Revitalizing Spirits of the Past

Unpacking the ‘Ghost Story’ in Philip Scheffner’s The Halfmoon Files (2007)

In Philip Scheffner’s The Halfmoon Files (2007), a figure named Mall Singh steps forward just far enough so that his contours emerge, as if he approaches us from within the fog, but the entirety of his person remains in the recession of the past. Singh’s fragmented presence in the historical archives haunts German documentary filmmaker Scheffner in his investigation into the World War I era Prisoner-of-War (POW) camp in Wünsdorf -the Halbmondlager– and the voice portraits of many of its inmates in the Lautarchiv, which was pioneered by language teacher Wilhelm Dögen.(1) Wünsdorf as a city is an archive in its entirety, as well as an “ideal place for ghosts.”(2) Singh is one ‘ghost’ that surfaces in the Lautarchiv through these recordings intended for ethnolinguistic study, and occupies the crux of the ‘ghost story’ Scheffner attempts to trace in his film.

Postcard depicting ‘Mohammedaner’ from the prisoner of war camp at Zossen-Wünsdorf.

In one scene, Scheffner interviews a Wünsdorf resident whose family has lived in the exact site of the former POW camp for decades, where the original structure still stands. The resident testifies to recurring ghostly sounds reverberating from the dark basement and wooden beams of the old encampment. Though this is the only scene in the film that alludes to the ‘ghost story’ of the horror genre, Scheffner continuously plays around with different forms of manifestation the ghost of history takes around this town, in German history, and in the framework of the film. Scheffner’s storytelling metaphor of the ‘ghost story’ has a great potential for other filmic and archival exercises to recover the voice(s) of the past. It reveals the possibilities of a type of historical investigation that rests on a spiritual summoning and communication with historic figures and the past. This kind of spiritualism, the scorned ‘pseudo-science’ of the 19th century and fodder for horror movies in the 20th and 21st centuries, can be used to understand critical concepts of postcolonial theory, such as authorship, authenticity, and performativity, which are grappled with in The Halfmoon Files. The ‘ghost story’ can be a postcolonial counterargument to the (racist and racialized) scientific and technological obsessions that gave rise to the recordings in the Lautarchiv.

Photo of a Victorian séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872.

Spiritualism was in vogue in the 1850s, in the thick of the so-called ‘enlightened nineteenth century,’ first taking off in America and spreading to Europe. (3) Several prominent scientists at this time were at the very least entertained by the claims made by spiritual mediums and the spiritual manifestations in séances, and at most convinced of the scientific merits of spiritualism. (4) At this time, men of science believed that the universe operated as a machine that could be reasonably pieced together, even on the spiritual level of the human soul, reflecting concurrent rapid advances in industrial technology. A new development of spiritual communication in the mid-19th century was that the audience members tested the truth value of the manifestations by posing questions; the ability of the spirit to give accurate answers determined the believability of its existence, as well as the credibility of the medium. (6) In other words, they were applying scientific methods of verification to the spirit world. Those believers in spiritualism, however, were eventually overruled by scientists from the camps of positivism and naturalism, who claimed to represent the utmost rational objectivity. These scientists were to be crucial in validating and supporting the ideology of European colonialism, in which a secular Western modernity was on a mission to enlighten backwards societies still stuck in pre-modern religious beliefs.

Such positivist critics of spiritualism decried that spiritualism produces fragmented and unsustainable subjectivities. This tendency of spiritual identities to splinter threatened the teleological, linear-rationality of the modern age that they were envisioning wherein there could only be one ‘scientific’ truth and thus one reality.

Filmmaker Trinh Min-Ha argues that a quest for scientific clarity is always ideological […] such a demand for clear communication often proves to be nothing else but an intolerance for any language other than the one approved by the dominant ideology.” (5)

Science thus is a deeply ideological battlefield. It is integral to justifications of dominating rhetoric and scientific production of knowledge- the ‘right’ kind. In the case of the Lautarchiv, scientific methods were applied to the collection of these voice-records to create legible, containable images of other ethnic cultures.

The possibility that these carefully constructed, ordered and preserved archives themselves are haunted by ghosts revitalizes the subjectivities of the spirits, whose voices can only be heard in measured snippets of the ‘scientific’ recordings. In this case, coming into contact with the archival fragment of a historical ghost is like the limited manifestation of a spirit in a séance, splintered across time and space. In the film, the archives themselves are a recurring character – even spirit. Through the shots that zoom in and out of the archival cabinets, the film shows that not even the archive as medium can pass without the interrogation of the ‘spectators’ of the present, and embodies a key skepticism of a full historical reality. Thus, the historical ghost story, which is trapped in the corporeal body of the archives can haunt those living in the present, through its very fragmented and unfinished nature. 

Ghosts both scare and excite us because their existence goes beyond the confines of our rationality, and suggest the possibility of multiple truths. The plethora of ideas/myths/beliefs surrounding the concept of a ‘ghost’ itself could be a demonstration of the “unavoidable plurality of language.” (7) In certain societies, ghosts peacefully coexist with humans, in cohabitation rather than in a binary relationship where the human ‘self’ is pitted against the haunting ‘other.’ Think Casper the Friendly Ghost, a small and unthreatening baby spirit whose whole character development is organized around him being actually ‘nice’ rather than that creepy long-haired dame coming out of the TV in the “Ring.” When, how and why in Euro-American society did the prophetic and respectable ghost of Hamlet’s father get replaced by the bad spirit demon who regrettably refuses to stop inhabiting your soul? This is a question for another time.

Casper the Friendly Ghost

An old idiom in Korean culture used to describe an instance or circumstance so strange or curious, for example, that it is quite impossible to know the ‘inside story’, can be roughly translated as: “Even a ghost would weep.”(8) In my understanding, the idiom implies that the ghost weeps from bewilderment that even though it has supernatural and virtually unlimited powers, it is unable to make sense of what has happened. It can also be used to describe a situation that is rationally impossible, because ghosts can’t technically ‘cry,’ but has nevertheless taken place. This idiom seems relevant to me in the shared bewilderment between a ghost and someone in the present, perhaps in the same way that Scheffner might still be trying to make sense of the missing pieces in the puzzle that is Mall Singh. Working as a spiritual medium necessarily involves performativity, as the medium gives corporeal and verbal shape to the spirits. Narration is a defining factor of documentaries; in The Halfmoon Files, we interact very clearly with the point of view of Scheffner, especially in the beginning and end of the film. As a spiritual medium, Scheffner is an unconventional (perhaps even postmodern) one – he does not presume to ever speak directly for the ghostly subject; only in the instances where he brings in the actual voice recordings do we get a true spiritual mediation.




Further reading:

  • Minh‐ha, Trinh T. “All‐owning Spectatorship.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 13, no. 1–3 (January 1, 1991)
  • Moore, R. Laurence. “Spiritualism and Science: Reflections on the First Decade of the Spirit Rappings.” American Quarterly 24, no. 4 (1972)
  • Amad, Paula. “Visual Riposte: Looking Back at the Return of the Gaze as Postcolonial Theory’s Gift to Film Studies.” Cinema Journal 52, no. 3 (2013): 49–74. Thinking of the ‘return-of-the-gaze’ phenomenon that limitedly allows us a glimpse of the subjective self, the metaphor of the ghost, which can manifest itself as it likes and as it chooses to, could also give more agency to the (post)colonial subject.
  • Gomel, Elana. “‘Spirits in the Material World’: Spiritualism and Identity in the ‘Fin De Siècle.’” Victorian Literature and Culture 35, no. 1 (2007): 189–213. An excellent article that looks at the performativity of (gendered) identities and fragmented construction of subjectivities in Western spiritualism, not related to this article, but a great read.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives.” History and Theory 24, no. 3 (1985): 247–72. An iconic and iconically obscure article by Spivak reflecting on the impossibility of retrieving subjectivity and agency in historical archives.



Sources and Footnotes

(1) “Das Lautarchiv Der Humboldt-Universität Zu Berlin.”  Recordings in the Sound Archive date back to 1909, at the initiative of language teacher Wilhem Doegen (1877-1967). In 1920, Doegen’s original language learning records were combined with those made by musicologist and psychologist Carl Stumph, who had led the project of recording the language and traditional music of WWI German prisoners of war to form the Sound Department of the Prussian State Library. Later, voice recordings made by Ludwig Darmstaedter of famous male politicians, scientists and artists was added to this collection. 

(2) Scheffner, Philip. The Halfmoon Files. Documentary, 2007.

(3) Moore, R. Laurence. “Spiritualism and Science: Reflections on the First Decade of the Spirit Rappings.” American Quarterly 24, no. 4 (1972), 475.

(4)  Moore, 477. These men of science included famed physicists and evolutionary biologists, such as Alfred Russell Wallace. This article is a limited discussion of European and American spiritualism, as spiritualism was also popularly practiced outside of the West, where it was associated with different debates, and cultural and religious connotations. Spiritualism, although generally dismissed in historiography as an anomalous occult tradition, was in actuality closely linked to the scientific tradition of skepticism (though it’s important to keep in mind that what ‘science’ meant two centuries ago, is not what it means today.) As historian R. Laurence Moore states, spiritualism was conscious of the negative associations with the occult, and “(appealed not to) the inward illumination of mystic experience, but to the observable and verifiable objects of empirical science.”

(5) Minh‐ha, Trinh T. “All‐owning Spectatorship.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 13, no. 1–3 (January 1, 1991), 88. Scheffner’s filmic framework of the ‘ghost story’ could be interpreted as embodying a radically new spiritualism, in which a different form of rationalism is asserted with the same scientific tools, and one that exactly goes against films that Trinh Minh-ha critiques as ascribing to “rational communication with its normalized filmic codes and prevailing objectivist, deterministic-scientific discourse.”

(6)  Moore, 481. Thinking of Scheffner as a spiritual medium helps to make sense of his seemingly impenetrable interest in producing The Halfmoon Files. Scheffner does not necessarily have a personal connection or reason for speaking to the ghost – he is a medium for the spirit, but is also a medium for the spectators; he is a bridge to the spiritual world.

(7) Minh‐ha, 82.

(8) The original phrase is: “귀신이 곡할 노릇이다.” The character for weeping was derived from the  Chinese letter, 哭, which means to lament, wail or moan.