Mengele’s Skull by Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman

How to Make a Face Appear: The Case of Mengele’s Skull

By Heather Davis

It is now a trope of crime thrillers that the investigators spend as much time or more with the bones, DNA, hair, and other artifacts of the crime scene as they do with witnesses. Much of the drama takes place in labs, forensics departments, and other forums of scientific and medical investigation. In fact, witnesses are often proven to be unreliable, with fallible memories and sometimes falsified claims. Objects, on the other hand, are understood to unequivocally tell the truth of the matter. However, our understanding of this relation of evidence to truth did not always rely upon forensics. Rather, as Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman argue in their presentation of the case of Mengele’s Skull, it was in 1985 that the object, in this case a skull, came to take on such deliberative weight.

Josef Mengele was the notorious Nazi who sadistically experimented with people in the name of eugenics. His crimes were so horrific that he was hunted until his death. Unfortunately, investigators arrived too late—six years after he drowned—and what followed was a transition in human rights law from the primacy of testimony to the language of the dead and their interpreters. In this transition, human rights law moved from listening to witnesses to reading marks on bones, from words to signs, from subjects to objects. As Keenan and Weizman write, “If the Eichmann trial marked, as Wieviorka claims, ‘the advent of the witness,’ then we will suggest here that the Mengele case constituted a parallel emergence of the ‘thing.’ But each of these processes did more than introduce new forms of evidence—they did nothing less than shift the conditions by which that evidence became audible and visible, the way juridical facts were constructed and understood.”1 What was being contested, beyond simply the facticity of Mengele’s identity, was how we come to understand the world.

The appearance of Mengele after death in the haunting re-creation of his face overlaid on top of his skull, both represents the outcome and the evasion of justice. There is something satisfying in knowing that his body was unearthed from its burial place to be subjected to similar forms of scientific investigation that he cruelly and psychopathically inflicted on others. It is fitting for his bones to become an object of inquiry. And despite the fact that he was never forced to account for his deeds in life, what his exhumation did, besides confirming his identity, was provide a methodological practice for people seeking justice. For the same forensic practices that were honed in the process of his identification were then used to identify and put to rest the bodies of those who had been murdered by the state. In other words, the animation of Mengele’s ghost was used to bring justice to those who suffered similar fates as his victims: “…it was the Mengele investigation that helped consolidate the interdisciplinary process for the identification of missing people, a set of techniques and operations which has since restored the names and identities of thousands of bodies.”2 By rendering Mengele an object of scientific knowledge, a kind of justice was forged through this new aesthetic language.

In the years since this investigation by Keenan and Weizman, the Forensic Architecture research team has developed a consulting agency for NGOs and an MA program, housed through the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.3 They have employed the techniques and practices of forensics to expand the understanding of what counts as evidence within international human rights law. They have documented and worked on numerous cases throughout the world that foreground not just the figure, the individual person, whether perpetrator or victim, but have worked to also show the ways in which the field has become the mechanism for genocide.4 For example, in both the cases of Guatemala: Operacion Sofia5 and Ecocide in Indonesia6, Forensic Architecture used satellite images and other mapping techniques to document how the governments of those countries have enacted genocide against indigenous peoples by literally removing the ground beneath their feet through deforestation and forced removal in Guatemala and the expansion of monocrops and fires in Indonesia. These practices result not just in the devastation of particular ecosystems, but ways of life, forms of human knowledge, and governance. Forensic aesthetics, and the artistic tools of visualizing these spatial practices, have fundamentally changed the nature of evidence once again, where the liveliness of things speaks volumes about the injustices of our world.

  1. Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p 13.
  2. Ibid, pp. 19-20.
  3. The Centre for Research Architecture is a pedagogical experiment and political project that sits at the intersection of many fields and disciplines from architecture and media to law and climate science. See for a full description of the project and programmes available (last accessed November 2017).
  4. Eyal Weizman, “Introduction: Forensis,” in Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, edited by Forensic Architecture (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014), pp. 9-32,
  5. “Guatemala: Operacion Sofia” Environmental violence and genocide in the Ixil Triangle. 2009. or the full project (last accessed November 2017).
  6. “Ecocide in Indonesia” Providing evidence to local and international bodies for universal
    jurisdiction cases in relation to environmental crime. 2015. (last accessed November 2017).