The Fugue of Forgetting


In the year 2000 I was living in Rome, and was invited to the ZKM (Zentrum fur Kunst und Media) for a residency.  While there I made Trinity, a 7 screen installation work of a rather abstract nature.  And in the same time, the US-Iraq war began, and the torture and other acts of America were revealed.  I had a vague idea to address these matters, and arranged with Geno Lechner, with whom I had wished to work for some time after seeing her on stage in London in a play directed by Harold Pinter.  Hers was a lesser role but she held the stage with some power.  As it happened she was able to give me some time, and we both went to Karlsruhe to use the green-screen room there and Digital Beta cameras.  I wrote the text quickly in the day or two before and Geno translated the night she arrived.  The film was shot in two days.  Editing took much longer as solving the brutal green-screen imagery took me some figuring out.  The result is this film, a kind of poetic essay work, rooted in German history, and using Bach’s The Art of the Fugue as a baseline.


Vergessensfuge is a meditation on the psychology of obedience and submission, in this instance springing from a handful of photographs taken in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp immediately after its liberation in 1945. The images are of young women, aged 20 – 30, who were guards at the camp – to say, compliant, obedient Germans doing as they were told to do.

Vergessensfuge obliquely enters this mental psychological landscape, in a mode which is structured as a musical fugue, and which approaches its subject by indirection. Throughout the work it remains unclear exactly what it is about, as direct reference is never made. The interior logic – heard in the Nuremberg trials after World War II, and heard anywhere in which persons comply with “(il)legal” orders – is that one was doing as the others did, one was “following orders.”

Aesthetically Vergessensfuge is poetic, theatrical, and simultaneously highly electronic. It was shot in a green-screen room, and subsequently the imagery was worked with the software compositing program Combustion, such that the same actress is seen doubled, and at the end, tripled on the screen.

While specifically rooted in the historical reality of the concentration camps in Germany, Vergessensfuge is poetically “open” and clearly addresses the psychology of submission in a more universal fashion. It ends with images of Americans subjecting prisoners to abuse in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.



2004 | Digital Video | Color | Sound | 66 minutes

Camera, edit and concept: Jon Jost

Script: original English version by Jon Jost – translation into German by Geno Lechner

Actress: Geno Lechner

Music: J.S. Bach, “The Art of the Fugue” very much altered on computer.

Made with the support of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), Karlsruhe, Germany


Ever since spending 2 plus years in prison (1965-67), during which time I concluded that America – and any culture – could at any time institute systems equivalent to the KZ (extermination camp) system of Nazi Germany. It was merely a matter of giving the order – cultures do not lack for mechanisms and persons willing and often eager to carry out abuses against other humans; they need only the authorization from their governmental bodies to commence.  Vergessensfuge is the result of this long pondering. It offers no answers, no solutions. It meditates on the corpus and asks the viewer to do the same.   As such it perhaps is emblematic of the failure of art in the face of human reality.




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