16mm film, 5:42 min
TET-Stadt takes the viewer on a journey through a self-contained perfect world. Majestic white buildings line grids of empty streets. Topped or fronted by pyramid structures, this could be a city of Pharaohs or priests. Plumes of smoke, perhaps from ceremonial fires, rise from a flat roof. A tall tower crowned by a temple, soars above it all. The lighting is striking. Strobes flicker. Shadows are strong. It might be night time – the witching hour.
In spite of the strong Egyptian influence however, this is clearly not an ancient site. An industrial electronic soundtrack suggests something futuristic. From a certain angle the buildings themselves appear to be highly embellished low-rise apartment blocks. What the camera moves through and records in black and white is in fact artist-filmmaker Karen Russo’s recreation of a model of a 1917 urban project, conceived by the German biscuit manufacturer Hermann Bahlsen and designed by the Expressionist artist Bernhard Hoetger. In a grandiose gesture of paternalistic industrialism, the Egyptian-themed complex was intended to house Bahlsen’s operations and workforce.
Though the original model was lost, almost seamlessly interwoven with Russo’s own footage are shots of Egyptian structures from Germanen gegen Pharaonen, a propaganda film from 1939 by Anton Kutter, which proposed that the pyramids were of Germanic origin. By the time Kutter made his documentary, ancient history had been mistranslated into numerous creation myths concerning German racial superiority. When Hoetger first turned to Egyptian motifs for inspiration 20 years earlier however, the wave of Egyptian revival architecture and design sweeping across his homeland, was yet to be used to more sinister ends. TET-Stadt – an urban utopia built from scratch – was a blank canvas. Hoetger and Bahlsen’s goal was, through the projects artistic and cultural references, to spiritualise commercial life.
In its mix of elements and references to different periods, from the antique past to the ideologically turbulent opening decades of the 20th century, the film reflects on the power of cultural archetypes and how they are repurposed in a contemporary setting. It examines the state of a social consciousness and identity in transit between a lost past and utopian future.