Photography in Fiction: My Parents’ Darkroom

The darkroom in the title of Reinhard Tenberg’s novel is a metaphorical one.  It is the mystery surrounding the activities of the parents of the narrator Jonas: his mother’s leading role in the BdM (Bund deutscher Madel – League of German Girls); his father’s war as an officer in the Wehrmacht; their flight from Allied bombing and the Russian advance in 1945; and their possible involvement in war crimes.  Jonas teaches post-war German history at a London University and is writing a book about the end of the Second World War told from the perspective of ordinary German citizens.

There is a real darkroom, however.  In 1945 Jonas’ father, Karl Rudolf Berger, ‘broke, and on desperate need of money to support his new family … started up a photography business’, in a shop selling cameras and doing portraiture and weddings – the studio held ‘a bulky camera on a wooden tripod’.  Jonas would drop into the shop and watch his ‘father perform his magic in the darkroom’ as he processed film and made prints – he recalls the dark, the dim red light and the smells and sounds.  He helps his father ‘to sort customers’ photos assembling them into wallets – prints in one pocket, negatives in the other.’ 

This is largely incidental to the main story and Jonas ‘got bored and lost interest in the whole photography business’.  While not interested in taking photographs he does reflect on what they mean.

Sometimes a photo’s subject is so powerful that it doesn’t matter whether it was taken by an amateur or a professional photographer; they capture moment we would like to last.  Moments of happiness, reflection or sadness, and any number of other emotions.  Why do we have this desire to capture life-memories we would otherwise forget? … For me, pictures tell stories, personal stories.  They give you a chance to dream and imagine what it would have been like to be there – just by looking at the image, the space, the background.  Letting your mind float and make connections between things.

Jonas inherits a shoebox full of old photographs and a cigar box containing some childhood toys a small photo album, a reel of cine film, a roll of exposed film and a scrap book including pages from a diary and a photograph of his parents’ wedding. 

We are told that the roll of film was taken on a Rollei, so 120 size and, given the time and place, probably Agfa.  Jonas has it processed, perhaps rather more easily than might actually be the case with 60 year-old film.  It has been damaged by moisture, but four photos are salvaged from the inner layer.  They show: dead soldiers near a Russian tank; Jonas’ father with two unknown people; an execution of civilians; and a self-portrait of Karl disguised as a French prisoner of war.

Jonas had hoped that the photographs would connect with the person he knew.  Instead they just pose more questions.  Where were they taken and who are they of?  And crucially, what do they reveal about Karl Berger’s part in wartime atrocities.  Jonas asks himself, ‘Were you fully committed, Dad, or just a cog in the system?’ 

The photographs provide no answers in themselves, though with other evidence they help to reveal the picture that Jonas is looking for.  He explains his research method to his students with a photographic analogy.

Therefore, I interpret on the basis of what I know about my parents and fill in the gaps with likely assumptions, just as one would in the first phase of developing a film in a darkroom.  There is no light and you have to feel the end of the film roll, take a snip in the dark and hope for the best.  Then you slowly begin to develop the pictures, analyse them and draw your conclusions.  In the end you can’t separate fact from fiction.

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