Review by Gerhard Clausing •
75 years ago, in April of 1945, Berlin was at the end of being the citadel of an authoritarian “empire” that lasted twelve years. As the Red Army was marching in, Hitler was ending his life, and the city was in physical and psychological shambles. Among the troops was a medical photographer named Valery Faminsky who had a sense of documenting all of that, in a comprehensive manner, for us to see. He produced a stark reminder for the world to witness what remains after such a period of abusive and xenophobic aggression, when all is said and done.
In a manner similar to the work of Vivian Maier, Faminsky’s images did not attract much attention during his lifetime (1914-1993), and were offered for sale by his heirs in 2016. Luckily, they were noticed and bought by the photographer Arthur Bondar, who eventually helped assess, scan, and edit the project into the selections presented in this photobook.
To see the major metropolis Berlin in total shambles as documented by Faminsky from April 22 to May 24, 1945, is still shocking to view, even today, after all those many decades. Film buffs and historians have seen motion pictures made in Berlin shortly thereafter, such as The Murderers Are Among Us (DEFA, 1945/46), Germany, Year Zero (Rosselini, 1947/48), And the Heaven Above Us (1947), and a few others that show Berlin in its desolate moment of defeat and destruction.
But the still images of Faminsky have an even stronger and most impressive impact of their own, both in their iconic viewpoints and as a collective achievement. The photographs cover the range of activities found in that month of post-war confusion, showing the human aspects of both sides, the conquered and the conquerors: civilians on the move or helping clean up, and among the military, injured soldiers, as well as others basking in their role as victors, some even enjoying their leisure time by doing paintings of the destruction they are witnessing. What can be more ironic than an intact sign advertising Erdal, a shoe polish that still exists today, in the middle of a street full of rubble and destroyed buildings (see below, p. 63)? Or a horse with a bandage standing in the middle of the destroyed city? Those of you familiar with some of the landmarks will also recognize the destroyed Reichstag (Parliament building). Equally astonishing is the enthusiasm shown by the population when read the notice of capitulation; not too long before that similar enthusiasm was shown to the authoritarian regime. Maybe they had had enough by this time.
The photobook is handsomely printed and bound, with a red cover, perhaps a nod to the Red Army, or maybe also as a warning signal, or as a reminder of all the blood that had to flow unnecessarily. The essay by Professor Peter Steinbach provides some important historical and cultural background information. Details about the photographer’s life and career, even a short autobiographical sketch dictated by him, and an index of the images, with captions, complete the work. Congratulations to the entire team working with Buchkunst Berlin for publishing such a landmark project at this time!
Those of you interested in additional recent books dealing with wars might be interested in others I have reviewed: World War II – Keller (The Eye of War), Aguierrezabala (War Edition); Afghanistan and related: Bronstein (Afghanistan), Duley (One Second of Light); Ukraine: Dostliev (Occupation), Dondyuk (Culture of Confrontation).
Valery Faminsky – Berlin Mai 1945
Photographer: Valery Faminsky (1914-1993; born and died in Moscow, Russia)
Publisher: Buchkunst Berlin, Germany; © 2018; Second Edition 2020
Essay: Prof. Dr. Peter Steinbach
Language: German and English
Hardcover, cloth, with tipped-in image and stitched binding; 184 pages, paginated, with 114 black-and-white images; 27 x 22.5 cm (10.5 x 9 inches); printed in Germany by Wanderer Druckerei
Photobook Designers: Ana Druga and Thomas Gust
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