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Visual Archives and the Holocaust: Christian Boltanski, Ydessa Hendeles, Peter Forgacs

Ernst van Alphen 2004 _ABOUT The Maelstrom
The archive occupies a privileged position within the cluster of genres by means of which one represents, teaches and commemorates the Holocaust. This cluster consists exclusively out of historical genres. The genres that are considered to be most appropriate to depict the Holocaust events are those genres that are realistic par excellence, those genres that do not provide a fictional account of history, but that offer history in its most direct, tangible form. Testimonies, autobiographical accounts of the Holocaust, documentaries are the forms supposed to provide the best and most responsible account of the Holocaust. 

Within this group of affiliated genres the position of the archive is emblematic as well as different. It is emblematic because its historical function is out of the question: it consists out of leftovers, material traces of the past. But is also differs from the other historical genres, because it does not represent history by means of narrative; it presents it directly, that is unmediated, in the form of its remains. The hierarchy within the cluster of historical genres indicates what the issue is: that genre is considered most appropriate that stays closest to the factual events.

In the face of the privileged position of the archive in discussions on how best to deal with the memory of the Holocaust, it is perhaps not really surprising that artists, too, have become interested in the scholarly method of the archive.  This raises the question if, as artists, they simply comply with the general pressure to adopt historical genres when dealing with the Holocaust, or does their use of the archive, instead, complicate the issue?  In this essay I will discuss three such artists. First of all French artist Christian Boltanski, most widely known for the way he has since the 80’s evoked the Holocaust compellingly by means of archival installations. Often, but not always, these installations consist of found photographic portraits of Jews, plausible victims of the Holocaust. My second example is the installation made by Toronto artist, collector and curator Ydessa Hendeles, entitled Partners (The Teddy Bear Project). This enormous archival installation consists of found – or rather, purchased – family-album photographs collected on the basis of a single motif: somewhere in the picture there had to be a toy teddy bear. My third example will be Hungarian filmmaker and artist Peter Forgacs.  His films and installations consist exclusively of material that he finds in the archive of home-movies.

These three artists not only share a common method, the archive, but also an area where the objects in their archives are situated, namely the domestic sphere. Interestingly, then, all three artists act upon the tension between personal memory and history. For, whereas the archive is usually seen as an elementary tool for historical understanding, the portraits and snapshots from family-albums and home-movies belong to the realm of personal time instead of history.


Deconstructing the Archive: Boltanski

In the face of this pressure to represent the Holocaust in the mode of the historian, or even better in the mode of the archivist, it is remarkable that the French artist Christian Boltanski so consistently presents his works as the products of an archivist. He gives the impression of being the most docile artist, since he appears to be giving in to the moral imperative of the discussions about Holocaust representations. Some of his works are explicitly titled Inventories, or Reserve. And although Boltanski did not approach the subject of the Holocaust head-on until 1988 with his installations Chases High school (1988), Reserves: The Purim Holiday (1989) and Canada (1988), one can argue that all his other works deal with aspects of the Holocaust. The question that arises, then, is: what does this engagement with the favourite modes of the Holocaust historian mean as an artistic practice?

The two modes of representation that produce Holocaust-effects in Boltanski's work are photographic portraiture and the archive. Both modes of representing reality can be seen as emblems of realism, the representational effect that is so much favoured by Holocaust commentary. The photographic portrait and the archive seem to have in common that they are both able to represent (historical) reality in an apparently objective way. In both cases there seems to be a minimum of intrusion or "presentness" of the subject or medium of representation in the product of representation.

  Boltanski's use of the archive reveals the consequences of the archival mode for our understanding of the Holocaust itself. In only one series of his works is the Holocaust directly evoked by means of reference to the historical event. In 1988 he made some installations to which he gave the title Canada. This title refers to the euphemistic name given to the warehouses in which the Nazis stored all the personal belongings of those who were killed in the gas chambers or interned in the labour camps. In the camps "Canada" stands for the country of excess and exuberance where one wants to emigrate, because it can offer a living to everybody. In the works with the title Canada  Boltanski showed piles of second-hand garments. These installations not only brought to mind the warehouses in the concentration camps, but by the sheer number of the garments, it also evoked the incredible number of people who died in the camps and whose possessions were stored in "Canada".

Like Chases High School and Monument: The Purim Holiday, Canada evokes the Holocaust referentially. This time it is not the used "material" – photographs that show European Jewish children before the war, hence, targets of the Holocaust – which denote the Holocaust, but the title of the work. These garments represent a specific historical space: the warehouses in Auschwitz, because the title names the installation as such. But Boltanski's other works based on the same archival, inventory principle do not refer to the Holocaust by naming a specific element of it. Still, they have "Holocaust-effects" as well. When I say “Holocaust effect” I use that expression in contrast with “Holocaust representation”. In a Holocaust representation the Holocaust is referred to by means of a mediated account or representation of it. A Holocaust effect on the contrary, is not brought about by means of representing the Holocaust, but by means of the re-enactment of a certain principle that defines the Holocaust. It is performatively re-enacted, as an effect.

In Boltanski’s archival installations, the archivist’s ambition to make history present in its remains is foregrounded as a failure. Part of the installation Storage Area of the Children's Museum (1989) (illus) for instance, consisted of racks with clothing. The piles of clothes stored on the shelves refer to the incomprehensible numbers of victims in the Holocaust. But in contrast to the series of works entitled Canada, these works do not refer to the Holocaust as an event; they have a Holocaust-effect because they re-enact a principle that defines the Holocaust as a method.  There the principle of deprivation of individuality was applied in the most extreme and radical way. Deprived of their individuality, the victims of the Holocaust were treated impersonally as specimens of a race that first had to be collected and inventoried before they could be used (in the labour camps) or be destroyed (in the gas chambers). The nazis not only inventoried the possessions of their victims, the same principles were in fact applied to the victims themselves.


Boltanski, Nazism and the Archive

Boltanski reminds us provocatively of the fact that the Nazis were master-archivists and that the most notorious concentration camp Auschwitz, the name of which has become synonymous with the Holocaust as such, was modelled on archival principles. Archival principles were crucial in the way the Nazis ruled most concentration camps and in their execution of the “final solution”. Let me explain in more detail which structural principles of the camps can be characterized as archival.

In many concentration camps the Nazis were fanatic in making lists of all the people who entered the camps, of those who went to the labour camps and those who went directly to the gas chambers. Those lists are like the catalogues that enable the visitor of an archive or museum to find out what is in the collection. It is thanks to the existence of those lists that after the liberation it was in many cases possible to find out if people had survived the Holocaust, and if not, where, in which camp and on which date they had been killed.

One of the first things done to the people who entered labour camps, is that they got a number tattooed on their arm. They were transformed into archived objects. They were no longer individuals with a name but objects with a number. Like objects in an archive or museum, the inscription classified them as traceable elements within a collection. Entering the camps they were also sorted into groups: men with men, women with women, children, old people and pregnant women to the gas chambers. Political prisoners, resistance fighters were not “mixed” with Jews. Artists, musicians, architects etc were usually sent to camps like Theresiënstadt. Selecting and sorting on the basis of a fixed set of categories are basic archival activities.

Not only the people who entered the camps were selected and sorted, the same happened with their belongings. The belongings were sorted en stored in the warehouses called Canada, referring to the country of excess and exuberance to which one would like to emigrate because it offers a living to everybody. It were not only photographs of emaciated bodies, but also of some of the categories used within these warehouses, that showed people after the liberation the truth of the Holocaust. Not only heaps of bodies, but also heaps of suitcases, of pairs of spectacles, of shaven hair etc. On these photographs the camps looked like monstrous archives. This “archiving” of the belongings was first of all done so that they could be re-used by the German population. But Hitler had also other purposes in mind for part of it. After liquidating the Jewish people, he intended to build a museum of the Jewish people. For this museum he needed objects he would select from, among other places, the warehouses in the camps. I will return to this.

In his artistic use of the archive, Boltanski evokes the objectifying and killing potential of the archive as exploited by Nazism. Hence, if most Holocaust scholars and students privilege archival modes of research, they are unaware of the fact that their privileged medium at the same time creates Holocaust effects. Their archival practices do not only have the Holocaust as object, they also uncannily re-enact the Holocaust in its deadly objectifying technologies. Before giving some examples let me first further elaborate the principle on which both the Holocaust and archives seem to be built.

The notions of usability and uselessness are of crucial importance for an understanding of how Boltanski's archival works produce Holocaust-effects. The "inventories" or selections performed upon entering the camps, but which also returned almost daily when one had the good luck to be allowed into the labour camps, were based on the distinction between usable and unusable. The mechanisms of the Holocaust were such that ultimately everybody had to end up in the category "useless".

It is precisely this idea of uselessness that overwhelmed Boltanski when, like many other artists in the sixties and the seventies, he became interested in anthropological museums. The Musée de l'Homme in Paris made the following impression on him:


It was... the age of technological discoveries, of the Musée de l'Homme and of beauty, no longer just African art, but an entire series of everyday objects: eskimo fishhooks, arrows from the Amazon Indians... The Musée de l'Homme was of tremendous importance to me; it was there that I saw large metal and glass vitrines in which were placed small, fragile, and insignificant objects. A yellowed photograph showing a "savage" handling his little objects was often placed in the corner of the vitrine. Each vitrine presented a lost world: the savage in the photograph was most likely dead; the objects had become useless--anyway there's no one left who knows how to use them. The musée de l'Homme seemed like a big morgue to me.


While Boltanski expected to find "beauty" in the museum, an expectation that seemed to be inspired by the kind of eye cubist artists had for the objects of African cultures, he found instead lost worlds in the vitrines. He sees absence instead of presence. The anthropological museum did not become a fine arts museum; it was transformed into a morgue of useless objects.

In the early seventies Boltanski made two series of works in which he made use of the museological vitrine (Attempt to Reconstruct Objects that Belonged to Christian Boltanski between 1948 and 1954, Reference Vitrines (illus.)). One series of works, generically titled Reference Vitrines (1970-73) consisted of museum-type show-cases in which Boltanski displayed a sampling of the work he had made since 1969. He showed small piles of the dirt balls, some of the self-made knives and traps and some of the carved sugar cubes, pages from his books and parts of his mail-art. Each item in the glass cases had a label that usually listed the title and the date of the work. With this series of works Boltanski turned himself into the archivist of his own work. In his similar series Attempt to Reconstruct he was the archivist of his childhood.[i]

However, these "reconstructions" fail utterly as reconstructions. They are not able to reconstruct either his childhood or his artistic career. Instead we see useless objects. The frame of the museological vitrine or the archaeological museum, in short the archival mode of representation, withdraws objects from the contexts in which they were originally present. In the vitrine, museum or archive they become subjected to principles which not only define the objects as useless, but which were defining for the Holocaust practice.

This brings us back to the Jewish museum that Hitler intended to establish after the liquidation of the Jewish people. One could wonder why he wanted to do this. Why was his goal not yet reached at the moment that all European Jews had been killed? It suggests that liquidation was not enough. Even after their destruction, the Jewish people could live on, not amongst the living but in memory, in living memory, that is. The remains of Jewish people in the form of memory had to be dealt with effectively, so that also their possible continued existence in memory was eradicated.

Boltanski helps us understand why the museum can be such an effective tool, or perhaps I should now say weapon, in killing memories. Like archives, museums, especially historical museums, confront the viewer with de-contextualized objects. In this de-contextualization the objects become “useless” and they evoke the “absence” of the world of which they were originally part. It is in this respect that the archival museum can become a “morgue of useless objects”.  We can only speculate, but Hitler’s museum for the Jewish people would probably have looked like such a morgue. It would have objectified, killed and liquidated the Jewish people for a second and more definite time. Their remains would not have evoked their presence. They would not have kept their memories alive. In stead, the represented objects would have penetrated the viewer with a sense of absence and lost time.


Categorization and Objectification: Hendeles

Whereas Boltanski’s archival installations deconstruct the archive by showing the deadly effects of objectification, Ydessa Hendeles’s installation Partners foregrounds another aspect of the archive’s unreflected principles. The thousands of snapshots, each of which include the image of a teddy bear, are arranged according to over one hundred typologies. The installation is structured like a presentation of natural history or cultural objects in a classic, traditional natural history museum. The meticulously framed snapshots completely and densely cover the walls. In the middle of the space there are several antique museum display cases. Along the wall mezzanines have been built to permit closer inspection of those photographs that hang on the upper halves of the walls.

            When one enters the installation one wanders what all these images have in common. It takes some time before one becomes aware of the fact that there is a teddy bear in every photograph. The next discovery is, however, that the installation does not offer more of the same, just more pictures with teddy bears that is, but that the photographs have been categorized according to specific typologies. These categories are completely surprising: the installation, seemingly providing a history of the teddy bear, shows that the most different social and ethnical identities have used the teddy bear as totem to identify with.

When the installation was shown as part of a larger exhibition in Hitler’s own former museum, the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Hendeles wrote the following about the appeal of the teddy bear in the catalogue:


The teddy bear has appealed not only to children as playthings and as surrogate playmates, but also to adults as props to express whimsical fantasies at parties, in the workplace, at sports events, and in sexual play. In fact, teddy bears have attended every social function in society. They have been photographed at weddings, in schools, in hospitals, on battlefields, at births, deaths, and memorials. (2003: pp  )


Her installation seems to provide evidence of this: when we start recognizing the different typologies, we suddenly see all the different groups. Soldiers with teddy bears, students with teddy bears, prostitutes with teddy bears, lesbian couples withy teddy bears, etc, there comes no end to the different identities that presented themselves with the teddy bear as their emblem and guardian.

            In this respect, Hendeles’ archival installation works as the opposite of Boltanski’s. Whereas in the case of Boltanski all individual differences dissolve within his objectifying archives, in the case of Hendeles one begins to see differences where one had not expected to see them. The thousands of teddy bear snapshots turn out to be extremely diverse.  Within this corpus an endless number of individual categories can be distinguished. The pursuit of specificity and differentiation leads to amazing results in Partners.

            At first sight Hendeles’ “visual thesis on the history of the teddy bear” conveys absolute trust in thorough, positivistic scholarship. She seems here to be on the site of most Holocaust scholars. But as she herself points out in her essay in the catalogue, this reassuring aura of scholarship is deceptive, “because the use of documentary materials actually manipulates reality. Creating a world in which everyone had a teddy bear is a fantasy, as well as a commentary on traditional thematic, taxonomic curating (212)”. Hendeles further comments:


Because of the relative rarity of photographs that include teddy bears, the resulting multitude of over three thousand pictures provides a curatorial statement that is both true and misleading. Viewers are inclined to trust a curator’s presentation of cultural artefacts. While these systems are not necessarily objective, they can be convincing and therefore of comfort. (2003: p. 211 )


In this statement Hendeles uses in a very subtle way the characteristics of the teddy bear as such to describe the effects of the archive. Earlier in her text she described the teddy bear in terms of a duality:


As a mohair-covered, stuffed, jointed toy, with movable arms, legs and head, a teddy bear can be cradled and hugged like a baby. But the wild bear referenced by the toy is an animal that can be threatening to human beings. Having a ferocious guardian at one’s side makes the teddy into a symbol of protective aggression, which is why, for the past hundred year, it has provided solace to frightened children and later to adults, who carry that comfort with them as a cherished memory. (2003: p. 211 )


The duality of the teddy bear characterizes also the archive: comforting and aggressive at the same time. Comforting because it has the reassuring aura of objectivity and systematicity; aggressive because it subjects reality and individuality to classifications that are more pertinent to the systematic and purifying mindset than to the classified objects. It imposes the ideal of pure order on a reality which is messier and more hybrid than the scholarly device of the archive can live with.

            Ultimately, Hendeles’s installation Partners shows the utter arbitrariness of archival typologies. Her excessive differentiation within the corpus of snapshots showing teddy bears produces ultimately in the viewer a feeling of being lost. The rigorous systematicity of the archive suddenly shows its Janus head of total arbitrariness. The question that remains to be asked, now, is in which sense does Hendeles’ meta-commentary on the archive, specifically apply to Holocaust archives, or to the Holocaust as such?

            The feeling of melancholia hits you immediately when you enter the room. This excessive and emblematic archive shows us lost worlds in the extreme. Of course, teddy bears do not belong to the past; children and other groups of people still have them and play with them. But because of the fact that these snapshots are old, some older than others, and that they are presented as part of an archive, they automatically belong to the past, to a lost world. Within the metaphorical realm of “lost worlds” the Holocaust figures as the most literal  case. The special role of the Holocaust in this installation is further emphasised in the antique museum display cases. The objects showed in the display cases is not just a continuation of the typologies. In it we see e.g. real teddy bears in stead of photographed teddy bears; or letters written in the voice of a teddy bear. In some cases there is also much more information provided about the owner of the teddy bear, the history of the person or the family.  It is in many of these individual or family histories that the history of European Jews, of the Holocaust, that is, surfaces. That what remains hidden in the endless typology of teddy bear owners, is highlighted in the central space of the installation: in the display cases.

            But Hendeles activated the frame of the Holocaust in yet different ways. After the viewer had spent time in the Teddy Bear installation, she entered a space that, compared to the densely packed archival installation, was almost empty. One only noticed at the other end of the room a small boy on his knees. It turned out to be the sculpture titled “Him”, by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan from 2001. It is a puppet-like sculpture of Hitler with the body of a small, innocent boy and his adult, moustached face. Whereas the similarity between teddy bears and archives was already suggested, now the awareness of the association between teddy bears and Hitler (and archives) is unavoidably also a case of similarity. Hitler, too, was aggressive as well as comforting. He offered a deceptive source of safety to the German people. I quote Hendeles herself again:


The system of the teddy bear archive raises the notion of other systems created with strict stipulations, and how they can, because they appear to make sense, persuasively manipulate reality. The purity of race to which Hitler aspired was the application of a system of rules. Like the teddy bear, Hitler shares a duality of origin, where danger is domesticated. (2003: p. 216)


The framing of the teddy bear archive by the person of Hitler has especially disenchanting consequences for the archive as such. Is the archive – its system and its goal – complicit in Hitler’s ideal of a purity of race? Is it Hitler’s modelling of the concentration camps on archival principles that makes the archive suspect, or is it suspect no matter what, that is, intrinsically? A provisional answer to this question seems to have been given by Hendeles herself when she showed the teddy bear installation for the first time. It was then part of an exhibition in the Ydessa Hendeles Foundation, Hendeles’ own gallery in Toronto. That installation was entitled “Same/Difference” and took place in 2002-3. After the teddy bear installation the viewer entered a relatively narrow corridor. At the left side of this corridor were more framed snapshots of teddy bears. At the end of the same wall one noticed a small text panel, giving the description of an artwork, the name of the artist, and the date. It turns out that the viewer had missed noticing an artwork. On the right side of the corridor, on a completely white wall was a wall text in light grey letters. The text was by the artist Douglas Gordon, and was dated 1989. It ran as follows:




After having read this text, the confined space of the corridor suddenly gave way to a much larger space where Mauricio Cattalan’s “Him” was kneeling.  The subtle sequentiality of artworks made each art work function as a framing device for the one that came before and after it. “Rotten From the Inside Out” became a chilling comment on the teddy bear, on Hitler, as well as on the archive as such.


The Future of the Archive: Forgacs

Boltanski’s and Hendeles’s use of the archive provide deconstructions of principles which underlie and define the archive. Although they foreground different aspects of the archive, in both artistic practices the archive is exposed as “rotten from the inside out”.

The unavoidable question now is, of course, is there still a future for the archive? And I would like to add: to related institutions as the museum? I will try to answer this question by addressing the work of a third artist, your fellow Hungarian, the filmmaker and artist Peter Forgacs.

            I probably do not need to introduce Forgacs to this audience. But let me just describe his project in general terms, just for the sake of clarity. Since 1988 Forgacs has assembled the Private Hungary documentary series from an archival collection of home movie stock dating back to the 1930s and up to the present.  The films draw upon a film archive, established by Forgacs himself: the Private Film and Photo Archives in Budapest. It comprises more than 300 hours of home movies and an additional forty hours of interviews with the relatives of the amateur filmmakers who shot the footage. For most of the films Forgacs collaborated with Hungarian minimalist composer Tibor Szemzõ. Forgacs also made some films that do not specifically focus on Hungary. One of them is the film The Maelstrom from 1997, which he made with the VPRO for Dutch public television. Also this film is archival: it draws upon found home movies from diverse origin. For Maelstrom two sources are dominant: the home movies of the Dutch, Jewish family Peereboom, filmed by the oldest son Max Peereboom. These home movies cover the period of the early thirties until 1943, the moment when the family was transported to Auschwitz. The second important source consists of the home movies of the Austrian nazi Seys-Inquart, who was appointed Reichs Commissioner of the Netherlands in 1940 as representative of Hitler. A third source Forgacs used more sparsely in this film are the home movies of a Dutch SS-er. Compared to most of his other films the overall structure of Maelstrom is more conventionally narrative. It begins with the oldest footage in 1933 in Amsterdam, where the father of the filmer, Max Peereboom, is editor of the Nieuw Israelitisch Dagblad. Max himself lives in Middelburg where he works for his future father-in-law. When the chronology reaches the late thirties we get to see some of the footage of the Dutch SSer. Having arrived in 1940 the home footage of Reichskommissar Seys-Inquart is introduced. We see him mainly on his estate Clingendael, not far from The Hague, where he moved with his family after being appointed by Hitler. In 1942 Max and Annie Peereboom and his family-in-law are forced to move to Amsterdam. Seys-Inquart has ordered all Dutch Jews to move to Amsterdam in order to facilitate their deportation to Auschwitz and other camps. For, their deportation was going to be much more efficient, if all Jews were concentrated in one city, in this case Amsterdam. The film stops abruptly. When Max, the filmer of the Peereboom family is transported and then killed (with the rest of his family and extended family), the family narrative comes to an end. The only person of this family who will survive is Max’s youngest brother Simon.

            Home movies form a particular genre, and as a genre they have specific properties in relation to memory. The genre focuses almost exclusively on the personal. The social dimension of human life only figures obliquely, if at all. We get to see anniversaries, weddings, family outings, the birth and growing up of children. These personal moments in the family are restricted because selective: they consist of memories of happy moments. But as Forgacs points out in an interview, the home movie is personal in yet another way. It is structured like a dream. It contains many strange ellipses and in the case of older home movies it is exclusively visual. There are no words spoken, there is no voice-over. Visual communication is absolutely central. Freud’s explanation of the dream work is also extremely relevant for an understanding of home movies. Although the macro-structure of Maelstrom is narrative, the fragments of footage which forms the building stones of this narrative are not so much telling but showing. The footage does not have the form of a family chronicle, but of externalized memory.

            Whereas home movies are almost exclusively concerned with personal time, Forgacs montage adds the big moments of history to it. History is present in Maelstrom, albeit in a de-centered way. Some Peereboom footage shows a visit of Queen Wilhelmina with Princess Juliana to the town of Middelburg, or the celebration in Middelburg of the 40th anniversary of Queen Wilhelmina. The fact that the family filmed this can be read as symptomatic for their assimilation into Dutch culture. They identified with the Dutch royal family. But the other insertions of History are by the hand of the director. Sometimes we hear a radio broadcast, or there are titles or texts written on the screen pointing out to us in which historical moment the filmed family footage is embedded. At other times, the historical moment is explained by a disembodied voice. The laws, rules or articles proclaimed by Seys-Inquart stipulating how to kill warm-blooded animals, or stipulating who is considered to be Jewish and who not, stipulating what Jews who were going to be deported were allowed to take with them, and so on, are sung by a voice in the mode of a traditional Jewish song. Whatever device to insert History Forgacs uses, it is never part of the personal time of the home footage but always superposed, imposed on it.

            The imposition of History on personal time never works smoothly. The completely different temporal dimension of the home footage again and again strikes the viewer. Personal time and historical time are in absolute tension with each other. We expect to see traces or symptoms of the dramatic History of those days in the home movie footage. But that is not the case. When the history of the WO II and the Holocaust progresses, the home movies continue to show happy family memories.  Max Peereboom has also filmed the moment that his family prepared for deportation to Auschwitz. It is first of all remarkable that he decided to film this. We see his wife Annie, her stepmother around the table repairing the clothes they want to wear or take with them on deportation. They drink coffee and Max smokes a pipe. What they are doing (preparing themselves for deportation), is not conveyed by the footage but told by a written text imposed on the footage. What we see is a happy - the Dutch would say cozy – family situation. Nothing of the History that will victimize them in such a horrific way is able to enter the personal realm of the home movie. The temporal dimension of the home movie does not unfold as a collective narrative, but persistently as a personal narrative.

            In Maelstrom personal history is not represented as part of collective or “official” history, (as synecdoche of it); it is in radical tension with it. This has important consequences for the question I raised earlier, is there a future of the archive? Or is it rotten through and through because of its objectifying mechanisms and its imposition of categories and pure order on a reality which is hybrid? As we saw in the case of Boltanski’s pseudo archives as well as the archival concentration camp, the imposition of the binary opposition useful versus useless seems to define the rationale of the archive. Everything that is archived seems to become subjected to this distinction. Although Holocaust archives are also seen as memorials of the Holocaust, the memories stored in it, are ultimately judged on the basis of what we learn from them, that is, in how useful they are.

The Spielberg Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies and The Fortunoff Video archive for Holocaust archive are good examples. Geoffrey Hartman, director of the last one describes the function of the Fortunoff archive first of all in terms of the process of conducting the interviews and not in terms of the products collected in the archive. To testify, he intimates, leads to a kind of re-humanization and reconstitution of subjectivity of the Holocaust victim. But the moment that the Holocaust survivor has given his testimony, the taped results becomes the object that is stored in the archive. It is almost impossible for the visitors of this kind of archive not to impose the distinction between useful versus useless on this material. The visitors are looking for something, they are usually scholars or students who want to learn something or hope that watching these tapes will be helpful in getting an idea of what the Holocaust experience was. In this respect the kind of categories used to make the archive accessible are significant. One can think of categories of Man-Woman, or the countries from where the survivors came,  (verder uitzoeken)

Forgacs use of the archive of home movies, however, resists the imposition of the useful/useless dichotomy completely. His archival films do not provide information, they do not tell history, but they show us that the experience of time in personal history is something that cannot be integrated in or translated into collective or official history. As Kaja Silverman argues in her essay on Forgacs’s work, his films are based on strategies of re-personalization instead of objectification or categorization. His films evoke the phenomenal world, they are about vitality, enjoyment, about activities such as dancing and playing. Whereas the archival mechanisms of objectification and categorization strip images of their singularity, Forgacs’s archival footage keeps insisting on the private and affective. Silverman writes that this is first of all done through the many direct looks with which people face the camera. This seems to be a defining feature of home movies as such.

When people face the camera in a fiction movie, this kind of look is self-reflexive, for a moment it short-circuits the fictionality of the film by establishing direct contact with the viewer. The film shows its constructedness. In home movies the frequent looking into the camera is of a completely different kind of order. For here, there is no clear distinction between the camera and the person behind the camera. Maelstrom has many examples of that interaction. Especially Simon, the youngest brother of Max the filmer, makes fun of Max the cameraman again and again, by pulling funny faces before the camera. He does this not to spoil the film, but to make the cameraman laugh, or to make him angry. His funny faces function within an affective relationship between two human beings. There is another extreme example of this in Maelstrom this time of a different order. At one of the many weddings the two or three year old daughter of Max and Annie is being filmed. When she turns her face to the camera, she expects to see the face of Max her father or one of her relatives. Instead she sees a monstrous object, namely the camera. She is clearly utterly terrified. This example shows in its negativity that people in home movies are not posing for the camera, but for the person who holds the camera. They let themselves be filmed, not to get objectified into a beautiful or interesting image, but out of love for the person who films. According to Silverman, people in home footage do not just convey Roland Barthes’ idea of “this has been” (“ça a été”), but “I love you.”

As Forgacs explains in an interview, there is fundamental difference between looking at a photograph and watching moving images. He intensifies this difference by his manipulation of film time, by slow-motion or even stopping the moving image, reducing it to a film still:


The slow-motion technique and manipulation of the film time, the movement and the rhythm, give an opposite dynamic or an opposite possibility than in the example of the photo explained in Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. The frozen photographic second of the Barthes thesis is a good example why the photo is a tombstone, whereas moving image is not. [...] If we made right now a black-and-white photograph of ourselves, we could observe the event as already-past time: history. [...] But while we have moving images of the past, we always have the fluxes of life, the contrapuntal notion between Barthes’s photo thesis and the movement (=life) on film, which proves forever that we’re alive. So my viewers – and you – know that they (the amateur film actors, my heroes) are physically dead, but they are still moving. They are reanimated again and again by the film.


Hence, the effect of re-personalization brought about by Forgacs’s films is not only the result of the specific genre of home movies, but also of his intensification of qualities of the broader genre of the moving image as such. His manipulation of moving images – the slow-downs, the movement back and forth, stopping the movement for a few seconds – creates a rhythm that makes the aliveness of the movements almost a sensorial experience. It creates a distance between real time and the time of the moving images. This de-naturalizes our reception of time and movement, as a result of which we become overwhelmed by the life embodied in these moving images.

One could wonder now, if this is always the case in home movies. Or does it also depend on the filmmaker and the kind of family that is being filmed? In this respect, the difference between the Peereboom and the Seys-Inquart home movies is revealing. The distinction I have used so far between personal time and historical time, does not automatically apply in the same way or same degree to the Seys-Inquarts footage. Seys-Inquarts position in History is radically different from the Peereboom family. I am not referring to the fact that the one family occupies the victim position in History, the other the one of perpetrator. I am referring to the fact that Seys-Inquart was appointed by Hitler, he represents him in The Netherlands. He is the representative of Hitler, of History; One could say, he is History, or rather, the embodiment of it. This makes one wonder, can the embodiment of History make home movies of his family and friends? Or is the genre of the home movie disabled when History enters the realm of the personal?

There is, of course, also a class difference between the Peereboom family and the Seys-Inquart family. Whereas the Peereboom family belongs to a Jewish/Dutch lower-middle family, the Seys-Inquarts belong to an Austrian upper-middle class family. This can explain the vitality of the Peerebooms and the more restrained behavior of the Seys-Inquart family. But at the same time it seems that the Seys-Inquart family members are all the time aware of the fact that not only the camera man is looking at them, but also anonymous, abstract or, later viewers. They embody history, and later history will be judged, their role in History will be judged. When I watch the home movies of this family, I cannot avoid mobilizing the distinction useful versus useless. It is from the Seys-Inquart footage that I get information. I become interested from a historical point of view when I notice that Reichs Führer SS Himmler visited the Seys-Inquart couple at their Clingendael estate in the Netherlands. They were not only fellow Nazi leaders, they and their wives socialized with each other and played tennis. “Interesting information.”

The fact that Seys-Inquart’s home movies evoke a mode of looking that is usually discouraged by this genre, only foregrounds, differentially that is, the more usual mode of looking at home movies. Forgacs’s combination and alternation of the Peereboom’s footage with the Seys-Inquart footage, of personal time and of a personal time that is infected by historical time, sharpens our eye for the special qualities of the Peereboom home movies.

Forgacs’s archival films do not objectify or categorize; they re-animate and re-personalize. He is able to do this first of all thanks to the specific qualities of the objects collected in his archive: their nature of home movies. But on top of that he adds a rhythm to the movement of the moving image that infuses the home movies with reflexivity.  This rhythm magnifies the nature of personal time as living, as affect, as movement and as moving. Within his artistic use of the archive the archive has future again.



            [i]. In his site-specific work Missing House (1990) in Berlin, Boltanski has turned himself into the archivist

of a vacant lot between other houses in a former Jewish neighbourhood.

The Missing House consists of name plates attached to the fire walls of houses adjacent to the empty lot created

by the destruction of a house in the Second World War. The plates included the name, dates of residence,

and professions of the last inhabitants of the missing house. See for an excellent reading of this site-specific work

Czaplicka 1995.