When we buried my grandmother’s ashes two months ago, my four-year-old niece asked my sister how it was possible to fit grandma into a baking oven. The entire ceremony, though a sad farewell, opened my eyes to the absurdities that we face when it comes to death. Or rather, to how death seems to be the last great taboo in the society in which I grew up.
Thomas Heise’s new astonishing film, Gegenwart, is a documentary about a crematorium in the Rhineland. It is not a film about how a society deals with death, but rather a survey into its business and the everyday experiences of the people who work in it. It has no dialogue or commentary and, instead, observes through the eyes of the cameraman, Robert Nickolaus. Gegenwart enters an obscure world with eyes wide open – surprised and fascinated, eager to observe and eager to learn. Heise approaches his subject with the curiosity of a child and the focus of an adult.
Once you discover that what is occurring is a systematic burning of dead bodies to turn them into ashes, each of the many small details of the film acquire new meaning. It starts with the name of the area, Dachsenhausen (!) and a worker who climbs into the cold oven to adjust a fixture with mortar and stone. The camera eye lingers on the shaved head of a man at work. When we see that he is wearing a shirt by Thor Steinar, the film evokes Nazi Germany, old and new. Yet there is not a clear message here; in fact, there is no obvious message in this film, not even a statement. Instead Heise opens up a space for reflexion that you as the audience are asked to fill with your own ideas. It appeared to me that many of the old bodies, which the camera allows us to see shortly, must have lived through the Third Reich and are now gone forever. The past is always in the present, the present, die Gegenwart, must always remember the past.
This transition from present to past is portrayed as a business here, not as a metaphysical experience. We see a team of cleaners wipe the floors and clean the doors and there is something almost morbid about this scene because the dirt they collect contains some remains of the people that were burnt there. When another employee breaks the metal coffin handles in preparing for a cremation (because no metal objects must enter the oven), you start thinking that death and the entire funeral business consists of selling the symbolic, not the practical.
The longer you watch the routines of that crematorium, the more common this workplace becomes. The big taboo, death, becomes normalized throughout the film and the deep social and emotional fear towards dealing with it becomes negligible. Hands press a button and a coffin goes into the oven, while other hands press a button and coffee pours from the machine. One person breaks open the lid of the coffin and looks at the corpse, another hand opens the lid of the biscuit jar and reaches for the selection of cookies.
The film leads us to understand that death is yet another system we are part of. The images of tables and computer diagrams are proof of a system of efficient operations and well-planned processing. Everything has its place in the workflow and its product is our ashes.
One day, when my niece is old enough, I will show her this film and discuss it with her. I will tell her that grandma was not actually cremated in a baking oven. I will also try to tell her that death is inevitable and that some of us will turn to ashes if we wish. Gegenwart is a film that we should all see, because it is a curious, unsentimental, eye-opening and yet weirdly poetic look on something we don’t like to talk about.
Gegenwart, Germany 2012, 65 min. director: Thomas Heise, camera: Robert Nickolaus, languages: no dialogue (bits of German), distributor: Real Fiction
We give away 2 x 2 free tickets for Gegenwart for any of the above mentioned Berlin cinemas, just leave a comment with a valid e-mail address until tomorrow, Friday, March 22nd, 17:00.