The illustration team Volker Schlecht and Alexandra Kardinar, under the artist name "Drushba Pankow", impressively and vividly tell the life story of the Pallottine priest Richard Henkes as a graphic documentary. Based on historical events and surviving letters by Richard Henkes, the illustrations depict his path to becoming a martyr of charity almost cinematically.
Volker Schlecht developed the storyboard for the graphic documentary and Alexandra Kardinar the colouring concept. The fictional characters of the narrator and his wife, who are based on sworn testimonies, form the framework of the plot. The prominent Auschwitz trial is the hook that awakens memories of the events in the Dachau concentration camp and thus of Richard Henkes, leading into the actual plot.
In several flashbacks that develop from the conversation between the fictional narrator and Richard Henkes, various periods of Father Henkes' life are thematised: the care of his sick confrere Franz Xaver Salzhuber, Henkes' soldiering during the First World War, his time of crisis in the seminary, his work in Frankenstein and Branitz, his arrest and finally his time in the Dachau concentration camp until his death. In the meantime, the graphic documentary is also available in Czech.
The graphic documentary "And when the truth destroys me" has already won several awards: The documentary won third place in the Book & Editorial Illustration category of the European Design Awards 2020, was nominated for the ICOM Independent Comic Award 2020 and included in the American Illustration Annual 38 (AI-AP).
Drushba is Russian and means "friendship".
Drushba Pankow is the collaborative work of illustrators Alexandra Kardinar und Volker Schlecht, founded in 2002 in the Berlin district of Pankow/Prenzlauer Berg. Both have been working as graphic designers, artists, and illustrators for about 20 years. Their areas of expertise range from book design, hand-drawn and digital illustration, and infographics to comics, graphic novels, and animated films.
From 2006 to 2012 Alexandra Kardinar was professor of illustration at the Georg Simon Ohm University of Applied Sciences in Nuremberg, and since 2012 she has taught as professor of media illustration at haw Hamburg.
Volker Schlecht taught at the Film University Konrad Wolf in Potsdam-Babelsberg from 2002 to 2007 in the Animation programme and has been Professor of Sequential Illustration at the University of Applied Sciences Europe, Campus Berlin since 2014.
Drushba Pankow won several awards for her illustrations and book design, for example the European Design Award (Gold) for the book The Soul Of Motown in 2010. Her animated short films were also shown and awarded at many international festivals.
They work for newspapers and magazines such as Rolling Stone, Die Zeit, The New Yorker, Wirtschaftswoche, arte Magazin, the art magazine Form, Il Sole 24 Ore, Geolino, Brigitte, Slanted and Focus for clients such as Mercedes Benz, Leipziger Buchmesse, Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Villeroy & Boch, Jung von Matt, for publishers such as edel, Büchergilde Gutenberg and many others.
You have been commissioned by the Diocese of Limburg to write a graphic novel about the life of Richard Henkes, a Pallottine priest who perished in Dachau during the Nazi era. How did your connection with the diocese come about and why did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I first have to say thank you for this great project. My mode is always to say "no" at first because I think I don't have time - and then I do it anyway. I came to the diocese in 2016 through a cover illustration for the EULENFISCH on the theme of "Mercy". That was immediately a subject close to my heart. It was the year of the great refugee crisis. Since then we have worked together occasionally.
And why did you get involved in the new project?
Somehow everything is connected: All the topics we have dealt with so far have had social and political aspects. In Richard Henkes, I was initially interested in dealing with the topic of the "Nazi era", especially now that the election results are blowing up in our faces here in the East. So the commission has become a matter close to my heart. Somehow more and more. The great thing about projects like this is that you learn so much yourself. Personally, of course, I knew almost nothing about this aspect of Catholic resistance under National Socialism beforehand. It was completely new to me. And during the work, this Richard Henkes grew so close to my heart that I already compared it to the approach of method acting known from acting, in my case as a kind of method drawing.
Berlin is one of the most secular cities in the world. Recently, the book "Kein Himmel über Berlin" by Thomas Brose was published. The author shows that even in secular Berlin there are religious traces that are often unsuspected. As a Berliner, you have now dealt with a Catholic priest. How does that fit together?
Perhaps, this is speculative, as someone who lives in a secular city and, in my case, grew up largely secular, one is even more open to such topics than if I had grown up traditionally Protestant, for example. Perhaps I would have had much more difficulty with it then. As far as Catholicism and my personal, conscious or unconscious sympathies with it are concerned, I have actually been dealing with the subject relatively much lately. Most recently in discussion with Martin Luther during the whole Luther Year. I am thinking here, for example, of Erasmus of Rotterdam's debate with Luther on the problem of free will. Also, as an illustrator or as a teacher, I have dealt a lot with art history in recent years, especially with the Italian Renaissance. This went so far that I sometimes told my students that as an image person, one should actually have great sympathy for the Catholic Church, because the subject of the image is not entirely unproblematic in Protestantism. For those who grew up Lutheran, this is less dramatic. Many people today are no longer aware of it. I myself realised this once when we came from a holiday in Italy to visit friends in Bern and then suddenly came to a completely empty Gothic church. This Protestant sobriety is particularly striking when you have previously been in a wonderful Italian world of images. So visually I have a strong connection to the Catholic Church, but otherwise I have only dealt with it as an outsider and interested layman.
Also, as an illustrator or as a teacher, I have dealt a lot with art history in recent years, especially with the Italian Renaissance. This went so far that I sometimes told my students that as a picture person, one should actually have great sympathy for the Catholic Church.
How did you approach the person of Richard Henkes and did anything surprise or irritate you?
So I couldn't say irritated. Many things were new to me, e.g. terminology of which I, as a person who grew up more or less untouched by the Catholic faith, had no idea whatsoever what they meant. For example, terms like retreat. I found Henkes' letters interesting, comprehensible and humanly sympathetic. He put all his hardships and inner struggles into his letters. They brought him close to me, so that I realised that this is a subject for me. I've never read anything like it in this openness before. And yet it wasn't so open that you think, do I want to know all this in such detail now?
After this intensive training, you got down to work and took over both the storyboard and the graphics. Isn't that rather unusual?
Of course there are different approaches, for example with the classics like Asterix, that was two. But with the author comics it is actually often the case that one does both. There are examples where you notice that the content and the text are actually more important to the author than the drawing. For example, I only found access to Art Spiegelman's "Maus - The Story of a Survivor" when I actually read it, because I wasn't really interested in the drawings. For me, I've always thought that I'd rather do things where the text is written by someone else. With the Henkes story, I suddenly realised that I really "enjoy" writing. That you think about real dialogue and try to break down a complex story. I suddenly found that totally interesting.
Based on the sources, you developed an interesting frame story that introduces the actual events. How did you come up with it?
When Pallottine Father Hubert Lenz came to visit me in my studio, he told me the complete biography of Richard Henkes, including the reference to the field medical officer G. Z., who only appears in the biography by Manfred Probst. At that time I did not know the biography at all. Father Lenz told me about this Wehrmacht doctor who somehow had a relationship with Richard Henkes - Richard Henkes gave him his Bible, which was certainly not easy under the circumstances. That was all that could be found out about him. For me it was the perfect frame story because there was enough scope to make things up. When Father Lenz told me this, I immediately thought spontaneously: this is the person I can identify with. If I had gone straight into the concentration camp storyline, I would have missed the distance. The reader also needs this distance. This somewhat mysterious field submarine doctor, whose name we don't know because he has been anonymised, was a rather normal guy who makes you think that the same thing could have happened to you - not a hero. He got into it somehow and tried to get out of it as decently as possible: that was my reference person, quite spontaneously. His wife later made a sworn statement that her husband had told her about Richard Henkes. That's the frame story, I thought. Much later, the former field medical officer tells his wife the story of Richard Henkes from Dachau concentration camp. But what could be the reason why he tells her about it? I thought of the Auschwitz trial in the 1960s. The Dachau trial was too close in time to it for my frame story and I wanted a temporal distance. This makes it clear that Dachau was only one part of the extermination machinery of the Nazi state.
This unconditionality, which is so clear for Richard Henkes, when he says 20 years before Dachau that he wants to be a sacrificial priest from then on. I thought, wow, he was able to write all that down as a young man. This correspondence was suddenly very important to me.
The biography of Henkes is extensive. You have limited yourself to certain stations and events. What prompted them to do so?
One of the most important reasons for me was that I can only take excerpts because I had to somehow focus through the time frame. Why did Richard Henkes end up in a concentration camp? And what motivated him to go so far that he ended up volunteering to care for typhoid patients. I tried to pick out these aspects from the biography. His military service at the end of the First World War probably took on an outsized weighting in my story. The aspects of the military were somehow very close to me, including this certain disgust with the military. I could personally relate to that because I felt the same way. And then there was the conflict that manifested itself in the correspondence with Father Kentenich. I found that personally exciting because I had always been interested in finding out what goes on in a person who decides to become a priest. That was always a great mystery to me. This correspondence already contains this either-or. This unconditionality, which is so clear for Richard Henkes when he says 20 years before Dachau that he wants to be a sacrificial priest from then on. I thought, wow, he was able to write all that down as a young man. So this correspondence was suddenly very important to me. Then comes his confrontation during the Nazi era on a double page spread. I found two aspects: firstly, the story from school in Frankenstein, where he openly tells his pupils what he thinks about these Nazi songs, and then his sermon in the church service in Branitz, which he ultimately stumbles over. Admittedly, this could have been given more space. Everything else is almost logical: the interrogation, the arrest and the concentration camp. I deliberately left out the childhood aspect because I wanted to focus on the things that are already Henkes' conscious decisions or lead to these conscious decisions.
Your work is a graphic documentary and not a graphic novel. Explain the difference.
I was actually unsure about the term "graphic documentary" until the very end. The English term "comic" was ruled out for me because of the German meaning of "comedy". With a graphic novel, you always have a certain scope in mind. In our case it is at most a short story. And our story is not a "novel" either, because it is precisely not fiction. That's how I came up with the term "documentary". In animated film, where I am a bit more at home, there is a relatively new genre called "Anima Doc" or "Anidoc", in other words an "Animated Documentary". Here, pure documentary material is visually translated with animated films. That suited me because I had an extremely documentary demand. For the dialogue scenes in the military, for example, I found texts in Erich Maria Remarque's "Nothing New in the West" that I thought could fit Henkes' experiences. I wanted to interpret as little as possible of my personal fiction into the story so as not to devalue the whole thing.
Some graphic novels are black and white, others are coloured. Why did you decide to colour them?
In between I asked myself whether black and white in its reduction would not be more appropriate for the subject. When I do something on my own, like my last animated film, I often work relatively black and white, partly simply for reasons of effort. In my collaboration with Alexandra Kardinar, we are often very colourful. We had wanted to do something bigger together for a long time, and the diocese's commission presented itself. And that made it clear that it would be colourful in some way. Years ago we did a graphic novel for Büchergilde Gutenberg: "Fräulein von Scuderi" by E.T.A Hoffmann. Of course you could play around with colour and be crazy, with such fiction projects you are simply freer in the design. And now this very sad and at the same time documentary theme, where we felt we had to deal with colour in a much more objective way. In the end, we arrived at a very restrained colourfulness. The scenes are coloured with the handbrake on, so to speak. When a colleague in the studio saw the scenes in colour for the first time - she had previously only known them in black and white - she said: "Now that it's in colour, it's much more difficult for me to distance myself from it. All of a sudden it jumps out at me much more and it's much more concrete." So I thought, okay, then colour does add value to the story after all.
There is a dangerous half-knowledge among many people. That's why it was especially important to me that my work be documentary and supported by sources. The more I dug into history, the more I realised that I was also doing it for my "cultural circle", which is agnostic, Protestant, North German - you name it.
What is the special attraction of preparing a story - independent of Father Henkes - as a graphic novel?
For a long time I thought that the attraction for me was drawing. But at the latest since I have been teaching sequential illustration, I have been asking myself the questions: How do I approach a subject? How do I build it up? How do I structure it? How do you use the narrative structure of comics for the plot to tell a story differently than when you traditionally write a book? Before, I used to approach a story more from my gut. Today, I'm much more interested in structure. This time I approached the graphic documentary as if I were my own student, which is how I actually teach it - by the book, by the textbook.
Which readers would you like to have for your graphic documentary about Richard Henkes?
I had rather young people in mind, a generation that is even further away than we are from what happened. There is a dangerous half-knowledge among many people. That's why it was particularly important to me that my work was documentary and supported by sources. The more I dug into the story, the more I realised that I was also doing it for my "cultural circle", which is agnostic, Protestant, North German - you name it. Of course, I had all the current political developments in mind; half of society is moving to the right and you have to do something about that. But the people you have to reach unfortunately don't read it. That is always the problem. In the end, it is a self-affirmation of the people who read such a graphic novel out of a certain affinity. Nevertheless, I try to avoid this pedagogical pointing finger. I don't want to make a popular educational claim. That's why I try to be careful not to be too explicit. But I hope that there are enough aspects in this short form that somehow catch that.
We now see the finished product. There are a lot of decisions and small steps behind it, also on the practical level. We would be interested to know how that went in concrete terms? How do you work? With a pen, on the computer, in combination, with a brush, or however?
Our way of doing comics or illustration is actually different from the traditional approach. Most comic authors work much more exclusively digitally or exclusively analogue and then draw directly into the panels. First as a sketch and then maybe in two or three steps until the final work. Thanks to digital technology, of course, you can still intervene and do everything differently. In our collaboration, Alexandra and I have developed an approach over more than 15 years that only creates raw material in analogue form, so that you don't have to make a decision at all, but can only do research first. Research is extremely important for us. I did an incredible amount of research for Richard Henkes in the beginning. It goes as far as researching which SS ranks are at all plausible for the situation presented. We want to research a story as thoroughly as is possible in the given time. Then, based on the research, we begin to select pictures and create a mountain of analogue pencil-drawn raw material. From this we then build the pages in these comic panels, so to speak, and see how everything fits together. Certainly, it's not a very common approach in comics that we build digital collages from our own drawings on the screen. I prefer not to have to decide anything while drawing, but to be able to try things out afterwards and play with the material. It could well be that our process is extremely ineffective in terms of time, but somehow it has developed that way over the years. The colour then comes in as a final step. At first, the illustrations are all black and white. Only then do Alexandra and I start experimenting with colour. Since everything is digital, the colour is also added digitally - from infinitely large Photoshop files, where we play around with analogue material, e.g. with scanned-in colour structures of brush strokes or of things, where we simply scan in old papers and cardboards: a big analogue-digital collage.
Dear Mr Schlecht, thank you very much for the interview.
The questions were asked by Martin W. Ramb and Thomas Menges for the EULENFISCH magazine.