Filmmaker: Martin Race

Todesfuge by Paul Celan

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Poem by Paul Celan

English translations: Michael Hamburger; John Felstiner; Jerome Rothenberg

Video by Philipp Fröndt, Max Straßer and Martin Race

This perhaps overly literal interpretation of the poem is the only one on YouTube to employ moving images. The slideshows, however, use a recording by Celan himself. Here’s the one I found the most effective:

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To put Celan’s reading in context, Gail Holst-Warhaft writes,

The Todesfuge has acquired a unique status among poems about the death camps. To many of its readers, it seemed to contradict Adorno’s famous dictum about the impossibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz. Of all Celan’s poems, the Todesfuge has been the most discussed, anthologized, and translated. Celan’s own reading of the poem, preserved on record, emphasized its relentless rhythm, an effect achieved by repetition, alliteration, and a dance-like beat that reinforces the grotesque musical imagery of a poem originally published in Romanian and called “Tango of Death.” The title recalls the Jewish musicians forced to perform by the S.S. At the Janowska camp near Lvov (not far from Celan’s birthplace in Czernowitz) Jewish musicians were ordered to play a “Death Tango” during marches, grave-digging, tortures, and executions. Before liquidating the camp, the S.S. shot all the musicians. At Auschwitz, the term “Death Tango” was used for whatever music was played when groups of prisoners were executed. Without the lilt of this macabre dance music, the poem loses much of its effect.

Inevitably, then, the poem attracted the attention of composers. Here’s a video of a live performance of Elmir Mirzoev’s setting:

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