Attempts to grasp the inner life of the last commander

Simon Stranger
Attempts to grasp the inner life of the last commander


What was he like, the last commander who lived here? The one who fooled everyone into thinking he’d drowned himself in the fjord, but instead ran away at the end of the war, disguised as a regular soldier?

I walk through the hallways of the house and try to picture him going about his daily routines. Preparing food, listening to music, sleeping, writing letters. I try to imagine the sound of his footsteps, laughter, coughing or the clinking of porcelain plates in the kitchen.

Did he ever regret taking the role as commander, or was he proud of his achievements? Did he enjoy sitting in his easy- chair, similar the ones now on display, smoking, while the day’s events flashed through his mind?

Did fragments of memories and conversations with friends and family sometimes float to the surface of his consciousness, filling the commander with melancholy, and a sense of regret for the decisions that brought him here?

I see him with a glass of liquor in his hand in solitude at night, finally at peace after many long hours in the prison camp, and suddenly it’s like he is there, stretching his hand out in the dark lit room.

One last drink. I really deserve it after a day like this, I think to myself, before sinking into the easy chair in the living room. While sipping to the burning liquor, I blink away the glimpses of todays work in the forest: smouldering corpses, mud and dirt falling from their decaying faces. We covered the bodies in blankets as quickly as possible to make the task a little easier for everyone. As the prisoners carried the bodies to the waiting truck, I could see the eyes of the accompanying soldiers asking me why I had made them dig up the dead.

Why? Because it will be too difficult to explain these executions to the world. It had to be done, for sure. This is the price of any war, but it will be too hard to explain now. It’s like taking a four-year-old to the slaughterhouse and watching him weep and cry in distress, only to ask for more meat the next day.

I see him drunk, stumbling through the hallway towards the kitchen to fetch something to eat, or perhaps on his way to the garden, to pee in the silvery light of the moon, but am I not simply picturing myself? My own experiences of being drunk, processed and shaped to fit the portrait of the last commander?

Did he sometimes stop on his way to the camp during that final spring of the war, lean his head backwards and watch the V-shaped flock of geese cutting across the morning sky? Did the sound of birdsong and the sight of migrating birds remind him of his childhood in the family garden in Germany?

We drove out to the harbor, near the white, wooden church, and stacked the dead bodies in an old boat. I reach for my lighter, and see the prison guards carrying the corpses wrapped in grey blankets. They fumble and struggle in their attempts to avoid dropping the bodies on the ground, as if the dead could ever get hurt by falling.

One of of these bodies belonged to my childrens’ great grandfather, Hirsch Komissar. I thought of him again, when we parked the car by the fjord one morning, and started carrying our equipment. We were three men. A german photographer, an assistant from Falstad, and me, ready to film a local choir. The sun rose over the calm sea and made the surface shimmer and glitter. The members of the choir that normally rehearses at Falstad were lined up, side by side on the wooden dock, like prisoners facing a firing squad, and they sang for us, again and again. It was a German SS-song, originally sung by the soldiers to lift their spirits while working, the photographer said. For example while preparing a grave.

We filled the wooden boat to the brim with bodies and rocks, and towed it out into open waters. Then I had one of the soldiers smash a hole in the bottom, the water rushed in, and the boat sank into the abyss like a dead whale. We rowed back to the shore, birds flying and singing over our heads.

The shipwreck and the bodies are now out of sight on the seabed, hidden even from the submarine vessel that searched for the remains, lighting up the mud in the deep, and the rare forms of life that exist in the darkness. The choir sang and sang, repeated the words of freedom, which in the mouths of former SS-soldiers would be a longing for a future where the enemy was finally defeated, and only the pure and clean could live, washing the sacrifices from their hands.

The horrors of this whole endeavor show the sacrifices so many of us have to make, in order to make this world a better place. Not just for today, but for generations to come. I noticed someone staring at us from a window as we took the boat, but they won’t dare to do protest, these villagers, and nor should they if they think for just a minute who’s making this community work.

Who bought planks from them? The meat, milk and butter and eggs and cheese? Who bought potatoes and cabbage and apples and pears and flour, and paid farmers in the area a good sum for their effort?

What do we see when we visit the past, other than parts of our self, our own wants and resentments? Our own interpretation?

I picture him by the window in the living room, seeing the reflection of his face in the glass, and then, all of a sudden, I see my own face.

Why am I doing this?

Because the past is not gone, and it never was.

I swallow the last drops of my drink, and feel the comforting dizziness as I stumble through the hallway, before stepping out into the garden to pee in the bushes. As I unbutton my fly in the darkness I see the lights from the prison camp flickering through the branches of the black trees. Soon a new day will come. Soon a new day will come for us all.

I walk back out through the glass facade of the entrance to the commander’s house, and see the photographer waiting for me in the dark. We walk in silence on the gravel path to the prison camp. Our shoes treading the same ground many others have trodded before us.

  • Project management Ana Zibelnik (Paradox), Ingeborg Hjorth (Falstad Centre)
  • Creative direction Bas Vroege
  • Texts and podcasts: Simon Stranger
  • Voice Simon Stranger, Bendik Østbye Johannessen
  • Studio Nordubb AS
  • Sound design Darius Timmer
  • Animation Floris Deerenberg
  • Web Design Daniël Sante, Marko Damiš
  • Web Development Marko Damiš
About the artist

Simon Stranger (b. 1976) is a Norwegian writer. He has written 18 books, is translated to 29 languages and was nominated for The Nordic Literary Award in 2015. His most read book is the Holocaust-novel Keep Saying Their Names (“Leksikon om lys og mørke”) from 2018, which takes place at Falstad and in Trondheim. The book won the Norwegian Booksellers Prize, The Riksmålsprisen and was voted one of the hundred best Norwegian novels of all time. Stranger lives and writes in Norway.