Krystian Woznicki

Heat, Autumn.World, Province

Forgotten Flags in the context of society

The summer of 2006 was a hot one. In previous years temperatures had been erratic, the weather unpredictable; sometimes we just had to accept the fact that fall had begun although the months of June, July, and August had not been warm enough. Not so in that summer, as the soccer World Cup games were being played in Germany. Occasionally it was so hot that it was difficult to work during the day.

Cold beer helped a bit, slowed us down, lowered expectations of having to accomplish a great deal, made us receptive to what was on TV at noon (press conferences); the first highlights came in the early afternoon, setting up the mood for later, for the times after a game won by the German team, when nobody could be held back any more.

In Berlin, the masses ceremonially blew off steam in the form of a high-volume parade in which everyone could let loose to the best of his or her ability: wearing black, red, and gold war paint; sitting on top of cars beeping non-stop; in small groups that were color blind at crosswalks—for brief eternities there were states of emergency in the streets of the German capitol. The summer heat had long been affecting the bodies of everyone who thought that the ’06 World Cup was the perfect opportunity to party. And it was a party that had to be celebrated as if it were the last one ever. It seemed that more than just a few people went around feeling like this.

Not only did news images from other German cities prove that championship fever was rampant elsewhere besides Berlin, but reports such as The Country Needs More Public Viewing Locations also made it clear that more and more people were catching the fever—people who had to put their passion on public display: drinking beer, singing, at an internal fever pitch. And on the TV screens it was also obvious that “the Klinsmen” were also on fire. Compared to the pre-World Cup phase, it seemed as if they had been exchanged for other players: they were tanked up with courage, self-confidence. With puffed-out chests, they were dead serious as they uttered sentences like, We want to be the world champions.
This sense of “we” had long been transferred to the audience. Even before the World Cup, all of the citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany had been reminded of their duty. Companies like the Telekom started campaigns resembling the best recruiting propaganda, which left no doubt in anyone’s mind that everyone had to become a member of the team. In endlessly expanding rows, people in their national team uniforms stood ready to sing the national anthem together before the whistle blew. After the whistle blew, these kinds of campaigns seemed to pale in comparison, as if they were trailers for a film that was meant to reveal its own, almost alarming dynamic: The warm bodies were not only bound together through the film of sweat on the skin of each individual, but through an idea. The idea of Germany. Black, red, and gold.

What was more than doubtful, though, was the answer to the question of whether most people would have been able to define what this idea was, exactly. Yet hardly anyone asked it. Hardly anyone dug deeper. It was enough to hear phrases from drunken fans, such as I’m happy to be German, as well as the eternal “we” (used in particular by TV news reporters in an especially insistent way). That made the idea self-explanatory. And didn’t the “You Are Germany” campaign launched a bit earlier by politicians and business, with its portraits of successful, history-making people, load up the idea with plenty of content? Everybody was part of the virtual community. It was that simple. Hardly anyone asked if anyone might have felt shut out. Hardly anyone dug deeper.

Behind the scenes

The Forgotten Flags project begins at the moment when the heat wave had passed its peak. The summer is actually over, but it’s still hot. The transfiguration of the world championship had begun. During the winter of the same year, at the latest, there was an accounting of all of the things that had ripened in early autumn and couldn’t wait long for a mass media evaluation. The World Cup would not only go down in history as a kind of “midsummer madness,” but would also be kept alive in the time immediately following.

Documentary filmmaker Florian Thalhofer took off with Juliane Henrich on a journey through a Germany that was attempting to hold onto the summer’s heat as long as possible. Admittedly, this refers to the temperature of the collective consciousness. In this case, however, everyone seemed to be in agreement, and the economy confirmed that “they” were right. The World Cup had given the country the jump start it so desperately needed—who wouldn’t want to make the best of it? Who wouldn’t want to keep flying high?
During this “post-production” process, Thalhofer and Heinrich contacted people who had experienced the games up close in one way or another, and who had expressed their sense of connection with German flags. They covered thousands of kilometers in order to capture behind-the-scenes pictures of a country that was still simmering after its display of self-confidence to the world and to itself. Were the people Thalhofer and Heinrich met—the people who were still displaying their German flags—proof of this? Without wanting to answer this question too hastily, their camera traveled through living rooms, offices, bars, ships, streets, etc., to film everyone who could be described as a protagonist in the great, glittering structure called "we". Men and women, working and unemployed, old and young, talked about “their” world championship flags—only children did not appear.

It’s about people who know what they are doing—empowered members of a society appear in individual portraits, making Forgotten Flags take a quasi-representative shape. It might be more apt to say that the interactive film represents a cross-section of society, since it only shows people who fulfilled a particular criterion. However, this structural approach—questioning flag owners about their black, red, and gold identity prostheses—sheds light upon anything but a homogenous image. Not a trace of the masses dipped in black, red, and gold, as Thalhofer obviously feared. Not a trace of that “we” that seemed so omnipresent during the overheated weeks before.

Instead there are individuals that tell, in very singular way, of their relationship to the German flag. There are not just “Fahnatiks” (a play on the German word for flag, “Fahn,” and the word “fan” respectively “fanatic”), as Magdalena Taube called the people who seemed to reveal a quasi-religious connection to the object, but also skeptics, critics, and cynics. As well as disappointed people, who would have preferred to hoist the flag of the German Democratic Republic, because they feel that this “we” club called Germany has simply cheated them of their lives. The Korsakov Syndrome film presents these people as individuals, most of them as talking heads. Enough is seen of their surroundings for the viewer to be able to place them, somehow. Nevertheless, they remain isolated.
Dissecting the individual interviews into many fragments of portraits—which the viewer is then left to synthesize—strengthens the notion that myths are being replaced. Instead of a “we,” many individuals are seen and sometimes only heard, such as when the owner of a German flag responds to a question during a phone call by declaring that he does not intend to converse with the artists. And so the “we” structure disintegrates into many individual building blocks whose temperature is noticeably cooler than what the post-production of the midsummer madness would like to make the viewer believe. There are no subjects talking themselves into a rage. Confessions sneak up quietly, whether they are pro or contra nationalism.

The matte, yet strong colors of the film underscore a cool, but concentrated atmosphere, which a documentary filmmaker in Germany must obviously first discover and make visible. Otherwise, it probably would have been forgotten. Thalhofer’s search for traces of the Forgotten Flags can, therefore, also be understood as a search for the liminal sites in the spectrum of temperatures during a summer, which, according to people involved in designing Germany, should know no bounds in terms of space and time.

In the stranglehold of FIFA

The heat of the World Cup summer of 2006, then, can only be completely described when the view from space lights upon the place where the action occurred. Supported by satellite, the eye can recognize all of the arenas at once: the stadiums in Berlin, Dortmund, Frankfurt am Main, Gelsenkirchen, Hamburg, Hanover, Kaiserslautern, Cologne, Leipzig, Munich, Nuremberg, and Stuttgart. All of the arenas seem to be painted black, red, and gold on the outside—or, at least, this color composition seems to really shine forth, apparently even warming their immediate surroundings.
Inside, however, another mood dominates. There, the spectrum ranges from the Brazilian to the Japanese flag, from green, blue, and yellow to red and white. Anyway—and this can also be seen in the view from space—the stadiums are simply junctions in a network of attractions that stretches across the globe. Although Germany was indeed the venue for the ’06 World Cup, a single broadcaster has competition in channels around the world. Regardless of what happened in the stadium in Berlin, for instance, fans followed the ball or “their” national team in chic penthouse lofts in Amsterdam, on bar stools in the Bronx, in the cool offices of downtown Los Angeles, and in the living rooms of very different “Third World” countries such as Brazil, Kenya, Vietnam, and Kazakhstan. The success of “their” team puts some people in the mood to celebrate; others discover new friends in public viewing locations, get drunk in the company of like-minded people. In these “heated” moments, the temperature of the “we” rises considerably—states of emergency don’t allow for time off due to excessively hot weather.

Briefly, the view from space makes it obvious that the World Cup is a national event only to a certain degree; the world is at home in Germany, but the event is just as much at home in the world. From this perspective, one has to try very hard not to forget that the whole experience has anything to do with Germany. A headline from the tageszeitung seems to complement this, as it reveals a truth that some of those seized by the black, red, and gold heat wave would probably like to repress: A Country in the Stranglehold of FIFA. For it is not Germany, but an organization whose global constitution permits a comparison with NGOs such as the World Trade Organization, which has the rights to the World Cup games and their marketing. This organization not only controls who can broadcast the World Cup games, but also where and when they can be broadcast, as well as how they can be staged in Germany, under whose sponsorship, with how many public viewing venues, etc. The myth of a virtual community solidly anchored in the concept of the national is not even conceivable without the infrastructure or the institution of globalization.

So anyone who takes a closer look—and the view from space is often very good for this—will realize that the heat wave of the summer of 2006 had another side. First, there was the temperature of everybody who came to Germany to support “their” country—whether it was Ivory Coast, the USA, or Paraguay. Then there were quite a number of people who have several T-shirts from different national teams in their closet or suitcase, and slip them on at will, like Halloween masks, depending on the situation, in order to support “their” favorite team. Out of this climate emerged a kind of heat that one felt was German nationalist, yet it took on an international character and connected in the ether with the physical auras of television audiences between Shanghai and Buenos Aires to form a band of brotherliness and friendship that spanned the globe.
The Spiegel believed in that, too, when it wrote about the global power of soccer to build bridges that reach almost everyone, adding, Even Osama Bin Laden, when he was in London in 1994, occasionally went to Arsenal games. In this climate, the seemingly German nationalist heat also becomes, however, a desperate expression of wanting to discover oneself in the things that are one’s own, of wanting to separate oneself from others, etc. In these kinds of moments this heat insists upon the purity of color and knows only one code: black, red, and gold.

Exotic treasure chamber

How did the artists deal with the color code of black, red, and gold? In its manifestation as German flags, they did not, from the start at any rate, regard it as a representation of a kind of neo-nationalism. Rather, it seems as if they treated it as an analytical search term, which they took with them on their journey. There was no predefined meaning for this “search term,” even though Thalhofer expresses prejudices against the owners of the flags. The moment in which the documentary filmmaker says that he’s afraid of these people is a confirmation for one viewer, but a provocation for the other; yet as soon as the film starts, or better said, reveals its many facets, this premise is quickly forgotten, for it is clear that “these people” are not treated as monsters or criminals, but as valuable eyewitnesses who must be approached in a curious and open-minded way.
The serious interest of this pair of artists in exploring geographical and spiritual territories leads them to continuously discover what they are looking for: German flags. Forgotten Flags shows the found objects as projection surfaces, among other things, “screens” for inner images that try to make the interactive film speak through the voices of the owners or their observers. Projection surfaces that come across so differently, like screens shredded by the wind (is it even possible to show or watch a film on something like that?) or like self-painted, monumental screens on driveways and facades—do they separate the owners from a different reality or are they the gateway to another world?

The path to the flags leads far away from the official arenas of the World Cup games. Berlin, Dortmund, Frankfurt am Main, Gelsenkirchen, Hamburg, Hanover, Kaiserslautern, Cologne, Leipzig, Munich, Nuremberg, and Stuttgart? The viewer has to be satisfied with the fact that the film is not interested in these places, at least, not primarily. Instead, the eye of the camera navigates ever deeper into a space that is defined on the project’s homepage as a path 2562 kilometers long—a distance that was not only covered, but one that the film purports to cover, meter by meter, in order to reach its protagonists and found objects. What kind of distance is that—2562 kilometers? A really long one, probably, otherwise it wouldn’t be presented as proof that the search wasn’t exactly effortless.

However, the average citizen of the telecommunications society doesn’t have a feeling for real distance and certainly not for these kinds of numbers. They might have all the meaning in the world, and in the extremely condensed version, it is also the world in which most of Forgotten Flags was filmed. Or how could one more aptly describe what intellectuals, artists, and writers alike read into the provinces, when, in the “hinterlands” of the Federal Republic they find not just regression, but also progress; discover not just narrow-mindedness, but also multiple layers—so many layers, so rich in facets and colors, that some are ready to declare the provinces an exotic treasure chamber? The viewer navigates by clicking through this world without boundaries—naturally this detail evokes the distance; even more distance could have been covered, where the place names might sometimes be familiar, sometimes unfamiliar. In the hinterlands there are some things waiting to be discovered.

Peaceful images of landscapes are mixed with the talking heads; sequences in which Tahlhofer takes over the task of doing the voice over: shots of country roads and cars driving along in bustling routine, of fields and the clouds that are just as busy passing over them, of an outdoor pub somewhere in the middle of nowhere, whose landlord—keeping a tally—serves alcoholic beverages to male teenagers in Doc Martins. These kinds of images, like all of the other ones, alternate between a curious distance and a sort of sympathy. Quietly they speak of their theme—nationalism under the auspices of the flag in black, red, and gold—while maintaining a voice of their own, far distant from an ideological tone. Instead: why not cover a few more kilometers?

translated by Allison Plath-Moseley

1. www.berlinergazette.de/?p=106
2. www.korsakow.com/syndrom