…ich hab auch mein [Leben] Lanng khain vngesunder Landt nit gesehen, dan daß…  — Huldericus Fabro

Origins and Evolution of the Valaco Archive



R. Wälke, Autumn 1944

On January 30, 1945, the last film production of the Third Reich premiered to a select audience of Nazi military brass and political leaders, screening simultaneously in the Reichs Chancellery in Berlin (just moments after Hitler’s final radio address) and to Vice-Admiral Ernst Schirlitz’s troops at the beseiged submarine base of La Rochelle (where copies of the film were air-dropped clandestinely to evade the Allied blockade). The motion picture—expressly commissioned by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels (he likewise collaborated on the screenplay) and esteemed as the costliest in the history of German cinema to that point—was directed by Veit Harlan, already renowned for his populist melodramas of the 1930s and early 1940s, the anti-Semitic screed Jud Süß (1940) most notable among them. With all the blunted nuance of propaganda (and much historiographic license), the Goebbels-Harlan collaboration known as Kolberg recounts the 1807 resistance of the eponymous Prussian city against Napoleon’s conquering legions. Goebbels had envsioned the work as a galvanizing appeal to the German people to resist the Allied onslaught to the very last dying German subject, young or old, healthy or infirm, at a moment in the war when the National Socialist enterprise was careening inexorably towards self-annihilation. To that end, over the course of filming, Harlan was said to have furloughed (with Goebbels’s approval) more than twenty thousand servicemen from active duty on the front lines to play as extras in the picture’s many spectacular battle scenes.

To date, there exists no documented testimony of the experience of any of those infantrymen summoned to appear in Harlan’s Kolberg in the spring, summer, and fall of 1944. That any had before set foot on the set of a film production, let alone one of such colossal scale and national urgency, is altogether improbable. With somewhat greater certitude, we may appreciate the obscene parallel such an experience should have offered to the quotidian savagery of their lives on the front: in lieu of machine gun fire, tank battallions, and bomber squadrons, the soldiers now faced simulated canon artillery, blank muskets with dulled bayonets, and row upon neatly ordered row of army regiments dressed in the crisp red, white, and blue of the French military of an earlier century, their mimicry of war incessantly interrupted by the ministrations of film crews and production coordinators.

Even so, some indices—scattered, fragmentary, idiosyncratic, indeed by certain measures indeterminable—would appear to evoke the sojourn of a man who very well may have numbered among those tens of thousands of soldiers called from the war’s apocalyptic maw to muster on the Ufa Studio lots near Berlin, with orders to play at a make-believe war of genuine extravagance and incontrovertible futility. Should we wish to account in earnest for the data in question, then we must presume our man, having taken part in Goebbels’s cinematic juggernaut, in due course made his way across the European continent in the aftermath of its decimation, before emigrating to the New World in an effort to reinvent himself at least, if not to reinvent history in the process.

That man’s name, to the extent we are able to determine, was Roberto Valaco, Robert Wälke.



R. Wälke, Autumn 1944

As is customary for the researcher engaged long weeks and hours sifting through masses of documentation in a far-flung foreign archive, it was happenstance that yielded my discovery of C. Roberto Valaco, a young and ill-starred German foot soldier during World War II who perished (haggard and destitute, one surmises) in Argentina sometime during the waning of the last millennium, leaving behind him an enigmatic dispersion of materials underwritten only by his incongruous intellect. In the event, I lacked the distraction necessary to discern the “pathetic treasure” (to invoke a phrase dear to Valaco) upon which I had stumbled. Here, after all, were the traces of a remarkable (if proportionately unremarked) protagonist of that epopoeia that was the twentieth century, a man whose peregrinations conveyed him from the devastations of the Third Reich, across the Atlantic Ocean and the equator, to the incommensurate reaches of the Americas, where the yawning delta of the rivers Paraguay and Paraná received him with cruelty and indifference in equal measure. Along the way, he bore witness to—and, by turns, participated directly if not unwittingly in—a succession of events both legendary and prosaic in their historical magnitude. The degree to which he may have altered the bearings of Western knowledge itself, one is likely neither to apprehend nor to concede.

I first learned of Valaco in the spring of 2004, while combing the archives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I was preparing a (now defunct) study on the geographical unconscious in the works of certain writers, artists, and filmmakers of the post-war period in that country. The end of my austral sojourn was by then bearing down on me with great weight, bringing with it, like the silt of a wide river swollen with flood, a dense and burgeoning fatigue dammed only by my growing despair (I was to return to the United States within the week, after more than half a year of largely fruitless investigation). I recall my great difficulty, already then, at pinpointing the precise moment at which the materials I was still dutifully if joylessly consulting at the Biblioteca Nacional had withdrawn their last fascination from me, despite the countless, obsessive weeks I had since spent revisiting them, in hopes of glimpsing something I had missed. One obscure lead, however, did remain untapped: a footnote I had marked in my notebook months earlier, out of scholarly obligation more than intellectual interest, so minute was the import it had insinuated to me at the time. Now, of a sudden, it writhed again there where I had written it, a feeble taunt to which I could only respond by mastering my lethargy and venturing to an obscure municipal library in the Parque Patricios neighborhood of Buenos Aires. It was there, on my second or third day, while leafing through a dossier of correspondence between intellectuals close to the filmmaker Alberto Fischerman and certain young disciples of exiled Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz in Tandil, that I happened upon a number of unmarked manila folders, each containing a batch of unbound sheets of loose-leaf notebook paper of varying kinds and dimensions, some mostly blank but for a few handwritten lines, others filled front and back with compact text in black or blue ink, often scrawled length-wise in the margins, mostly in Spanish, though occasionally in German. The cursive script, at first glance, diverged evidently enough from that of both Fischerman’s colleagues and their Slavophilic interlocutors. Such, however, were the pressures of my looming deadline that I scarcely noted more than a few lines of those spectral records, from which, nonetheless, one phrase in particular—standing alone in the middle of an otherwise unmarred, unlined square of white paper—managed to impress itself upon the surface of my recollection:

            “…la memoria, esta ruina estrepitosa de inenarrable luminosidad….”

I leafed mechanically through the handwritten sheets of paper in one of the folders, noting, among other things, certain mention by the putative author of his experiences as a film extra, in Germany in the fall of 1944. At the end of the bundle of writings, I observed the following datum below and to the right of the final paragraphs: Iguazú, 13 de enero de 1977 (a date, I would later learn, quite rare among Valaco’s otherwise largely undated folios, and one, in hindsight, that I may well have mistaken for 1971, as the last number was all but illegible). On the inside of the back cover of the last folder, in lead pencil, was etched the name C. Roberto Valaco, followed by the word Schriftatlas.[1]

It was only some five years later, this time compelled by a number of intervening coincidences, that I would find occasion to return to Argentina to revisit that portentous dossier. To the same degree that my second expedition to the Southern Cone unearthed a number of unrecounted facets of the Valaco odyssey and the fragmentary evidence of his existence, so did it cast in doubt not only my recollection of that first encounter with the manuscript, but my capacity to engage adequately with an assemblage of materials (or shall we call it, already at this nascent stage, an archive?) of such complexity, such instability, such overwhelming possibility…


R. Wälke, Autumn 1944

R. Wälke, Autumn 1944

In our estimation, the life, at once heroic and hapless, of Constantín Roberto Valaco counts among the most monumentally paradigmatic trajectories in the history of modern human experience. Given even the exiguous archival record by which we are currently equipped to judge, it seems in no way unreasonable to situate his peripatetic exploits on an order of moment comparable to that of Ulysses, Magellan, Da Gama, Cortés, Schmidl, Don Quijote, or Fitzcarraldo. He was reputedly born Konstanz Robert Wälke in either 1925 or 1926 (we have no official records by which to fix his exact date of birth) in the city of Eisenstadt, capital of the Austrian State of Burgenland and birthplace of Joseph Haydn. The bulk of his childhood and adolescence, however, were spent first in Graz, where he moved with his family in 1928, followed by Potsdam, where the Family Wälke moved again in 1938 after the Anschluss. Little at all is known about his early years, though it would appear he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht by no means earlier than the final days of 1943, perhaps more likely sometime in the winter or early spring of 1944, and in either case during a period of mounting gravity in the war effort (a situation, as is well known, that would give way to inexorable ruination after June of 1944). We can surmise with somewhat greater certainty that Wälke first saw action on the Eastern Front, at precisely that moment when the fortunes of the Germans in the wake of the defeat at Stalingrad were deteriorating precipitously. It is likely, too, that his division formed part of the re-outfitting of troops returning from the disastrous Battle of the Korsun-Cherkasy Pocket, and it is equally credible that Wälke was sent to the Vistula River Line in the fall of 1944, where an unusual if fleeting calm prevailed, though soon to evaporate with the beginning of the Red Army’s Vistula-Oder offensive in January of 1945.[2] Of commensurate plausibility is that Wälke’s unit was largely decimated in that foray. Yet, as one of the survivors, Wälke also surely would have figured among the remnants of a division that was then to be re-incorporated ad hoc into the wretched gaggle of forces summoned to Berlin in the spring of 1945, with the hopeless brief to stave off the invading Allied Leviathan.

What emerges from this imperfect account of Wälke’s war exploits are the contours of a largely inglorious tenure in battle for a young soldier who may well have been given to expect a more ennobling experience. Having arrived at the front young, naïve, presumably untrained—albeit, we may also suspect, steeped in the illusions of Nazi invincibility and inevitability[3]—Wälke met there instead with the bleakest array of circumstances, and strained, perhaps, to comprehend the logic of a lingering war his country had by all counts already lost. It was hardly surprising, then, that one like him should be denied the opportunity to distinguish himself in any way on the battlefield (with the exception, perhaps, of his survival), and forced at the same time to witness the very dissolution of that millennial empire upon which his leaders and his compatriots had enjoined him to leave his enduring mark. Delivered from school britches to the humiliation of defeat—an ignominy that he may just as well have embraced as a means of liberation from suffering—he was spared a soldier’s death only to be cast once again into the gorge of an even greater mortification: the surrender of Berlin on May 2, 1945.

Oddly enough, however, in the latter half of 1944, that is to say, sometime between Wälke’s first deployment and his subsequent re-deployment to the Vistula Line, the subject of our inquiry would enjoy an occasion for respite (as brief as it was bizarre) from the misfortunes of an increasingly hopeless military adventure. Specifically, at least twice over the course of autumn, 1944, Wälke was furloughed from duty on the front and shipped to a film set at Berlin’s storied Ufa Studios, where he joined thousands of other soldiers like him, all recruited as extras in the aforementioned motion picture, Kolberg, then in the last phases of shooting. That experience, to which we have begun to turn our attention in search of greater detail, must doubtless have proved pivotal in Wälke’s decision to flee Germany for South America after the war. For, if young Robert was intent on redeeming his dismal fortunes in the Wehrmacht with some form of civilian glory, it can only have been after serving as an extra in Harlan’s film that he might discern in the world of  motion pictures a catalyst for that endeavor, and it would be in none other than the welcoming bosom of the New World (so he ostensibly should have imagined) that he might reinvent himself to that effect. In this enterprise, too, Valaco would fail swiftly and utterly; the force of his quixotic ambitions, nonetheless, would prove transformative in other ways. It is within these lateral dimensions of Valaco’s creative yield (wholly unrealized during his lifetime and nearly impossible to grasp in its full bounty today) that our research means to reap its harvest.

Despite the daunting shortage of information regarding Wälke’s years in Graz and Potsdam, not to mention the imprecise chronicle of his war tenure—to the extent we have succeeded at reconstructing either of them here—there do exist several pieces of genealogical data that prove enticing in the light of his later presence in Paraguay and Argentina. Specifically, it would appear as though Roberto Valaco, formerly Robert Wälke, was the grandson of one Emil Wälke (or Wälche), born Emil Carvokka in 1858 in the town of Carei, Satu Mare County, in the Northwest of modern Romania. Carvokka had emigrated from Romania to Eisenstadt in Burgenland by way of Budapest and Bratislava in the early 1880s. Once in Austria, he soon changed his name to Wälke, likely as a way to Germanize the nickname townspeople would have attributed to him upon his arrival: “der Walche,” the “foreigner,” the “Romanian,” derived from the term Vlach, itself of Germanic origin and used to refer to the Vlach-speaking inhabitants of Wallachia, a region of modern-day Romania. Emil Wälke would eventually settle in Eisenstadt and marry Alina Karach sometime in the early 1890s. The youngest of Alina and Emil’s three children, Felix, would see the light in 1898; and in 1924, Felix would marry Barbara Lange (born in nearby Frauenkirchen in 1909 and also, it would seem, of Romanian heritage, at least as implied by records revealing a maternal grandmother with the generic surname of Vlach…). With Barbara, Felix would father their only child, Konstantin Robrecht (or Robbie, as they were reputed to have called him), born no more than a year or two after their marriage. Eager to seek greater financial opportunity in the city, Felix and Barbara moved with their only son to Graz in 1928 and, with Germany’s annexation of Austria ten years later, would migrate again, this time to Potsdam, just outside the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich. Within years, Robbie Wälke would be fighting (however pointlessly, by this stage) in the Second World War.

Although few of the details of Valaco’s life in Europe are susceptible to anything resembling rigorous historiographical scrutiny, the picture grows especially murky with his emigration to South America after the war. Some seem to suggest that he chose Buenos Aires as his port of call; others place him initially in Uruguay and even (though less likely) the United States. In any case, there is reason to believe his incremental departure from Europe wended its way first through France (Paris, Nevers, Lourdes, Banyuls-sur-Mer) followed by Spain (Llança, Madrid) and Portugal (Lisbon), before crossing the Atlantic. To be sure, Valaco did eventually strike a course to Argentina, though he also seems to have endured an extended odyssey through Paraguay. Traces of his residence in Asunción—sporadic in all events—do seem to exist, and certain of his own writings refer to Paraguay and to Asunción in particular, where Valaco’s failed endeavors to establish himself as a filmmaker played out their brief and bitter theater, and where, by extension, the invention of a Paraguayan film industry from scratch would elude him with merciless perfection. While it does appear he purchased and, in fact, subsequently used an 8mm film camera starting sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, it seems unlikely that Valaco should have made anything other than crude personal films with what film stock he could have scavenged or afforded through irregular work.[4] We can also surmise from his own writings that Valaco found himself, at more than one point throughout his peregrinations, in the region of Iguazú Falls, mainly on the Argentine side, and it is all but certain that he formed part of a crew of laborers there in the 1970s (possibly in 1977, or perhaps in 1971) charged with the demolition of the Gran Hotel Ayolas, once among the gems of the casino-resorts at Iguazú.[5] It is not known at what point Valaco ultimately made his way back to Buenos Aires, on the derelict outskirts of which he ostensibly lived out his remaining days. No record of his death has yet been produced, though some indications would signal his passing from this life shortly before or near the beginning of the final decade of the last millennium.

Beyond these dispersed and avowedly inconclusive notes, little else can yet be determined with any certainty about Valaco’s South American tenure. Nevertheless, Valaco’s rich and perplexing writings alone suffice to undertake, with a most urgent dilligence, the painstaking labor required for the construction of an archive sufficiently equipped to attest to the prodigious  peculiarity of his intellect. It is, perhaps above all, the incisive incongruity of his habits of scavenging and collecting, and the by all measures unsettling residues of his first life as Robert Wälke—insofar as these would continually secrete themeslves into the intense preoccupations of his re-invented self, bound up with the nature of memory and forgetting, of visual culture and techno-visual experience—that have come to exercise the reason of those whose aim it is to assemble and project the materials documented on these pages.  That Valaco’s is, precisely, a speculative and, by that token, succinctly expermimental archive is all the more impetus for our commitment to its potential for the production of knowledge.


[1] As with all aspects of Valaco’s production, the appellation Schriftatlas seems neither fortuitous nor unambiguous. Der Schriftatlas (or der Schriftenatlas, as it also commonly appears) refers to a compendium or manual of printing typefaces, that is, to a catalogue of graphical (hence, visual) representations of the alphabet. At issue, then, in Valaco’s foundational act of inscription or designation of the notebooks, is the imbrication of writing and seeing—the dialectic of textual and visual knowledge—a columnar preoccupation in Valaco’s system of thought, to be sure. See, for example, Ludwig Petzendorfer, Schriften Atlas: eine Sammlung der wichtigsten Schreib-und Druckschriften aus alter und neuer Zeit, nebst Initialen, Monogrammen, Wappen, Landestarben und heraldischen Motiven für die praktischen Zwecke des Kunstgewerbes (Stuttgart: Julius Hoffman Verlag, 1889);  Ernst Reimann, Der große Schriftatlas: Werkschriften für Unterricht und Praxis (München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1970).

[2] There are some grounds to suggest that Wälke fought either in the 73rd Infantry Division, if not the 5th Panzer Division; this would then situate him in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising in August,1944. See Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., The German Defeat in the East, 1944-45 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001) 95-116. Cf. Władysław Bartoszewski, Dni Walczącej Stolicy: kronika Powstania Warszawskiego (Warsaw: Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego, 1984).

[3] “Illusion” is doubltess the term most apposite here, given the mounting catastrophe of the Nazi military escapade by that point in the war. Worth mention, moreover, are certain passages of Valaco’s notebooks that intimate his own, deeply ambivalent identification with National Socialism, not to mention his repressed skepticism about the virtues of military service and martial culture generally.

[4] None of Valaco’s films have yet been found. On the other hand, a fragment of an inventory found among Valaco’s papers points to the existence of a number of small-gauge films in his personal collection. Whether these were shot by Valaco or not is as yet undetermined.

[5] The hotel had succumbed, by that time, to the caprices of fashion and taste since its golden age in the waning years of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth, falling first into an august state of decay before its final bankruptcy by the end of the 1960s. After a series of interim owners attempted feebly to resurrect the hotel, to no avail, new investors from abroad finally stepped in with plans to raze the building and replace it with more “modern” installations. See Isaac Casals and G. Facundo Siskind, Balnearios gloriosos de la Argentina moderna, v. 1, 1941, 6o ed.  (Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 1989), 113.