Die Sonneninsel (The Sun Island): European Growth, Ideals, Aspirations, and Intricacies

The Sun Island
Floris Paalman takes a considered look at Thomas Elsaesser's documentary Die Sonneninsel (The Sun Island). The construction of the European Central Bank on the site of Frankfurt's former wholesale market – a building designed by Elsaesser's grandfather, Martin – offers an opportunity to probe architectural and family history, in what Paalman terms "auto-media archaeology."

The building of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt represents Europe as a global power in the 21st century. This landmark of financial hegemony is literally built on top of the old Central Market, a modernist icon designed by architect Martin Elsaesser in 1928. The construction of the new ECB has led film scholar Thomas Elsaesser, Martin’s grandson, to investigate the grounds on which the new premise is built, which has resulted in a layered documentary film about his own family history – The Sun Island. Making use of the small-gauge footage shot by his father – the unpolished thin tracks of family memory – the film moves away from the boasting financial capital of Europe today, toward the intimate habitat of Sun Island in Berlin before and during WWII. Not simply an application of Thomas Elsaesser’s theoretical work, but sharing its main tropes and premises, the film is a synecdoche for European society, for both its disillusions and aspirations, and the tensions between them. The Sun Island sets an example for how Europe can face itself, to find its identity, through introspection and tracing one’s own historical conditions. As such, the film is the moral counterpart of the ECB. The film embraces complexities, to find the naked truth in its middle, a void in between oppositions and contradictions. This empty center opens up space for human concerns, from which a humanist Europe is able to emerge.

Designed by the Austrian studio Coop Himmelb(l)au, the European Central Bank opened its new headquarters in March 2015. Its 185 meters polygonal-shaped tower is visible from all important reference points in Frankfurt’s city center. Its makes an ensemble, as its architects describe their design, with the horizontality of the Grossmarkthalle, which creates “a tension between Frankfurt’s banking district and the Ostend area.” The integration of the old in the new has been the result of difficult negotiations. The Grossmarkthalle is the magnum opus of Frankfurt’s city architect Martin Elsaesser (1884-1957), and emblematic of Das Neue Frankfurt, due to its unique concrete structure with a suspension of 220 meters by 50 meters. In 1984 the building became a state monument, but it did not prevent plans to intervene in the existing building.

Descendants of Martin Elsaesser started a court case, which was David against Goliath. In the end, the design was slightly altered, and the ECB and the city of Frankfurt agreed to support the Martin Elsaesser Foundation. As a result, various events were organized to promote the work of Martin Elsaesser, starting with an exhibition at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt in 2009. Clips from the family footage were already shown on that occasion, which would develop into the film The Sun Island that had its premiere at the Kasseler Dokfest in November 2017.

retreat, absence, void, growth

During the ten years of its development, Thomas Elsaesser gradually changed the film’s focus. His grandfather became more of an ‘absent protagonist’ as attention shifted to grandmother Elisabeth and garden architect Leberecht Migge. The latter had become a friend of the family since the late 1920s, when he got involved with the housing development for Das Neue Frankfurt (directed by city planner Ernst May). Migge developed ideas for ecological gardening, recycling and self-sufficiency. In 1931 he leased the island Dommelwall in the Seddinsee in east Berlin, where he and the Elsaesser family started to carry out the idea of Das wachsende Haus (the growing house).1In 1931, Berlin’s city planner Martin Wagner initiated the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für ein wachsendes Haus (Working Group for a Growing House), as an answer to the economic crisis. Wagner invited prominent modern architects, who showed 24 model houses at the exhibition Sonne, Luft und Haus für Alle, in Berlin in 1932. Among the participants was Leberecht Migge, who developed the concept in ecological terms. See: Martin Wagner. Das wachsende Haus/The Growing House. Annotated by Tom Avermaete, Franziska Bollerey, Ludovica Scarpa, Tatjana Schneider. Leipzig/Berlin: Spector Books/HKW, 2015.

The ‘Sun Island’, as Migge called it, with its inviting summer house, became a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. Already at an early stage, Thomas Elsaesser has argued to see it as “a cultural chronotope, or île de mémoire” adding to this metaphorical understanding the argument that “it is important to appreciate the extent to which the island represents a cultural topography also in the literal sense, in so far as it is the cultivation or colonization of urban space by its own reverse other, what Migge himself termed Binnenkolonisation (that is, a city’s internal or auto-colonization).”2Thomas Elsaesser. “Sonnen-Insulaner: On a Berlin Island of Memory.” Memory Culture and the Contemporary City. Eds. Uta Staiger, Henriette Steiner, Andrew Webber. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 32-51 [43]. After 1933, the island became also a retreat from the Nazi regime that put Martin Elsaesser out of action, and the ‘internal colonization’ was the peaceful alternative to aggressive Nazi expansionism.

At the island, all family members and visitors participated in the utopian ideals that they still tried to pursue. However, Elisabeth Elsaesser and Leberecht Migge also became lovers, and a complicated triangle developed. When Migge suddenly died, in 1935, Elisabeth became dedicated to continue his project, to keep his spirit alive. For Martin Elsaesser there remained inner retreat, which he expressed through music and poetry.

Within a week after the premiere at the Kasseler Dokfest, the film was shown at the Goethe Institut in Amsterdam, under the title ‘Eros & Utopia’, with correspondence between Elisabeth and Leberecht being read by actress Nicola Ruf, great-granddaughter of Martin and Elisabeth. This piercing performance is exemplary for the film’s liveness. Rather than a record, the film is a process, a work in progress. In fact, the premiere in Kassel was already preceded by other screenings, with either a different version or serving a different purpose, with Elsaesser himself giving talks.3For example at the University of Glasgow; HU Berlin; Brown University; Paco Urondo; and New York University. This has not changed after the ‘premiere.’4E.g. at Der Deutsche Werkbund. The film is a research reporting on its own ‘excavation work’ – a story peeling off multiples layers of inextricably connected meanings and relationships.

The development of the film has moved back and forth. The work of Martin Elsaesser was the reason to start the project, before Leberecht Migge became the lead character, with his pioneering work linking up with today’s discussions on sustainability. But in the end, Martin Elsaesser came back in, to create the main framework, only with a changed persona. Martin valued the work done by Migge, but as Migge’s work was bound up by, and co-evolved with his love for Elisabeth, Martin came to play a supporting role. Being dismissed professionally and put aside privately, the film eventually presents the loss of his only remaining stronghold, the Grossmarkthalle. This last sacrifice, however, is necessary to gain posthumous recognition, now focused on the architecture of his spirit. Less tangible, it is as impressive as the void he once created with the Grossmarkthalle for life to take shape inside it, in spite of everything else.

utopia in progress

The Sun Island became a utopia ‘in progress’ – a refuge from the brutality of the times, probably against better judgement. This habitat of desire and aspirations was a perseverant attempt to continue the idea of the growing house, and as such of Weimar ideals. The island was a true experiment in living architecture. As a social place it connected different people, among them Thomas Elsaesser’s parents. Thomas’ father recorded all of this on film. As a film scholar studying his father’s recordings, with himself appearing as a baby in the footage at the end, Thomas’ project became an introspective journey into his own conditions of existence – literally his own emergence in the world, of film.

Thomas Elsaesser calls the recordings of his father a ‘documanual’: a documentary instruction for the growing house. This is exemplified by a picture showing Migge in a simple shed, “his idea of a minimal modular housing unit in the garden-settlement, the Zeltlaube or tent-hut, complete with dung silo and peat toilet, the so-called Metro-Klo, both of which he also propagated in his own book of 1932, Die wachsende Siedlung (The Growing Housing Estate, or Housing Estate in Stages).”5Thomas Elsaesser. “Sonnen-Insulaner: On a Berlin Island of Memory,” 45. The footage shows how to make, use and maintain the growing house, not in a formal way, but in an actual setting, caught on amateur film, which render the utopian ideals amazingly real and almost self-evident. Most compelling are shots of Martin Elsaesser emptying the eco-toilet, collecting the faeces in a wheelbarrow, ready for recycling. At this point in the film this scene is immensely touching, as it shows the actual position of Martin Elsaesser, carrying the shit. Considering the many years that Thomas Elsaesser and his relatives have worked on the recognition of the work of their grandfather, seeing him moving in the margins in the end is sad, but honest. Yet, the film never makes him a marginal personality. His changing position in the professional field and family, serves more of a placeholder of conflicting, irreconcilable conditions.

Martin Elsaesser demonstrates the maintenance of the eco-toilet

The film shows a different side of Germany during the second world war, in an environment where Weimar ideas continued to live on, as deeply lived values, but intermingled with personal concerns. Different from the film’s first draft, with scenes on the island showing an idyllic life during cruel times, causing uncanniness, a full picture gets unwrapped, with certain continuities, although strained, of hopes and desires, instead of merely ruptures.

from media archaeology to thought experiment

As a film, The Sun Island is less about buildings, and more about the construction of relationships, to which spatial interventions are building blocks, for thoughts to get tested. This architecture of a social and ecological nature is complex to tell. In its present form the film relies heavily on the narrator, which is Thomas Elsaesser speaking – not entirely an acousmêtre, for his appearance in the film as a newborn. This reliance on narrative and documentary convention (through standard interviews), is somewhat surprising, considering the alternative modes that Elsaesser has studied in his writings, especially in his book Film History as Media Archaeology.6Thomas Elsaesser. Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016. The footage shot by his father might exemplify such alternative concerns, and also how its visual features are examined. Yet, in order to glue the pieces together, narrative is still the main cinematic device of this film.

The subject and the existing footage could probably lend itself for an interactive media work, possibly an installation, making use of audiovisual maps to trace and present individual trajectories, connecting through the island. Such an artistic media archaeological practice could strengthen the interaction between all actants. The form of the film raises the question if, after all, conventional storytelling is still the most reliable means to achieve intelligibility in such a world of fragments and cycles. Within Elsaesser’s oeuvre at large, this ‘narrative media archaeology’ may seem a paradox, but then, the trope of the oxymoron is probably Elsaesser’s most characteristic trademark.

Seen as a narrative work in its own right, the film manages to tell a story that contains different layers – personal, artistic, ideological, social, while developing suspense regarding the persistence of ideals, and showing character development – resulting in emotional struggles. This is a major achievement of all people involved in the film’s production, the editors not the least.7Editors of the film are Bert Schmidt, Fabio Andrade, Maren Krüger. The team has managed to extract from amateur footage not only a vivid historical account, but also a silent tragedy, shot at the moment when it happened. This is like great narrative fiction.

Thomas Elsaesser’s mother recorded by his father

From a media archaeological perspective, the main protagonist might be the recordings made by Thomas Elsaesser’s father, for his cinematic gaze – his looking at his future wife being a key shot, to be understood as a cinematic conception of film theory. From such a perspective, all the rest of the film is its ‘environment’, showing the ontological conditions for such footage to exist. Thomas positions himself in this ontology – and genealogy, speculating that his father’s cinematic gaze might have been the germ for his own profession. A question that remains in the end is how the film as a whole acknowledges its own ontology. We may probably understand this when attending another ‘premiere’ of this work in progress, together with live performances, taking place within a particular setting, such as the Goethe Institut in Amsterdam, or any other place of international exchange. For if this film has one message to convey, it is the exchange to be found through the island, as synecdoche for Europe. Conflicting as its passions and ideals might have been, the emptiness in between them allows for life to emerge. Such might be the value of a void.

Contrary to ECB’s exclamatory architecture, the film is an exploration into one’s own origins – a kind of ‘auto-media archaeology’, telling both a personal history and addressing larger issues, some of which are topoi, of modern architecture and the green movement, together with Eros and Utopia, how they are both lived and imagined, connecting different times. This testimony is in itself a ‘documanual’: a dramatic instruction for reflection at a European scale. It is an invitation to inspect one’s own provenance, preoccupations, desires and ideals – even destinies, how Europe dares to see and imagine itself, by shaping a condition of awareness and sensitivity, as the required building blocks for a European politics. As such this film appears to be a companion piece to Elsaesser’s forthcoming book European Cinema and Continental Philosophy: Film as Thought Experiment. In the interstice between practice and theory, a new space for reflection is opened up.


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