Death in a Bathtub

Uwe Barschel at the Hotel Beau-Rivage, Geneva, 11th of October, 1987.

Let me introduce you to one of the most iconic photographs of post-war Germany: the politician Uwe Barschel found dead in a bathtub in a hotel in Geneva. I was nine years old when this photograph was imprinted in my memory. It was taken by journalists working for Stern magazine as they checked up on Barschel in his hotel room. It is a highly voyeuristic image and one can only assume that the journalists decided to pull back the shower curtain in order to get a better view of Barschel. The strong flashlight of the camera captures every little detail: Barschel lies fully clothed in a bathtub, his body submerged in water, his head leaning towards the side. A few details of the photograph are intriguing: his collar button is opened and his tie is loosened, his hair is wet despite being above water and his wristwatch peaks out from his sleeve. The non-water proof wristwatch would later give an indication of Barschel’s time of death. All these elements further raised the intrigue of what happened to Barschel.

Until this day, the circumstances of Barschel’s death have not been resolved. One line of investigation has been suicide as several drugs have been found in the room and in Barschel’s body. Another theory involves the Isreali secret service Mossad who were weary of Barschel’s knowledge of an arms deal between Isreal and Iran. The mysteriousness of Barschel’s last living moments coupled with the paradoxical representation of his death had the effect that this photograph gained iconographic status and remains well remembered in the German psyche.

Thomas Demand, Bathroom (Badezimmer), 1997.

The German photographer Thomas Demand who is well-known for his reconstructions of iconographic images, rebuilt the bathtub in room 317 of the Hotel Beau-Rivage in paper and cardboard. There is no trace of Barschel himself in Demand’s reconstruction, yet the vantage point of the camera, the bathroom tiles, even the water level in the bathtub remain strikingly similar to the original photograph published by Stern magazine. As if to grant the deceased subject more privacy, Demand drew the curtain slightly closed. Demand’s image is a comment on the role of photography in the production and consumption of memory.

Jacques Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793.

But it is not only photographic memory that is referred to here. Jacques Louis David’s painting of Marat lying dead in a bathtub is part of this visual iconography in the construction of memory. I hesitate to assume that the Stern journalists were aware of David’s painting. Nor do I think that Stern readers immediately think of the Death of Marat when they see the photograph of Barschel. Nevertheless, the striking similarities between David’s painting and the Barschel photograph might explain why the latter has become one of the most iconic images in recent German history. Marat was assassinated while Barschel, as many believe, might also have been the victim of political plot. Like Marat’s note held in his left hand, Barschel’s wristwatch signifies the immediacy of his death.

For more on the relationship between mortality and photographic representation, please read Audrey Linkman’s book Photography and Death. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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