'SCARS -Paul's Story' (2005) takes as its starting point a video of the scar above a WW2
SAS parachutist's eye. Paul Robineau, speaking in French, tells how the wound was
made and healed. The translation forms a series of six panels in the shape of the Cross
of Lorraine, the emblem of both the Resistance and the Free French in England.
SCARS – ‘Paul’s Story’ and ‘The Six Lives of Erich Ackermann’
For me, the Second World War exists as a black and white movie in which my English
father starred as the good guy and my German father in law as the villain of the piece.
For the nation, the War has taken on a mythical status as the focus of national pride and
is nostalgically invoked every time a government wants to lead us into a new war. My
father died just before the Falkland’s conflict and his obituary was used to promote the
image of the ideal of military valour, now resurrected to promote Thatcher’s war. My
father-in-law’s career as a bomber pilot in the Luftwaffe is unknown and forms no part of
Remembrance Day, because as he once told me, he “flew for the wrong side.” In the
culture, images of militarism and masculinity, both good (us) and bad (them) continue to
be entwined in computer games, films, television reconstructions and endless
documentaries about the SAS, the über-elite of the men who dared.
I began my series WAR STORIES with a film about my dead father, himself an officer in
the SAS during the war. This work led me to seek out witnesses who fought with him.
Many of them became close friends and felt able to entrust their own memories to me.
‘Paul’s Story’ within the present exhibition is the first of the SCARS series in which Paul
Robineau, himself a veteran of the French SAS describes the wounding and healing that
is marked by the scars on his body. It also became important for me to tell a story from
the ‘other’ side. My now deceased father-in-law provided the material for ‘The Six Lives
of Erich Ackermann’ and his photographs of the plane crashes he walked away from form
the visual material of the work. Extracts from his diary become the audible subtitles to the
images and the soft voices from both works speaking in French, English and German fill
the space and offer an alternative to the harsh Nazi tones of the movies and the go-go-go
hysteria of contemporary commando-speak. Unlike television documentaries, the
subjects are allowed to reminisce uninterrupted for as long as the viewer is willing to
listen. There are no voice-over commentaries, no uniforms, explosions and cheap
dramatic re-enactments that inhibit the work of the imagination. The presentation is
minimal, the content rich.
Both works attempt to create a listening environment, out of conflict, in which the veterans
reconstruct a version of the past breaking a silence that for the WW2 generation was a
matter of honour for ‘us’, and a question of survival for ex-Luftwaffe flyers like Ackermann
in post war Europe. Both stories tell of broken bodies, broken machines and shattered
dreams. Although it is impossible to make a work about war that is ideologically
untouched or one that combats the fascination of military conflict, I have striven to
present another agenda, that of a daughter, a female friend who is trying to understand
what it was like to be caught up in events that men create and that she has never herself
had to face. Although violence and conflict are very much a feature of the new
millennium, few of us have been tested to the extent of these individuals – so far anyway.
This daughter has always wondered what she would have done, what manner of man she
would have made.
I am grateful to Paul Robineau for his memories and to Ingeborg Ackermann for
permission to publish some of her husband’s images and extracts from his diary. Uwe
Ackermann kindly provided me with translations and his father’s voice.
-- Catherine Elwes March 2004