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by Nils Olger

grade: 7

In An Iron Box, director Nils Olger’s journey to Italy becomes not only a historical investigation, but also a necessary and urgent pilgrimage to atone – albeit indirectly – for his grandfather’s sins.

Pandora’s Box

“The most intimate secrets should be kept in an iron box”. This sentence expresses – at least in part – the essence of the documentary An Iron Box (original title, Eine eiserne Kassette), the newest work by Viennese director and video artist Nils Olger (presented in the documentary section at the Diagonale 2019), who, through his own family history, has staged an issue that is sadly topical.

The story begins in 2012, when Olaf Jürgenssen – the director’s grandfather – passes away. It is at this point that his grandmother, now widowed, shows young Olger an iron box, hidden for years inside a drawer. For years, a terrible secret has been kept inside: Jürgenssen’s past as an SS officer. As proof of this, there are 377 photographs taken by him during an expedition to Italy at the time of the massacre in Sant’Anna di Stazzema.

So, with An Iron Box, a long journey begins for Nils Olger to find out as much as possible about the matter. To forgive or not to forgive his grandfather? When we are shown interviews with Jürgenssen himself – as well as with his still living wife – it seems as if the director almost empathises with the young man who was forced to enlist but never actually laid a hand on any civilians. This is the impression one gets, at least in the first part of the documentary, where the aforementioned interviews alternate with the photographs taken by Jürgensser (the only documents testifying to the expedition), and with the testimonies of those who took part in the Italian resistance firsthand or, however, of those who saw their loved ones take part in the resistance directly (be they peasants or inhabitants of small villages in northern Tuscany).

Yet after the story – as well as Olger’s journey – has reached the time when the Allies have done their duty, everything suddenly takes another turn. And so begins a focus on the life of the director’s grandfather, who enlisted from a very young age and, at the end of the war, managed to escape arrest for war crimes and marry his longtime girlfriend. This is where, for (more than) a moment, one is confused by the ambiguous intentions of the director, who initially seems to somehow justify his grandfather’s actions. Everything, however, is suddenly contradicted by a (necessary) caption at the end of the documentary where Olger himself declares that he no longer has the memory of his grandfather as the grandfather he loved when he was alive, judging the latter as a criminal who did not even have the courage to assume his responsibilities before the law once the war was over.

Suddenly, An Iron Box seems – in retrospect – different. The director’s journey to Italy becomes not only a historical investigation, but also a necessary and urgent pilgrimage to atone – albeit indirectly – for his grandfather’s sins. Last but not least, the objects that belonged to the deceased (the photographs he took, as well as his clothes), filmed by the camera in such a way as to be isolated from the context in which they find themselves, as if they were contained within a museum, suddenly seem to us as something “foreign” to the eye of the observer (as well as to the eye of the camera). Something strange, strongly repulsive and frightening. Something that could reawaken a wound that has never really healed and which, in the very personal An Iron Box, is still alive and pulsating.

Original title: Eine eiserne Kassette
Directed by: Nils Olger
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 2018
Running time: 102’
Genre: documentary
Screenplay: Nils Olger
Cinematography: Nils Olger, Juri Schaden, Thomas Marschall
Produced by: Nils Olger

Info: the page of An Iron Box on the website of the Diagonale