war effort. Thousands of similar sales of the possessions of ‘non- Aryans’ took place all over Germany and beyond, thus raising large sums of money for the war.
Since she was the last of the family to leave Germany, it was Nellie Koch (in fact the grandmother of Anthea) who tried to organise and save their property and their possessions. Hence the film deals in part with her personal experiences of selling the family house, forcibly depositing her jewellery with the state pawnbroker and enduring imprisonment shortly before her departure to London. We also explore the mechanisms used by the Nazi regime which enabled it to confiscate her property after her emigration. Once abroad, she became the victim of a system which brought together the powers of the secret police with those of the bureaucrats who worked at the Finanzamt (revenue office). Firstly, her citizenship was taken away from her because she had emigrated. This applied to all ‘non-Aryans’ who had left Germany, including those deported to camps. Being stateless meant she lost all her rights, including the right to own property. Thus her possessions and those of her family became the property of the state. The local revenue office then organised an auction to dispose of these goods.
As well as tracing the experiences of Nellie Koch, we also wanted to follow the paths of the objects sold. We began by researching and filming the places in Berlin where many of the buyers of these things had lived, as reported in the auction inventory. Street names had often been changed and many places listed had, as we discovered, either been bombed or otherwise destroyed. Nevertheless, we filmed whatever building we found at the addresses listed, even if that was no building at all. We used Berlin telephone books of the time to double check addresses – sometimes the handwriting in the inventory was difficult to read, for example. These books also listed the occupations of residents, enabling us to find out more about those who had bought the objects. These people are named in the film, not particularly to shame them, although it was common knowledge that these objects had belonged to ‘non-Aryans’ – auctions were often advertised in local papers as offering ‘non-Aryan’ possessions. The idea was more to convey a sense of the auctioned objects being spread around the city, creating a diaspora of things. By tracing these objects to specific locations, we have mapped sections of Berlin, thus creating an alternative and minimal ‘city symphony’ film.
The many locations used in the film, either sites of bureaucracy or homes of auction bidders, are often shot in close up so that parts and details of buildings are revealed rather than a sense of local geography. Although we filmed in different areas of Berlin, there are no panoramic shots or easily recognisable or familiar places. Space in the film is fragmented, the shots often concealing as much as they reveal, allowing the audience room to imagine what might be beyond the frame.
We have used sound to create a space outside the frame. We recorded sounds separately from the images to produce a strongly atmospheric soundtrack that often alludes to or hints at activities occurring off screen. We were also interested in using the different elements of the soundtrack to create rhythms that would work together with the images and with the editing.
Music also occurs in our soundtrack but it has been sparingly used – a few bars of Schoenberg piano music as a rhythmical punctuating device rather than as film music per se. The violinist and composer, Alexander Balanescu, created some drumming sounds for the film which are laid over specific sequences of shots of objects. These sounds could suggest a sense of ominous expectation, a feeling of foreboding.
The dominant sound in the film is that of a female voice that narrates the events described earlier. The voice is neither that of an impartial narrator nor of Nellie Koch. The voice speaks in the second person and in the present tense, creating ambiguity in terms of who is speaking and who is being addressed. This has the effect of disconnecting the events described from individual circumstance and simultaneously suggesting their continuing relevance in the modern world. Time is conflated and confused – at various points in the film, through the content of the voice, past and present are freely mixed together. In fact, Nellie Koch is not identified in the film at all – her name is written on a couple of documents that appear in the film but it is never mentioned in the narration. This makes her more of an anonymous woman and less of a distinct individual, further enhancing the feeling that such events could happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Our film was made over a period of about three years with several shooting and sound recording periods in Berlin. After each period of shooting, we would edit our material and simultaneously work on developing the ideas. We began the editing process without using any sound at all – at this point we were interested in creating rhythms from sequences of shots rather than focusing on a narrative order. The archival documents helped us to work out a chronology and a structure for the film. The voice over was not written until we had done most of the editing, although of course we had ideas for its content quite early on in our working process. Writing the voice took a long time since its form is quite experimental and we were concerned that it should work rhythmically with (or against) the editing. We are not musicians but our films often relate to musical form, with the use of repetition and a strong focus on rhythm in both image and sound.
Although the film uses documentary evidence and sticks as closely as possible to the facts we uncovered in our research, we feel it is also a work of fiction, a construction, a work of imagination. Whilst it is dealing with a set of events from a specific past, our approach has been to emphasise the present in both image and sound. We have tried in our film to convey the feeling that these events, rescued from the past, also resonate with other similar events, both historical and contemporary.
Read more about the film here and watch the trailer: