Before we look ahead, into the new year, we traditionally look back, at the beginning of November, into the past and the people that only dwell there and in our memories. Photographically, it’s tempting to visualize this feeling of loss in an autumn setting, when vibrant green vegetation has gone, to be replaced by a juxtaposition of brightly warm and muted earthy tones. Fallen leaves swept up by a chilling wind, nature withering away, mirror our moods and make them felt even more deeply. The timeframe of traditions such as these wasn’t chosen haphazardly.
For the German military cemetery in Vladslo, I chose a different representation, for reasons I hope will become clear. Having started as a German field hospital and burial ground during the First World War, the place would later see more than 20 000 additional mortal remains brought in to become one of the few large communal German cemeteries in the area.Currently, the grounds serve as the final resting place for 25 638 German soldiers. Placed in a common grave, their names are carved in flat stones, arranged in a seemingly endless checkerboard pattern laid out under a cover of oak trees, and delineated by a beech hedge creating a natural and fairly informal boundary between the site and the surrounding forest.
The only form of embellishment, if you can call it that (you probably shouldn’t), are a pair of statues called ‘The grieving parents’, looking at the many thousands of graves in front of them (you can see them in the back of the next image). While as much a symbol for all parents who saw their sons leave willingly for the frontline, their minds instilled with grand nationalistic ideals (which appear to be coming in waves, historically) - or not so willingly, the figures show first and foremost a particular father and mother. They were designed by expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz, and bear the stylized facial features of herself and her husband, looking at the grey stone tiles in front of them. On one of those, the name ‘Peter Kollwitz’ can be made out, son of the grieving couple. The figures show the different way in which each of them dealt (or didn’t deal) with the incomprehensible fact that their son had been killed, a mere ten days after saying goodbye to family life in Germany: the father kneeling, largely internalizing his state of mind, apparently stern but obviously broken, arms holding his own body in emotional disconnect. The mother is on her knees too, and while she doesn’t feel the need (or cultural inhibition) to try and hide her grief, she expresses it in a serene way, which leaves no doubt as to the state of mind she’s in. Her grandson, child of her other son and named after his uncle, died in the Russia during WW II, three years before she would pass away herself.
The statues had originally been placed by Kollwitz herself on one of the other cemeteries (harbouring her son) in 1932. When it was merged in 1956 with the one in Vladso, the Grieving Parents followed their son. The way the place has been designed matches the surrounding woods perfectly, and the statues seem to simply belong there. A site where heroism or other ideals have place nor meaning; there’s only a serene but, contradictorily, incredibly intense feeling of universal, all-encompassing and boundless sorrow, that simultaneously conveys an equally powerful and equally silent reproach of war and the dread and wastefulness, in every way imaginable, it stands for.
A place like this doesn’t need fallen leaves and autumn colours to help convey its message; if anything, their (overused) symbolism detracts from it. Instead, I tried to complement, rather than supplement that mesmerizing contrast of subdued but raging grief, of the peacefulness emanating from the place despite the incomprehensible violence necessary to bring it into existence, for all to see in the form of the many rows of tomb stones and the even more numerous names written on them. The light comes in small pools, slowly moving dapples gently touching the tomb stones. It’s a rather warm late afternoon, early evening perhaps, of one of those last days of summer that carry with them the inevitability of winter. Light that’s hard but golden, percolating through the canopies that soften it and wrap it in a distinctly fresh, green hue, carrying the promise of spring.