What was it like for the people of Germany to lose two major wars within the first half of the century? How does one think about one's former leader when one's country has unconditionally surrendered? And when stories arise that one's leader is responsible for the systematic destruction of millions of Jews? Did the people of Germany suddenly wake as if from a dream? Or, do they sleep still?
Some people-not necessarily Germans-feel that it's too early to judge Adolph Hitler. Has he been a victim of vilification? Will history ultimately be kind to the fallen leader? Do these people reject the traditional historical view of Hitler because they want to distance themselves from the hatred? Or, do they do it in order to keep themselves from being viewed as sheep? How could they have followed this man? Do they ask this groggily, clutching their head as it throbs the morning after? Do they sleep with a clear conscience? Or, do they thrash in their beds every night, haunted by visions of wartime atrocities?
Christopher Gallagher's Where is Memory poses these questions and employs a lone character, The Sleepwalker (Peter Loeffler), as an investigatory agent. The Sleepwalker receives a case from a mysterious stranger who stays hidden behind shadowy glass. Inside is a bewildering array of wartime memorabilia, all of it marked with a strange insignia. What are these things? Where do they come from? Who are the people who created them? That is the mystery the Sleepwalker feels he must unravel. He is without memory, having no knowledge of the past, including Adolph Hitler.
He is aided in his search by a camera. He considers it the perfect witness to history. By looking through the viewfinder, he gains access to what the camera once "saw." He travels Germany seeing the past through his camera, witnessing the objectified images that passed through the lens. Likewise, we the viewer are made privy to the world of the past through filmmaker Christopher Gallagher's wonderful intercutting of modern and archival footage; often switching from a shot of a location as it existed in the '30s and '40s to current conditions. The lines between eras often blur for the Sleepwalker-he begins to live in and communicate with the phantoms that seem to haunt the fatherland.
While cameras aren't responsible for memories, they help shape our perception of the past. Likewise, time alters these perceptions, especially in its effect on the geography. More than showing the ravages of war, Where is Memory demonstrates the alterations of peace. Gone are the offensive symbols of the Third Reich; the swastikas that decorated public buildings. Or, if they've not been destroyed or taken away, at least they've been covered with a thin veneer of plaster.
In his search for the past, the Sleepwalker tries to get information from the current residents of Germany. These interviews are insightful and highly varied in tone. From the haunted recollections of a disfigured fighter pilot to the dogmatic revisionism of a British soldier, the Sleepwalker listens patiently between his probing questions. Through this even-handed, respectful approach to the material, Where is Memory could be seen as being noncommittal. Instead, it should be considered as an objective document of the Nazi war machine - one not comprised of metal tanks and bombers or stone and marble statues but of the flesh and blood people who survived the war and their progeny.
One highly telling interchange has The Sleepwalker conversing with a man who was a member of one of Der FÜher's youth brigades. The man speaks of his teenage years with a mix of shame and pride. The gleam of youthful enthusiasm still shines in his eyes but the man cannot permit himself to admit that he is proud of his accomplishments; he must disown all that defined his development. The Sleepwalker, in his staunch white coat shows neither sanction nor disapproval - he is the embodiment of tabula rosa. Like the angels in Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, he is present as a witness to the man's words, to record them without judgement.
Where is Memory has a slow, determined pace, appropriate for the somnambulist's search for history. Accompanied with appropriate Wagnerian pieces and a creepy score by Dennis Burke, Christopher Gallagher's film is an innovative experimental documentary that succeeds in its quest to consider the meaning and fluidity of memory.