A Chamber Play
Katharina Fritsch und Alexej Koschkarow have devised a special zone for Zita— Щара in the spacious surroundings of Schaulager. Having identified the area they wanted to occupy, they designed their own exhibition architecture—to be inserted into the exhibition space, marking out their terrain as a space-within-a-space, within which they could have free reign. The architecture is understated and the dimensions are modest: just short of 150 square meters for five, not precisely small sculptures and two wall pieces that could in fact be described as monumental. A subtitle—which makes mention of a “chamber play”—adds a metaphorical commentary on the spatiality of this presentation. The German term “Kammerstück” is used here in the same way that “novel” or “novella” or “short stories” might appear under a book title; it replaces the more usual “Kammerspiel.” Even if the artists have only used this term in a general sense, as a way of indicating the scale and the concentrated nature of their presentation, the allusion to the theater is in itself entirely apt. The history of the “Kammerspiel” goes back well over a hundred years. Besides being used to describe a particular type of stage play it is also used to refer to the relevant venue: a smaller space than the main stage in a theater, similar to today’s studio theaters where the actors and the audience are in close contact with each other. In 1902 in Berlin the director, producer, and theater owner Max Reinhardt opened his Kleines Theater [“Small Theater”]. The stage plays presented in these smaller venues are more intimate, with fewer characters, no walk-on parts, and pared stage sets. The plot is mainly conveyed through speech or dialogue and the focus is on the psychological dimension of the characters. It was not by chance that August Strindberg founded his Intimate Theater in Stockholm in 1907, in order to present his own Chamber Plays Opus I–V. These are analytical explorations that uncover past deeds, debunk idylls, and underscore the fateful nature of events. In this context the term “chamber” has little to do with modest means, on the contrary it points to certain intellectual aspirations and exclusivity, coupled with solid play-writing skills and concentration. And equivalents to these qualities can be seen in the presentation and the works by Fritsch and Koschkarow. Their art intuitively echoes the properties of a chamber play: it does not adapt or translate the stage form into another medium, but rather establishes a copious kinship with it.. Some of the key concepts associated with chamber plays also apply to the “play” by these two artists, possibly including the theme of the inaugural play in Reinhardt’s Kleines Theater, namely Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts?
The work at Schaulager plays out in three chambers: a main space and two adjoining spaces. The two artists share the first, in which a large, colorful event is under way. In the room on the left there is just one sculpture by Fritsch; on the right, by contrast, there is a busy, almost crowded ensemble of works by Koschkarow. The three rooms are all different sizes, specifically determined by their contents; the ceilings are also different heights. These sizes were decided on the basis of meticulous calculations, because (to put it in theatrical terms) the figures, the play, and the set are all seen as a single entity. The discipline of the work in the artists’ studios continues in the mise-en-scène, although that term often unjustly implies that something has been done purely for effect (and for the sake of the presentation) after completion of the “actual” artistic work—as a marketing strategy, so to speak. However, looking at the work of these two artists and taking into account what might be described, in an exacting, even challenging sense, as their work ethos, there is no mistaking the coherence of their methods. Their focus is on creating the optimum conditions for a work, on maximizing its presence and potential development, on instigating a holistic experience—and not on some pretentious construct of a Gesamtkunstwerk. There is a dispassionate, precise, concentrated relationship between the work and the space. This situation embodies, in another form, the lesson that was taught by Minimalism and, before that, by Constructivism. And there is another fundamental aspect of the “stage” for this presentation that comes into play. It is self-contained; it only entices visitors in by means of a small glimpse inside, thus making a sharp distinction between itself and the outside world, between itself and life, the daily round, economic, political, social (etc.) reality. It is almost a form of provocation, compared to today’s artistic mainstream. Yet it is not born of naivety, arrogance, or missionary zeal, but rather of the desire to separate different categories—plus their various, specific possibilities—and not to be drawn into making glib connections and combinations.
Allusion and Skepticism
The title of this joint presentation conceals more than it reveals. Neither part of the title – Zita or Щара – is readily understandable. And even those who recognize the name Zita as that of the last Empress of Austria, or who happen to have heard of the Shchara, a river in Belarus, are not much the wiser. Maybe they will associate the Latin script with the the cultural background of Fritsch and the Cyrillic script with that of Koschkarow. In the eyes of the world, if not in her own, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, a.k.a. Queen of Hungary, Queen of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia and Lodomeria, Illyria, and so on and so forth, lost her imperial status following the First World War. As a colorful figure in the wings of history she is clearly useful to an artist who is interested (among many other things) in phenomena that are off-beat or odd, because they can be a source of pithy image and tales. On the other hand the river in the western regions of Belarus has no comparable fame—even if it is mentioned in a First World War battle report by a German army officer, dated March 27, 1917: “The Russian positions on the west bank of the Shchara, between Darowo and Labury, were stormed. Over 300 Russians taken prisoner, 4 machine guns and 7 mortars seized.” But that is no more than a footnote in world history. Is it necessary to point out that this was the region of the “bloodlands” of the Nazi regime’s war of annihilation in the east? So that river may well play a part in Koschkarow’s own family history. Yet even that adds little to the viewer’s understanding of the work. At any rate, the point of convergence of the two words in the title is the First World War, which was of course subsequently overshadowed by the Second World War in both Germany and Belarus. The artists’ preparations for this joint project were ongoing during 2014, the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, when there was renewed interest in the twentieth century’s first catastrophic orgy of annihilation. A hundred years after the event there was a need to acquaint contemporary generations with the facts. This meant addressing a saga that few are still properly aware of and that can trigger astonished disbelief at what has all but been forgotten. The two-word title thus provides no more than a suspicion, or possibly a hidden trail to things that are dark, hard to penetrate or to understand, and ultimately sinister. It also reflects a particular dilemma. These days individual works or exhibitions almost inevitably have titles or “given names” for purely practical reasons; at the same time, these two artists are similarly reluctant to have their works committed to particular meanings by titles of this kind, because their “thinking” in fact takes the form of images. They are skeptical of the use of words as equivalents for their actions.
Three Acts—No Denouement
The first scene could hardly be bolder: three life-size “dolls” in just a few vibrant colors. And directly opposite them a hand-sized object that now has the dimensions of a large item of furniture. The seeming familiarity and harmlessness of folkloristic-looking figures meets a dynamic something that seems to be in the process of exploding. On one side of this room there is an idyllic configuration of two female figures in old-fashioned clothing and a small girl with a ball; they could be posing for a souvenir photograph, frozen into the past and a particular sentiment. On the other side, in the guise of a smooth, solid, ceramic sculpture, there is an object that has been captured in the moment of extreme, dramatic change: an exploding hand grenade. Absurdly, magnificent sparks seem to be shooting in all directions out of the easily identifiable, faceted body. A thick column of smoke is curling upward from it and disappearing into a black pipe that reaches right up to the ceiling.
Even in the very first confrontation with these sculptures the viewer has to cope with an overload of imagery. And this is not only due to the relatively small size of the room that they occupy. While the domestic group of female figures presents an old-fashioned yet decipherable picture, the few, heraldic colors in this group and the nature of the figures’ construction immediately raise questions that go beyond the realms of the familiar. The actual explosion of a grenade—barely perceptible in any detail by the human eye—looks like a monstrous comic-strip motif but is diverted into absurdity by the ceramic material and by the discovery that inside the object there seems to be a cozy fire burning away. Ultimately the potential meanings of these works become entangled in this juxtaposition, or rather, in their opaque, intertwined roles in this first act of the play. For all the clear lines and independence of the sculptures as precisely formed bodies, their individual semantics and interaction look like an intentionally staged tumult of images. Carefully calculated, visual pressure is ramped up here, very nearly overwhelming the viewer—not by amassing an endless multitude of visual impulses but by the contradictory connections between individual, complex iconic signals. But it is also this concentrated pictoriality that allows viewers to gain at least some ground in their efforts to decode this scenario.
The three female figures are in fact enlarged replicas of a particular type of small traditional dolls made from maize leaves and other decorative materials that are sold as souvenirs in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The sculptures are like magnified images showing how these dolls are made. The fine lines of each maize leaf are readily identifiable, as are the tweaks and folds in its rather brittle fiber, the little twigs that are used to make the broom, the cords used to tie the girl’s bunches, and the limitations of maize leaves when it comes to conveying the details of hands and faces. The extreme enlargement of these figures plus the clarification and intensification of their colors turns a folkloristic doll—a sentimental, possibly kitsch object—into something quite different, that is to say, a kind of figurine: expressive, memorable figures that serve, not least in the dramatic arts, as studies for costumes and as aids in “character design.” Figures of this kind—succinct but with certain identifying features—suffice to give an impression not only of the visual appearance of a character but also of his or her role within a narrative. In this case the figures are prototypes of a traditional domestic scenario, of a certain kind of family image. The roles are clearly distributed and there are pointers to their sociological or even psychological situation. As yet these are only the dramatis personae in a single genre group, but a play, a drama could start to unfold any moment now . . .
At first sight the hand-grenade sculpture on the other side of the room looks like the polar opposite to this heart-warming little group, like a (not only) semantic attack on them. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the plot here is about war and peace, contentment and menace. But things are not that simple. Although the sculptural motif is taken from a murderous device, its realization and refunctioning soon cloud any direct connections. For a start there are the professionally fabricated ceramic components of the sculpture—with an air of craft-skills and domesticity but also with a strangely indeterminate coldness. And then there is also the opening in the front, inside which a mechanical light-play simulates a burning fire. The image of an exploding grenade is overlaid with that of a traditional tiled stove—an item that still epitomizes homely warmth and comfort. But that is also an image that can turn dirty and dark in an instant. The title of this piece makes precisely this point: Kalter Ofen [“Cold Stove”]—a contradiction that also conveys a sense of disappointment. And yet—wasn’t there, and isn’t there still the idea of a Cold War, in other words, a form of existential threat that is all the more menacing for being largely invisible, or could even seem virtual, if there were not in fact real forces of destruction in the background? It is simply impossible, here, to tell with any certainty what is hot and what is cold, whether one might not suddenly turn into the other or whether both even co-exist, thus obviating any simple judgment or moralization. Not unfittingly, during the production of the stove and its implicit juxtaposition of cold tiles and hot fire the conversation in the workshop turned to the idea of a human being running a fever. And couldn’t this sculpture also be read as some kind of a fantasy figure, a furious, sly little demon, an allegory of deception and destruction? Whatever the case, this piece conveys a highly contradictory image that refuses to provide a solution to its own riddle, preferring to retain its aloof ambiguity.
By contrast, the single sculpture by Fritsch, in the smallest of the three rooms, appears like a counterpoint, or a pause for thought: a coffin (Sarg) stands on a trestle in the center of the room. It is constructed in a standard, elongated hexagonal design that is shaped to fit the corpse inside it. Reduced to a purely stereometric form, as in this case, the shape is immediately recognizable; it is instantly symbolic, even pictographic. Yet there is one disconcerting factor: the color of the sculpture. The coffin is finished in a strong, glowing mid-blue, and the similarly simplified trestles are finished in a bright, signal-red. No sign here of the usual preference for black or at least very muted colors in Western funerary practices. Instead there is an “animated,” striking combination of “active” colors with an almost heraldic air. In addition, the combination of coffin and trestles also reassesses the relationship between sculpture and plinth. There is an almost delicate balance of weighing down and bearing aloft, with the combined form tending towards the outlines of an animal, albeit not directly saying so. Thus the color and the shape imbue the image of (final) rest with a suggestion of transformation. With its rigorous, powerful, yet lonely presence in the room this work halts viewers in their tracks and possibly turns their thoughts to an endpoint; but in the choreography of the presentation as a whole this work also serves as a “stopover,” as a moment to pause and to take stock.
In the third room, there is anything but peace. Here four works by Alexej Koschkarow jostle for attention. A sense of apprehension is induced by the Smearings on the walls. These large-format rubbings of architectural details, taken in the streets of New York, have found their way into an artistic mise-en-scène. Despite their monumental size, the two eagles, like shadowy coats of arms, appear to have been only temporarily pinned to the wall. The closed door opposite them looms ominously over everything with its darkly blurred, graphic chiaroscuro. Like historic backdrops that have endured almost unnoticed in daily life, these wall pieces—particles of reality—set the scene for the other two items in this room. It is as though some kind of an indefinable drone accompanying a melody were enveloping the action. Whereas the traces of how the rubbings were made tend to obscure their subject matter, the sculptures appeal to the viewer with a wealth of very visible details. These works look like architectural models, but rather than representing any existing or proposed buildings their miniature forms are evocations of fantasy sites. One (Schtetl) is a whimsical combination of urban model, symbolic image, and hybrid object-figure. This romanticized ideal of a destroyed culture (the small towns and villages in Eastern Europe that were home to so many Jews before the Holocaust) is presented here in a deliberately folksy, craft style. The ironic obsession with detail extends from a specially featured house at the “head” of the “town creature” to the w.c. at the other end. The giant axe in the middle of the town square takes the sculpture onto a different, symbolic level and adds an almost comic-style summary of the fate of these settlements. The ludicrous legs supporting this model world look makeshift and instable; depending on the angle the work is viewed from it either appears to be cowed into submission or somehow creeping or stumbling along.—Behind it there is another architectural model, an equally extraordinary construction, which also does not deny its connections to the real built world. It could be described as a composite model, in that it combines not only different buildings but also exterior and interior elevations. It is as though one had landed in the studio of an eccentric architect engrossed in designing a monument—at whoever’s behest. But how would this building work in the real world? It could be positioned on a hill, with a twisting and turning passageway leading up to the actual memorial. At that point there seems to be a kind of meeting place or hall of remembrance; above that there is a circle of shafts turned aggressively outward, as in a bunker. Finally, the structure is crowned by three monumental, athletic female nudes keeping watch, their feet planted well apart, wearing steel helmets and bearing weapons, and accompanied by snarling dogs. This sketchy, yet all too explicit model embodies the nightmare of a monument. The events and the ideology that are potentially being remembered and celebrated do not bear thinking about. However, this architectural fantasy reveals a strange side of itself when seen from the rear. Suddenly things appear quite civilized. This side takes the form of the façade of an older, quite grand but also rather clumsy and dark private dwelling house. Viewers find themselves at something of a loss for words at the sight of this conglomeration of forms and possible meanings. The title seems to reflect this: Das was keinen Namen hat [“That Which Has No Name”]. Neither of these sculptural models articulates a utopia in the sense of an ideal; on the contrary they represent dystopias, that is to say, places where lifestyles and dreams have failed or have been irrevocably perverted. Certain indications seem to point to the past, to the annihilation of Judaism in Eastern Europe, and to dictatorships in the twentieth century. However, the forms that Koschkarow has chosen for these works detach them from any overly simplistic associations. The action here is directed by the realms of historical or political fantasy fiction. For all that they are rooted in historical and current reality, these works negate the supposedly fixed sequence of history: everything is possible all the time, is possible again, and possible for the first time.
Craft Skills and Ambiguity
Despite the care that Katharina Fritsch and Alexej Koschkarow have taken selecting and arranging their works, and for all the affinities in their methods, Zita – Щара is still the outcome of two artists working independently of each other. The staging is not a collaboration between the two. This is already implied by the paratactic title, which suggests a possible point of contact but which also points to the differentness of the artists’ backgrounds. The idea of presenting a joint display derived from their long familiarity with each other’s work; they have already tried out something similar on two other occasions. In this situation, there is a twofold reason for the artists—with the help of their own exhibition architecture—to engage again and more intensely in staging just such an interplay of commonality and difference. Mention has already been made of their work ethos—perhaps it would be more accurate to talk of their ethos of craftsmanship. Both artists attach the greatest importance to the way their ideas are achieved, to the realization of their ideas, to precise planning, the right materials, and scrupulous technical execution. This means that they have to be continuously “hands on” in their approach, to a greater or lesser degree. It means that they themselves determine each individual aspect of a sculpture before and during its final production. Contrary to appearances, Fritsch’s figures are most definitely not merely mechanically scaled-up versions of found objects. Although found objects may serve as the point of departure for the initial formulation of an idea, the next stage is a painstaking, laborious process of sculptural creation and refinement. And even if she does use a 3-D printer for certain intermediate stages in the work’s production and has help from assistants, all the decisions are taken by her in situ in a classical, sculptural process and are always verified with reference to the actual, emerging work. Each measurement, each partial volume, each fold, each hue counts in the effort to ensure that the finished sculpture has the presence and dynamism Fritsch envisaged for it. Of course processes and aims of this kind are neither new nor unusual in the history of sculpture. However, in an era of routinely practiced, short-hand conceptualism it is worth pointing out that not everything can be found somewhere or commissioned from someone if the result is to be cogent—given that the artistic goal is real yet invented spatial objects.
Alexej Koschkarow comes from a culture where making things oneself has been and still is a necessary part of daily life. During the dissolution of the Soviet Union he was a student at the Art Academy in Minsk. It almost goes without saying that the curriculum there was entirely traditional and the main emphasis was on mastering the manual skills of artistic creation. And when Koschkarow emigrated to the West and continued his studies at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf he by no means abandoned the principles he had already absorbed. Be it a sci-fi fantasy of robot-men copulating with hedges, a “secret archive” of blank manuscripts à la Jorge Luis Borges, a docu-fiction of treasure looted in a war, the model of a symbolically spruced-up Checkpoint Charlie, or nostalgia kitsch of faux-Egyptian canopic jars with heads of Lenin, he sets great store by accurately imitating the particular materials of the source object. Approximations will not do. On the contrary, this mimicry has to be taken to the point where the object’s seeming authenticity induces open astonishment even as the game of ironic distancing is played out by over-fulfilling viewers’ expectations. Thus the hand-grenade stove is clad with properly produced tiles; the model of a village reproduces the hobbyist’s never quite perfect love of materials and details, and the apocalyptic vision of a memorial taps into model construction. At the same time, however, Koschkarow’s hands-on activities are not as predetermined and conceptualized as they may at first appear. Like Fritsch, albeit by different means, his sculptural thinking and doing unfolds in constant dialogue with his artistic vision and ideas, with form and content. This step-by-step process can accommodate changes and different intensities en route to the as yet unknown destination, that is to say, the work of art in its full breadth and complexity.
The other foundation stone that is part of both artists’ makeup is their preference for ambiguous images. In Fritsch’s case this only properly emerges on closer examination. The ambiguity of an image can withdraw back into it, so that it seems entirely recognizable again and supposedly unequivocal. The “prototype” that she distills from her sculptural work acquires an iconic status, which—on closer scrutiny—is far from as straightforward as it may seem. As viewers engage with her works there is often a moment when the “icon” seems more like an optical illusion. Take her figures of a Madonna or a monk: pious or just sanctimonious? The monstrous mouse on the chest of a sleeping man: psychologically revealing or a just a joke? The giant blue cockerel on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square: feminist statement or a metaphor for Britain’s French rivals? Ambiguity is a subcutaneous characteristic of all Fritsch’s work: it may not always come to the surface but it always subtly makes its presence felt, often imperceptibly getting under the viewer’s skin. Besides that, in Fritsch’s work there are also juxtapositions in a narrower iconographic sense. Bright, positive images are countered by dark images with negative connotations. For instance: a gleaming, golden “heart of corn” and a skull, or a pink shell-woman and a snazzy businessman with a cloven foot The different types can also be combined, creating obvious incompatibility or absurdity, as in the case of the gleaming white baby in the midst of a four-deep, close-knit circle of black poodles, or of the two upright skeletons of feet posing in front of a large-format photograph of a rose garden.
The ambiguity of Alexej Koschkarow’s works is already seen in the fact that he often uses (architectural) models as his medium. This allows him not only to engage with a high level of (supposedly accurate) detail, it also allows him to present objects and scenarios that could not otherwise be achieved given the actual spatial, technical, and economic reality of a normal exhibition space. But just as much importance also attaches to the detachment of these models from their reference objects in the outside world—either real or imagined. In Koschkarow’s art the relationships between a model and reality are never explicit, and this is precisely what gives them their considerable artistic potential. Each image in the form of a model is fundamentally and intrinsically distanced from reality and ambivalent toward that same reality. And irony is just one possible outcome here. In some of Koschkarow’s works the model takes on the characteristics of a dream, or a nightmare, or of anything on the wide spectrum between the two. For instance in his previously mentioned archive of blank manuscripts, the scale of the room seems to have changed in much the way that things sometimes change in dreams, when they appear smaller (or larger) than normal. The iconic sentry box in Berlin has been reduced to the size of a fictive, historical model. It is only by this means that the crude mixture of destruction and heroic decoration can be seen as a vision that vacillates, unredeemed, between the past, desire, fear, and the future. Given that the model already has a fundamental, variously productive vagueness, since it as it were presents the images in question in the subjunctive mood, the themes in Koschkarow’s works often instigate open, internal conflict. The pacified-grenade/perverted-stove is a good example of this, in that the work manages to combine aggression and destruction in the same image as finery and coziness. The work thus does not take sides and certainly makes no moral judgment; instead it hones in on the potential simultaneity of wholly incompatible factors. The effect could be described as ludicrous; the tone of the work could be deemed sarcastic—but only if both are read as a realistic view of things.
Zita and Щара – one as volatile as the other – hover over the exhibition. Even if one searches for explanations or speculates on their meaning, their role remains nebulous. Although the Empress and Ex-Empress is undoubtedly a historical figure, her image is clouded by the immense distance separating her time, along with the political ideas she represented, from the lifestyles and thinking of the twenty-first century. Щара may seem all the more mythical because little is known in the West about this river and its importance to the people who lived and live along it. Zita is one member of a deceased, slightly curious historical grouping, Щара is something in the East barely understood in the West. The exhibition makes no direct reference to either. There is no hint of didacticism. But there is a substratum where these concepts and the works come into contact. It is the realm of things suppressed and of revenants. Fritsch’s box for a corpse paradoxically acquires a disturbing, insidious aspect because it specifically does not adopt the color coding of grief and horror, but instead freezes the banality and awfulness of death in a luminous, luminescent symbol. The folklore dolls take on an air of unreality by being extracted from their toy world and given human size. A suspect form of animation ensues, to which they have no right (or only in a child’s imagination) and that turns them into eerily secretive beings. It is only in this size that it is immediately obvious that they have no hands and, worse still, no faces—like the dead in dreams. From certain angles . Koschkarow’s Schtetl model looks almost like a human figure. If something as multifaceted and real as a village appears to take on human form, it has to be in a parallel or meta-reality. The personification of the village shifts things into a different, mythical realm. Meanwhile his rubbings on paper fixed to the wall are the ultimate in shadowy, incorporeal visions and the title Das was keinen Namen hat makes it very clear that the object at hand cannot adequately be described in words. And is a memorial not per se a construction of the undead? Whoever and whatever is invoked by the memorial (and all the more so by this model) only exists as a loaded, ambivalent chimera. Something, which doesn’t actually exist, is to live forever.
There is no plot to this chamber play by Katharina Fritsch and Alexej Koschkarow, nor is there a definitive list of characters. The interplay of these figures on their stage does not amount to a comprehensible drama with a clear outcome. For all their physical presence these figures and objects have certain qualities that, metaphorically speaking, turn them into ghosts and phantoms. They jump out at one without warning, yet they also elude one’s grasp. They have an innate ambiguity—sometimes concealed, sometimes very visible—that tends toward much darker inscrutability. However lucid one’s first impression may be, these works always prove to have an opposite side that can be macabre, demonic, or just mischievous. But these works are also like ghostly phantoms for another reason. The word phantom was originally used in connection with temptation or a tempting illusion. And both artists do indeed believe in the capacity of images, sculptural images, to entice the viewer into their world. That is in itself the reason for all their planning, the effort they put into sourcing and working with their materials. They are committed to art as an act of skillful yet smiling seduction. Their images are designed, on principle, to be ambiguous and conflicting; they do not seduce viewers to do anything in particular but rather entice them into engaging with ambiguity in its own right. Yet this is not in order to avoid being pinned down, because—in a superficial, postmodern sense—this is no longer an option. And in that sense they are not trying to retreat into some kind of playful aesthetic. The artists’ endeavors to draw viewers into a natural, yet alert engagement with ambiguity in fact arise from their own realism: “Contact with reality begins when we cease to reduce a thing to its properties or to its effect on other things.” At the same time, “objects and weirdness go hand in hand.” An object is “an ‘I know not what,’ but in a positive sense.” * Or a phantom in the service of artistic (hence also always speculative) realism.
* Graham Harman, “On the Horros of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl”, in: Collapse. Journal of Philosophical Research and Development. Concept Horror, edited by Robin Mackay, Vol. IV, 2008 (reissued edition December 2012), pp. 332–364.
Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott