I am still wondering how I managed to miss this work when it was first published twelve years ago. I discovered it recently when I was browsing in the IMDB website and saw a trailer for the movie Lore, released only last month in North America. I have yet to see the movie, but I read sufficient about The Dark Room to order it from the UK.
Did the work fulfil my expectations? Yes, it did, but I admit to some slight, not exactly disappointment, but discomfort perhaps, because I think I was expecting that the three individual narratives would somehow relate more closely to each other in terms of plot as well as in terms of theme.
That said, The Dark Room is a work that stays with the reader, leaving one disturbed and thoughtful. Each of the three narratives works well as an individual short story. Together, they create a sequence of snapshots, I use the word intentionally, of half a century or so of German history. Helmut, Lore, and Micha, in their own times and own ways attempt to come to terms with the personal implications of German actions and history.
At the very centre of this work is the question of how individuals deal with responsibility for the Shoah. In the first narrative “Helmut,” we know, unlike Helmut, what is coming. We understand the significance of the gradual emptying of Berlin, an emptying that Helmut records on film. We know what he is seeing when he takes pictures of the gypsies being rounded up by the SS. We wonder, given Helmut’s physical deformity, what his own ultimate fate may be. We are not told; we last see him “standing high on his rubble mountain, over which Soviet tanks will roll with ease,” but he is “smiling” (63). Perhaps because now at last his deformity no longer separates him from full participation in German society.
In the narrative “Lore,” the Holocaust is more concrete than the “tales of emaciation and ashes, of stinking smoke and pits full of bodies” (62) that are beginning to be told at the end of the war. It is a known horror. But Lore must “unravel. . . ; lies and photographs: Jews and graves; tattoos and newspapers and things not being as bad as people say” (210). Her parents are in prison, but her grandmother assures her that “they did nothing wrong” (211). And yet she had to throw their Nazi badges in the stream.
For Micha, in the last part of the novel, not knowing the extent to which his grandfather, a member of the Waffen SS, was complicit in war crimes is a constant torment. He has to know even at the cost of relationships with his family.
It is in the three narratives’ shared focus on absences, silences, and on things unrevealed that one finds the coherence among the three stories. Helmut, Lore, and Micha must deal with what they don’t understand, with what they don’t know, with the silences, with refusals to speak.
The narratives are linked, too, in their reliance on photography, on what pictures can and cannot reveal. It is almost impossible to discuss The Dark Room without recourse to the language of photography as one uses terms such as focus or thinks about characters desiring to expose the truth. Most of all, the title resonates throughout the novel, for the dark room is so many places: that place where truth is revealed, the image slowly appearing from the negative; the dark place of shame, the place we do not want to visit, that room shut up with memories that we do not want to think about, dare not acknowledge. And perhaps it is in its examination of shame that The Dark Room is at its most powerful. Helmut, Lore, and Micha bear no personal responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era, but they bear the shame of those crimes even though they did not participate in them.
The novel ends with a reconciliation of a sort but suggests only a partial resolution for the reader. We never find out what happens to Helmut or Lore, and Micha finds it “painful” that his daughter’s “family map” is “unproblematic, curious, hesitant” (390).
The Dark Room is not an easy book. How do we deal with the sins of the past, with our own family histories recorded in photo albums, in our parents’ memories, and in our own DNA? Just how responsible are we for the evil around us? The Dark Room offers no easy answers.