The generative intensity of a photomontage

Ardian Ndreca
© John Heartfield, Mimikri, 8 April 1934

On the cover of the magazine AIZ of 8 April 1934, photographer John Heartfield, alias Helmuth Herzfeld (1891-1968), published the photomontage “Mimikry” showing Josef Goebbels putting Marx’s beard on Hitler’s face in order to allure the working-class, thus combining symbols of National Socialism with those of Communism.

Mimicry or mimeticism is a word used to denote a natural phenomenon of resemblance between an organism and another object, often an organism of an other species, in order to avoid detection by predators.
Goebbels’ propaganda as well as the front-page message of the Communist magazine *Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung* (AIZ), published in Prague since 1934, addressed workers.
Times have changed and we try to keep alive only the tragic end of that era Yet, the beginning of the new century introduced something crucial such as the mysticism of work.

In 1932 writer and essayist Ernst Jünger published his book *The Worker (Der Arbeiter)*, articulating a critique of bourgeois liberalism and at the same time depicting a new horizon towards the mysticism of work, interpreted as audacity for creation and risk. It speaks to the notion of freedom of action - not the abstract freedom of the bourgeois society- but rather the freedom of a country which does not exclude the elementary, primordial force of life, which cannot be rationalized and which precedes reason and the bourgeois way of thinking. Jünger points out that in most cases, the relationship amongst elementary forms of life is achieved through historical fracture.

In that period, at the entrance of the Vorkuta’s GULAG in USSR, as well as in other internement camps of the Bolshevik regime, it was written: “Work in the USSR is a matter of honor, glory, valour and heroism.” (*Trud v SSSR jest’ delo tchesti, slavy, dobliesti i geroistva*). This phrase was taken from the Stalin’s report at the 16th Congress of the CPSU in 1930, and most of us are very familiar with it. Shortly afterwards, at the entrance of Auschwitz concentration camp, it was written: “Work sets you free” (*Arbeit macht frei*).

The two ideologies seem to rival each other in using workers for their own ends. They both despise the bourgeoisie and its mentality. The photomontage by Jon Heartfield executed with an artistic and historical savoir-faire, puts Goebbels, a small man with a crippled foot, on a chair which seems to come from the Weimar Republic, while Hitler seems ready to accept anything which might allow him to triumph, even the fake beard of a fake Messiah. We are a year after his victory, but power needs to be consolidated and only those who hold the power know how many sacrifices must be made in that regard.

The silent and mutual admiration between Hitler and Stalin at the end of the 1930s, has been acknowledged by historians. Here, photographer John Heartfield does not affix Marx’s moustache on Hitler’s face, but goes further by borrowing Marx’s beard.
Violence does not need to replicate other violence, but rather needs a philosophical foundation, though fragile and hesitant. It’s what Eric Weil masterfully teaches us.
Five days prior to the USSR attack, J. Goebbels noted in his diary that the victory over Judaeo-Bolshevism would result in the establishment of true Socialism (*der echte Sozialismus*). We often forget that Nazism means National Socialism!

The mysticism of the worker as the only decent activist in history permeates both dictatorships and gives ground to all forms of violence, with the metaphysical logic that one day work will bring about a radical reversal in history! The triumph of Communism and the ecstasy of Nazism as monstrous ideals, overcome violence, war, death and terror. Worn by Hitler, Marx’s beard becomes alluring. In Marx, the reversal of the Hegelianism in revolutionary praxis becomes an axiomatic assertion.

Nothing’s really changed in photography these days. People eager to occupy a decadent, rotten seat. They are masked like heroes, fools, nannies, Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma. But from our perspective, things have changed in one way on another. Today we have a deeper understanding, even deeper than John Heartfield’s, as after the fall of Berlin in 1945 we witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This photomontage prompts us to reflect on two directions: firstly, the idea of the naturalness of work, in addition to any metaphysics of history as interpreted by the rigid narratives of the 20th century. Work is a natural thing, but it can turn into a lethal ideology of human dignity.
Secondly, the visual semiotics, the significance of the signs that make up such photomontage, go beyond the author’s just intentions and approach the historical truth.

The investigation of continuity and noncontinuity of the signs is a challenge for those who contemplate history. The sight of a corpse reminds us of death - the sight of a violent man reminds us of his violent methods. This photomontage combines the mechanical juxtaposition of two deadly diseases from the 20th century.

Neither Goebbels nor Hitler look into the camera, but the flashlight that illuminates the two is the torch they used to burn the whole world down. In this photomontage, Goebbels and Hitler appear ridiculous, not because of the pathetic pose and the bodily dynamics, but because of something intrinsic.
They resemble the *Deaf Cat* and the *Lame Fox* in Pinnocchio’s story, eager to cheat the frivolous who trust and follow them.

An analytic philosopher, after the Second World War, argued that if people had analyzed Goebbels’ propaganda speeches with pure philosophical reasoning, they would have noticed the devastation they bear. This is what John Heartfield – without fully understanding it – has expressed through the art of photography.

Ardian Ndreca