Video: Adolf Eichmann, Paul Celan, and Henry Purcell

16

February
2010

The video begins innocently enough—black and white footage of a courtroom trial alternating between a lawyer and the audience. And in the background, a familiar piece of music, Purcell’s “Evening Hymn” performed by a countertenor and pianist.

The innocence comes to end when we see the face of the defendant, Adolf Eichmann, “the architect of the Holocaust.” The video is of his trial, held at Jerusalem and begun April, 1961.

The footage immediately cuts to scenes from a concentration camp, at once familiar, disturbing, and deeply moving. Purcell’s music supports what we see, creating a hypnotic layer underneath the almost surreal footage. It is an abstract tour of historic events, recounted and displayed in quick succession.

And before we’re able to really contemplate the Holocaust imagery, the video cuts back to the Eichmann trial; this time, introducing us to anonymous plaintiffs, more courtroom audience, and the judges. The tour continues.

On top of all this, a stern, disembodied voice begins to speak in German. We’re now listening to a recitation of the poem Todesfuge by Paul Celan. In fact, it is the poet himself reciting about, or better yet, reflecting on his own Holocaust experience. Beautiful and powerful words that seek to commemorate.

There are now three distinct layers—montage, recitation, and music—all brought together to tell a story. Eichmann’s trial and Celan’s poem surely have a direct connection, but what about the song?

Purcell’s “Evening Hymn” is devotional work written by a Christian and for a Christian audience. Why this piece? It makes sense that the character of the music fits, but the words and their original intent?

The words aren’t necessarily Christian, they have a transcendental effect:

Now that the sun hath veil’d his light
And bid the world goodnight;
To the soft bed my body I dispose,
But where shall my soul repose?
Dear, dear God, even in Thy arms,
And can there be any so sweet security!
Then to thy rest, O my soul!
And singing, praise the mercy
That prolongs thy days.
Hallelujah!

There is a connection, however. And the final word, “Hallelujah,” not only punctuates the sentiment of the song but also helps to join it with the video footage and Celan’s poem. An ancient word used in both Jewish and Chrisitan rites, “Hallelujah” is now the bridge that connects an essentially Christian song to a historic event of seismic proportions.

At the end of the video there is relief. Eichmann is sentenced, Purcell’s song tapers away, and Celan trickles out the final words—“dein goldenes Haar Margarete / dein aschenes Haar Sulamith.”

It turns out that a YouTube video with an unassuming beginning can end up telling a very powerful story. It is an art piece and an unforgettable experience.

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