The Memory of Loss: Péter Forgács’s Saga of Family Life and Social Hell
“It is not exactly the presence of a thing but rather the absence of it that becomes the cause and impulse for creative motivation.”
“A film about the past can be a film for the future.”
--Erwin Leiser, director of Mein Kampf
Over the past twenty years, Péter Forgács has created more than thirty films. Most of them examine the private histories of European families, from the Nazi era of the 1930s and 1940s to the Communist era of the postwar period. The home movies from which he compiles his own films are by people who don’t know what the future will be but who offer their lives to those who now know what the past has been. We yearn to see in what they saw evidence of the history they had yet to encounter. We also yearn to see the world as they did, with serenity and innocence blind to its own future. Watching these films can produce a certain sense of panic: where are we as we watch this footage and note Forgács’s emendations? --Here or there, now or then? And if we are, in some strange way, both here and now and there and then, how is it that such a divided position is both desired and disturbing?
Two of three major series that aired on European television that involved Forgács take up the private history of European families in the 1930s and 1940s: the international “An Unknown War” series to which Forgács contributed Meanwhile, Somewhere and the 12 part “Private Hungary” series that Forgács made on his own. (The third series is the five part “Conversations on Psychoanalysis”; it deals with Freud, Ferenczi, and the psychoanalytic legacy.)
His most recent films—Free Fall (1996), The Maelstrom (1997), Kadar’s Kiss (1997), The Danube Exodus (1998), and Angelos’ Film (1999), like his previous ones, revolve around found footage. Specifically, they take shape around home movies that Forgács restructures into historical portraits. He relies on the huge collection of home movies that he has acquired since he began working first at the Cultural Research Institute and then with the Béla Balázs Studio in Budapest. Great effort goes into preserving the qualities of the original home movies and also adding a vivid sense of historical perspective. Interviews with surviving family members provide surprising details; historical research yields new perspectives.
Many of his most moving films, such as The Bartos Family, Free Fall, The Maelstrom, The Danube Exodus, and Angelos’ Film, derive from the home movie footage of a single individual. The Bartos Family traces the fate of one family over two decades. We see bodies erode, hope fade and losses occur, but we also see moments of exuberance and gusto, of men and women living life to the fullest. As Michael Roth said on a panel discussion, “I get a strong sense of the sheer physicality of this family; it would take a hell of lot to kill people like this.”2 Free Fall chronicles the experience of György Pető from the early 1930s to World War II. Pető was a wealthy Hungarian Jew whose home movies provide the bulk of the footage. From them Forgács fashions a mesmerizing portrait of a family and a way of life whose pleasures and privileges are being relentlessly eroded at the very same moment as György persists in enjoying them.
The Maelstrom traces the Peereboom family, a Jewish Dutch family, over a similar period through the home movies of one of the family patriarch’s three sons, Max. We see Max and his relatives mature and prosper until the parallel world of the Nazi’s Final Solution collides with their own—a parallel rendered with cinematic force through Forgács’s inclusion of home movies by Reich Commissioner for The Netherlands Seyss-Inquart. Whereas Max’s footage conveys the innocence of the unsuspecting victim, Seyss-Inquart’s suggests the confidence of the overbearing victor.
Danube Exodus uses footage by riverboat Captain Nándor Andrásovits to follow his fitful voyages up and down the Danube, through Bulgarian and Romanian territory, transporting Hungarian Jews to the Black Sea for passage to Palestine and returning with German farmers, driven out of Bessarabia by the Soviet army, for eventual relocation in occupied Poland. If Danube Exodus chronicles these diasporic shifts from the point of view of a crucial but somewhat removed participant, Angelos’ Film chronicles the German occupation of Greece from the point of view of a Greek patriot. Angelos Papanastassiou used his camera to document an occupation he detested as an affront to Greek sovereignty. His footage possesses a degree of historical consciousness absent from the more strictly home movie footage shot by others. This relieves Forgács of some of the task of providing context and commentary. In a time and place where filming such as Angelos’ was punishable by death, Forgács allows us to witness the very act of filmmaking as a form of defiant resistance, not unlike his own act of recovery and reassemblage.
Through the eerily effective music of Tibor Szemző, laconic commentary, titles, zooms and pans, tinting and toning, slow motion, freeze framing and oratorio (used to articulate the details of the laws used to limit participation by the “Israelite denomination” in public life) Forgács turns salvaged images into a vivid glimpse of a lost world. The spontaneous gestures, improvised scenes, and concrete situations we observe were not designed as indicators of broad historical forces but as animated mementos of personal history. But the social actors in these home movies who mime gestures to each other now incite our response rather than the response of those to whom they originally addressed themselves. Forgács, the archaeologist cum salvage anthropologist, conducts a séance in which these figures serve as mediums through whom we see and hear the voice of times past speak again, today.
Corresponding with Peter
The world to which you returns us in the films I’ve summarized above is the world of middle and upper class Jewish life in Hungary and other parts of Europe (these were the classes that could afford to make home movies) during the rise of Nazism and the harbingers of the Holocaust to come. Every frame of footage possesses the aura of a rare artifact. Zoltán Bartos, for example, compressed his life from the 1920s to the mid ‘50s into a total of nine hours of film. You compress this into The Bartos Family, a sixty minute film. What gets left behind? How much more do you become a member of the family than we do? Is it important that much of your archive comes from non-Jewish as well as Jewish families?
Péter Forgács [in bold]: It’s always intriguing to imagine how somebody else would create a totally different cinematic meaning from the same stuff, and luckily the Bartos collection was in the hand of two film makers: Gábor Bódy and Péter Timár prior to my acquisition of it. Their inspiring approach in Private History (1978), emphasized the burlesque aspect of the Bartos’ lives and expanded the boundaries of a found footage collage. The in-depth interview with the last from the old generation, Klári—the widow of Ödön Bartos—clarified the family dynamics and gossipy aspects of their lives. When I took this first voyage, thanks to the film by Bódy and Timár, it made me a participant-observer on their anthropological team and put me into intimate contact with the Bartos family.
When the actual home movies “fell into my hands” it was a cathartic moment as I watched the small jumpy images in my little office. I had installed a Pathé 9.5 mm projector there, and since the sprocket holes were in the middle of the film, it caused a jumping image effect.
Watching the fading figures of the Bartos family from the “real” 1920s Hungary blew my mind. The first feeling was a certain presence of a daemon—my daemon, the daemon of the speaking Socrates: I know this is what I am going to do from now on. It was like the writer Gabriel Marquez’s description of writing One Hundred Years of Solitude. He said that before he wrote a single page, he had envisioned the entire body of the novel while driving down a long valley in South America. The second emotional and magnetic touch of this little private viewing was a mysterious and almost telepathic feeling of being a coroner. All of them—the personae appearing in this cinematographic image—are dead, and I am alive, perceiving here—in my local time—their past as a presence. It is their past but at the same time it is seemingly present.
Your overall oeuvre does not focus exclusively on life before the Holocaust. In films like Kádar’s Kiss you stress that a pornographic form of oppression continued for many of the inhabitants of Eastern Europe long after the Allies achieved victory over the Axis powers.
In only five of twenty films of mine are the subject/heroes a Jewish family or tale, story. As a consequence it is more true to say Christian and Jewish families. The Christian Hungarian and the Jewish Hungarian middle classes suffered from Communism. As you know the sufferings of the two social groups is radically different, during and after WW2. Two third of Hungarian Jews were gassed, tortured, and plundered in 1944-45. The survivors had to live through the communist oppression; the wealthy had to endure Soviet style nationalization—they lost the remnants of their fortune. The plundering and oppression of the Christian middle and upper classes began with the first Soviet boot on Hungarian soil in 1944, and lasted almost until the fall of the Berlin wall.
I feel that with your films you offer us a gift, an unexpected act of generosity, or love, that establishes a relationship beyond obligation or duty. It is perhaps less a form of righteously witnessing than one of discretely acknowledging the loves and lives of others. It is also, inevitably, an act of hate. The hatred streams toward those figures and forces that brought an end to an entire way of life and its complex fabric. You single out killers like Reich Commissioner for the Netherlands Seyss-Inquart, whose own home movies (of his wife and children, his estate and horses, his tennis court and games with Himmler, culled from the Royal Dutch Film Archive) you weave into The Maelstrom. You recount the heinous laws of exclusion promulgated by Seyss-Inquart in the Netherlands—in voice-over commentary, subtitles, and sometimes in sung oratory—laws that stripped Jews like the Peerebooms of the rights of citizenship, the very same citizenship to which their own home movies are such exuberant testimony.3
What about these Laws? How did you chose to include them in the films… They have an oddly rational air, in the highly bureaucratic sense of trying to specify every possibility and to offer the hope of “exceptionalism”—that others will be affected but that I will remain exempt due to my profession, war service, medals…
I think The Maelstrom film could never have been born without the Free Fall (1996) piece. You mention the paradoxical feature of Jewish Laws; they are even more nightmarish in Free Fall, as the Pető family’s life goes on seemingly undisturbed while their social and human rights are gradually strangled. The complex history of assimilation and the economic role of the high and rich strata of the Hungarian Jews demanded differentiation and selection by this hypocritical legislation. It occurred in four stages between 1938- 44. When Eichmann strode onto the Hungarian stage it became simple: no differentiation, just final solution.
Dutch societies’ resistance demanded a different Nazi psycho-script for that stage: the gradual introduction of Jewish laws (1940- 43), and the perfectly camouflaged separation, plundering and extermination of the Dutch Jewry. This script was the “masterpiece” of Seyss-Inquart. This irrational abuse of law introduced a new terror in the context of war. The real provocation in both films for me was: how to represent, how to tinge the inner experience of a Dutch or a Hungarian Jewish family during this period.
Your quest for the inner experience seems to revolve, in part, around the discrete selection and placement of specific images. There are few of the iconic, unforgettable, “larger than life” type images that are so prevalent in histories from above and in photo-journalism. Instead you pick and choose from the detritus of the everyday. You select shots that at first glance appear to be “throw-aways” but that reverberate with overtones.
We encounter scenes in The Maelstrom, for example, that are like ruins or fragments, from which you construct new meanings, and warnings. We see Max Peereboom’s own footage of the construction of his and Annie, his wife’s, home in Vilssingen, but the footage now appears in a story of a different order.
The footage fits into so many categories that it demands a dynamic explanation: first of all it’s a miniature film essay by the proud Max; his wife’s step-parents are building (financing) a whole big family house for them!!! (Annie was adopted as a poor child at age 10-11 by the Bouman couple because they didn’t have children) so it is a dream of dreams for Max and Annie.
Second: it’s a brilliant occasion for Max to film the construction of a Dutch citizen’s house—the site, the workers, the constructor, the family visit and the working process. Thirdly, it’s also a record of the small moments of relationships: the mother-in-law lays a brick, clever movements, the hand shaking (meanwhile the constructor pulls Annie in the background), the cigar given to the foreman….
All of it flashes before me as a dynamic, psychological, multi-leveled structure in a time-based art. And in the wider range of story telling possibilities, it serves as “the building of the nest,” it prepares the space for family expectations; it happens before the birth of their little girl, Flora.
The marriage-house-children plan, as a frame, makes their happiness. For us today, here and now, with our historical knowledge, we add an unforgettable and unforgiving dramatic perspective: the invisible shadows over their happy moments. This happy moment conjures in our mind other constructions as a deep undercurrent of unconscious expectations: torturous death in a gas chamber—an undercurrent hidden at this film moment to the future victims. It is therefore never realized, made visible, in my films.
This is not to say much about scenes as sources of fact, but it may explain the structure of a spiraling maelstrom: at which sequence, which episode do you realize the swirl, when do you start to become anxious and feel their end?
Your films revolve around the classic rhetorical figure of catachresis: they wrench meaning from home movies, from moments of everyday life that contest the notion of history as a national theater or grand stage upon which only the great or mighty strut.
Memories of the Bartos’s are part of a collective Hungarian memory. Their life models a microcosm of life through a century in a nutshell. History is dynamic and tragic: the fall of the Hapsburg Kaiser und König, the revolutions and counter-revolutions, revanche and revisionism. Hungary as Nazi ally and later the victim of a Totalen Krieg, the Soviet liberation/occupation, and the revolution of 1956. After 33 years of pink communism the Berlin Wall fell: the 20th century happened between 1918 and 1989. The large curtain of public history provides the background for the Bartos Family Saga.
Your films entail a paradoxical form of speech in which what went unnamed and forgotten becomes the crux of an act of historical remembering. Your films are not a documentary representation of national culture or indigenous Jewish or Christian life in the strict sense; they are not a metaphor for symbolic loss; they are not a deconstruction of types and stereotypes others have constructed of the period, its monumental war, its horrific genocide and numerous victims. They have a strongly both/and quality as being of the period and about the period.
I really love these scratchy, old films; this is a strong motive in itself. Hard to put it in words, but if you allow me, these are the rules of my patchwork-game:
First: No tautology of meanings, and no use of facts as illustration in the work;
Second: find what is the magic of these unconscious home filmstrips, the magic of re-contextualizing, layer after layer , feel the graphic of each frame.
Third: I want to make films for my friends, the reference group: “Look what I’ve found for you” while I peel the source material to its roots;
Fourth: do not explain, or educate, but involve, engulf the viewer as much possible.
Fifth: address the unconscious, the sensitive, unspeakable, touchable but mostly silent part of the audience.
Sixth: let the music orchestrate and rule the emotional story.
Seventh: I had to learn how to hear my own low inner voice, the guide of creation—if I can chase away, or reduce, the noise in the channel.
In general, the 20th century’s film language(s) have become enormously varied and sensitive, but the didactic documentary resides at some distance from the heights of this achievement. It is mostly part of the educational, entertainment wave, planning for infantile expectations. The general landscape of docs is awful, as it was always. Of course the commissioners and programmers are in the pincers of the media. With few exceptions I can’t stand docs; I prefer, Kienholz, Dunchamp, alchemy and psycho-archeology.
You reassemble aspects of an image repertoire that might have represented Jewish life and Hungarian culture—had it survived. This life and culture is a structuring absence that now speaks through you, perhaps more as a clairvoyant than a documentarian. If the home movies’ makers adopt a posture something like, “I speak about us to us,” you provide a simultaneous overlay something like, “I speak about them to you.” We feel we are onlookers—poignantly and erotically, for example, when György films his fiancé Eva bathing and then disrobing in their bedroom, her eyes turned toward the camera and the man, her lover, behind it—as well as participants in your own effort to re-frame their precious moments of private reverie within the historical context that will engulf them.
A short meditation on privacy, intimacy: The key to this genre is the paradox of a gentle viewing of the forbidden, the taboo, even if it’s an unimportant event, even in the framework of home movies, just a smile. I seek a procedure to transfer toward a metaphysical level the banality of existence.
We are allowed to see, look under the pants, visiting the film-diary of the anima and the animus. We observe the home of a local inhabitant, as the filmmaker is both witness to and naïve anthropologist of his/her own life. Don’t forget we are in the realm of banality. The banality of selected life facts shines on the border of the public and private.
Our current, unlimited media transmits and creates hunger for the showbiz stars’ privacy, and for media-made heroes, but this is relatively new. I mean the limitless TV service of peeping. The visible bed secrets of dad and mom are rare in home movies. Much more often one sees just the first steps of the baby, but those can be as intimate as the bed-secret stories—the meaning of intimacy is quite relative.
The “Presidential Oval Office Cigar Phantasm” breaks with historic limits; it dovetails with the wide-ranging exhibitionism of public performers who serve the customers’ immeasurable hunger for “what's behind the curtain”. The rules of privacy v/s publicity changed radically only in the last quarter of the 20th century. Prior to this era religion, laws, common “sense” … the canter-talibans ruled life. For example, compare the length of the sixties mini-skirts to the length of these women’s great-grandmothers’ skirts. … The home movies represent a different world.
These re-contextualized home movies – like Mr. Pető’s –aren’t planned for the public’s eye. By saying Private Hungary, I am opening these capsules for the public eye. It is like lighting a cigarette in darkness: you see the smoker’s hand and face for a few seconds, it become a vision we imprint, a secret. The other edge is the Peeping Tom’s voyeuristic attitude: it reveals the torture and exploitation of the victim. Another aspect of intimacy in relation to these home movies is the collage technique, as the classic de- and re-contextualising process. The metaphysical level of meaning calls for the freedom to touch, alter, edit, combine and readjust the original meaning toward a new context. Finding the images behind the surface. All three aspects are embarrassing and alluring at the same time. How can I open up the private and intimate not-for-public-eyes footage a larger context. The “psycho-analysis” of film diary notes. I have to stay gentle to keep my right distance.
Your films have many distinctive qualities—most notably their highly evocative reconstruction of artifacts in an ironic, modernist key. What are the models from which you work? Are modernist authors like Woolf or Joyce instructive for you in any particular way? What are the conventions you systematically shun, and why do you do so?
Joyce’s method—a 24-hour/day habit—was collecting words, colloquialisms, and language games. The concrete existence of a real Mr. Blum at the Sunday market that we see in The Maelstrom links up, for me, with the Joycean Mr. Blum. The ‘fiction,’ transferred back and fourth with ‘reality,’ marks the Maelstrom here for some Joyce readers. A ‘real’ Blum— transformed by allusion to the fiction one: documentary as fiction and fiction as documentary. Buñuel’s Las Hurdes, Tierra Sin Pan or Land Without Bread (1932), proves the author’s effort to create a fact— known to him—for the film. It is a “fact” but it might not have happened in this specific way without the director’s intervention. Reality is created for the film: they killed a mule to represent the Spanish rural drama. The smoking man’s factuality in The Maelstrom’s is a metaphor for the year 1939, and Buñuel’s mule sacrifice is a fiction that became the reality of Spain. The converse way of working is also possible: Jay Rosenblatt’s extraordinary films such as The Smell of Burning Ants or Human Remains come to mind: amateur and archival footage becomes the fiction of an inner reality.
Your films are not history from above nor are they history from below. We see no concentration camps, no smoking chimneys, no Jewish ghettos or grinning Nazi doctors. Portends for us—foreboding signs of ominous destruction—are just another element in the stuff of everyday life for the original subjects and makers of these films. To watch Bela Liebmann, a noted photographer, in Free Fall, for example, mug for the camera while performing demeaning manual labor for the “Volunteer Labor Service,” a non-combat unit in which Jewish men were forced to serve during the war, brings a cringing pain. We watch other members of the unit playfully pretend to beat up Béla Liebmann while one of your titles informs us that the Nazis shot one of his friends, Bandi Kardos, four years later.
I met the 96-year-old Béla Liebmann in 1996; he was the sole surviving source of information on Petö’s generation, and an extremely rich source at that.
The “innocent” events become tragic signs for us now, as we are wise to the past (we possess historic knowledge). The home movie offers advantages to the historian. We have a retrospective power toward the past while we feel a powerless angst or tension toward our own unpredictable future. The “played beating” became more than cruel reality later for the Jewish Labor Force unit members on the Soviet front. The imitated playful brutality predicts the forthcoming sadism. The psychodrama of the “would be” is a predicament of hell. Keep smiling, it could be worse …
One of the most striking aspects of your style in this respect is the texture and density you wrest from relatively minor moments. Especially notable are “throw away” transition shots such as the brief shot of a man lighting a cigarette in front of the Amsterdam train station in The Maelstrom. We never see this man again, but the shot lingers in our minds, despite its apparent insignificance.
My smoking man film fragment (archive collection fragment) is like a signifying note on the abstract patchwork surface of a film-time game. It’s an ephemeral moment, indifferent, innocent, and yet the man is also a poetic figure… unintentionally, spontaneously walking toward the camera. The extended seconds of a lighting ritual, the smoke, and the 1939 sign in the upper right part of the main railway station together. A moment—of a dramatic year that an average family filmmaker would not appreciate—but that a nouvelle vogue filmmaker would some 20 years later. We know immediately what the date means but the smoker does not foresee (in his local time) the historic time. Why can’t we warn him and the others? This is a powerful motive and gives an uncomfortable feeling for the viewers.
It is like the suspense of a Hitchcock film, we know ahead of time that the innocent victim will fall into the hands of the killer. We want to warn her/him; watch out! And our palms are sweating. We can’t help, and here—in my films—it anticipates real blood, real suffering, we always that in mind even if we never see it in my films. Our feelings aren’t like after a Hitchcock screening, when lighting a cigarette, we know it was (just) a play…. And, of course, the film hero never dies in fictions… even while playing death; on the contrary, the heroes of my films, if you learn they’ll die, or have died already, you are deadly sure it’s a real thing.
Your films use techniques of compilation—as filmmaker you shoot nothing—but do so to construct a view of the historical past that differs from so-called true historical narratives.
The home moviemakers shoot nothing, too, in the spirit of Sartre or Heidegger when they speak of the ‘nothing’. Like the ephemeral, ambient, pastime nothingness of ordinary life and banalities. It is intriguing to see the tension /contrast/ between the important, exquisite, excellent, historical event horizon (visualized by newsreels, fictions, docs, reporters) on one side, and the nothingness of banalities on the other—private Hungary, Holland etc.
Your own voice is very prominent in an indirect way and not only in the editing, tinting, reframing, voice-over commentaries and titling but also in the music that Tibor Szemzö composes for all your films. Could you elaborate on how you and he work together?
. I met Tibor in 1978, when a member of a minimal musical ensemble asked me to be narrator (recitivo) to a Frederic Rzewsky piece, “Coming Together” in English. Tibor was the founder of the Group 180 and I participated in different pieces for eight years. We performed together as well from 1983-1984 as a happening—performance duo, and the whole idea of found footage and minimal music grew out of several stage performances (tour cities: Frankfurt, Budapest, Vienna, Cologne, Amsterdam, The Hague, Linz…). As a result we had already a common experience and a “film-music language” when by accident I received a grant in 1988 to make The Bartos Family and the next three Private Hungary episodes.
From the first day of editing I use already existing music (mainly Szemző, then Glass, Eno, or Monteverdi) to search and edit the silent cinema’s rhythm and subconscious. This first round choice is a tool and finally it becomes, after quoting and altering, a part of the collage. It offers guidance, like a street sign. Then Tibor enters into the project after I have a good rough cut; the structure and ‘melody’ of the movie is there. The music street signs—integrated with the sound effects—express the attitude of the work in progress and provide guidelines for Tibor. He first creates sound models to accompany the image. After re-adjusting with the piece I can change the corpus, the dynamics. So we develop the image and music in a permanent interaction, and we continue this way until we are satisfied.
You provide incendiary hints of location and context that could subsume the particular in the general, in a historical narrative, and reduce it to illustration or example, but you refuse to complete this gesture by spelling out a general history or by drawing a history lesson. This reduction is what I experience in most historical reenactments like Schindler’s List. In a reenactment like Spielberg’s every moment and every camera angle onto every moment serves to advance the narrative with the optimal degree of thematic resonance, character development and suspense. The impression of authenticity, which persists with the delicacy of a butterfly wing in your films, evaporates into drama and allegory.
I have little to say on Schindler’s List …. as we find ourselves in the quagmire of the attribution of meanings. This is a private comment—for our discourse: for different reasons, better if I am quiet, to not hurt the victims’ memory and cause sufferings to those who might have a sentimental approach on the Holocaust. The famous ‘Jewrassic Park’ or Benigni’s “Funny KZ tale for little and big kids!!!” Oh my god! Just forget them!
The sentimental attitude is a resistance to the unbearable reality. Let us use the remarkable representations of Primo Levi, Jean Amery, Tadeus Borowski or Imre Kertész for our comparison. Immediately it becomes clear to us that the sentimental, happy-ending, industrial, trivial but successful approach covers with tears the dry fact of the existence of the inconceivable. In film our yardstick should be Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) by Alain Resnais and Shoah by Claude Lanzman. To me the holocaust-film industry, shoa-kit-interviews are dreadful examples, and most of these films are on the other side of the river. This goes back to the function and attribution of meaning in my films. A ’normal’ filmmaker does not like scratchy, decomposed, ‘meaningless,’ amateur pictures (=bad) ... if they use archive footage at all it must be—with rare exceptions—crisp and clear to illustrate a fact, a place, a person. Even when a doc displays a character as an illustration of his/her suffering they still illustrate themselves. We may presume they are really a self, an historical individual, but no, they are just imitating themselves. And in amateur films although individuals play themselves the mistakes, the “bad” images somehow relieve them from the scheme. So the signifier self—the self as illustration or generalization—is not a real person but a replacement for one. In Schindler’s List the red-coated little girl in the Krakow ghetto plays for the coat... she illustrates a metaphor. In my films, The Bartos Family, for example, I’d say Mr. Bartos is a concrete Bartos for family use (in terms of the footage as home movies), on the one hand, and, for us, he represents a man who went through this and that in his own individual way without providing service as a symbol or metaphor, on the other hand; the story has a concrete and a substantial meaning at the same time.
When you began assembling these films and working with the survivors of the filmmakers what prompted you not to make use of their own commentaries or those of family friends in the films themselves? What led you to use speaking or singing voices largely as a way to reiterate, verbatim, the anti-Semitic laws that were enacted by the Nazi regime?
I want to keep a minimalist attitude throughout the piece. I want the vision, the message on all its levels and in its appeal to all the senses, to move you, along with the music, text and image as well. Too many readings (subtitles) would ruin the fluxus, the whole float. In the editing process I position the subtitles and inter-titles, I put them in and take them out, try a thousand times, then show it to others (friends, advisors, the virgin eyes) and listen to their reactions: the Trial and Error game.
Your interventions allow us to see the roles in which we are cast whether we are aware of them or not. Individuals portray themselves in their home movies as they think they are or as they wish to be seen, but you complicate this representation by suggesting how others see the same individuals, often in the most instrumental and dehumanizing of ways.
A Bartos is not playing a Bartos, but eventually he/she will become a Bartos, and perform different roles in his/her own life script according to the different situations and scenes. The role of the citizen and the citoyen are, eventually, parts of a larger frame of roles we act. We are sons/daughters of our parents (“till the end”) and lovers/fathers, later grandfathers/grandmothers, and by social strata we are employers and employees, the voter, the consumer, the lover, the man/woman of secrets and dreams…. These are all roles and we transform through one single day from one to another. The Bartos life script, like that of the other families in the other films, offers much more than an average home movie. It is a detailed and varied account of times and spaces in the roaring twenties and thirties in Hungary, the matrix of private and public histories.
Barbarism exists at the boundary between brute, physical occurrences and plotted, historical events. It appears beyond the pale of comprehension, beyond the realm of socially acceptable practice. This is the alibi we adopt to drive it from our midst. And yet if the barbaric is the work of others like us, if it belongs to the historical record rather than to occurrences of nature, we need the means—the voice, the form, the ethical stance—to represent it as a (dark, abominable) aspect of our own history rather than as a calamity outside of it. Your personal perspective provides such means. Despite the arguments of some that the recognition of such a voice detracts from our attention to the raw historical facts themselves, this personal sense of authorship, and style, seems absolutely vital if barbarism is to have a human face.4
On the larger scale of our present time interests and needs, is our motive to decipher the films of a private past our historical sentiment? What is behind the background of our motives, our historical drama of the time-tour? Does the Historical-Archeological substratum reveal itself for today’s viewer only, or will it show other meanings for other ages? Will other viewers decode the historical relevance by different signifiers, with or without sentiments like ours?
Do you see Seyss-Inquart or Eichmann, who did so much in the final year of the war to transport Hungarian Jews to their deaths as human beings? You do not seem intent on demonizing them even though their actions clearly attest to an unspeakable, unfathomable moral blankness within.
Hatred for the barbarism of Nazis such as these is certainly deserved, but I want to ask you if forgiveness is also possible, or important, for you. Jacques Derrida has made the bold argument that forgiveness need not depend on a request for forgiveness, on an act of contrition, that forgiveness only fulfills its radical purpose when it forgives the unforgivable.5 In doing so, forgiveness carries us beyond revenge and beyond the Law into an utterly different domain. Does forgiving serve to move us beyond the Law and the duty it has to the preservation of the State? Is it something needed by the forgiver as much as by those forgiven?
Creating, comparing the incomparable duet of the German – Jewish exodus in The Danube Exodus was revelatory for me. I found myself contrasting the Bessarabian German refugees’ saga (indeed, many of them were later recruited to the Wehrmacht) with the happy Jews destined for Palestine dancing on the ship. Altogether it was a constant inner struggle for me. I was learning the acceptance of civil sufferings, ‘even’ if it was German suffering. Although the story of the German refugees allowed me to use a different light on this historical moment, the two stories mutually reflect and contextualize each other. So the German’s sufferings and their forced exodus from Bessarabia underline the impossibilities of all inhuman atrocities. This saga invites non-selective forgiveness. For many years revenge justified the idea of hell for all Germans, but it’s clear now: in human rights questions there aren’t differences of value among nationalities and races of man.
The personal quality of your films, like the personal quality of the home movies on which they are based, turn us toward the authorial self. Roland Barthes, Hayden White and others have stressed the centrality of a different, intransitive or “middle” voice. This form of representation “becomes itself the means of vision or comprehension… a doing or making rather than a reflection or description.”6 “The subject is constituted as immediately contemporary with the writing, being effected and affected by it.”7 In other words, the author, and viewer, is put at risk. We encounter an order of experience that possesses transformative power.
My emphasis is basically to guide you through—not only intellectually but also emotionally. Therefore, the meticulous but short selections from frustratingly lengthy laws and decrees are “for your sake.” To give enough time for the meditation over and over again, the subtitles are all part of the complex palette that “grabs your guts” and maybe the second time you discover another, until then invisible layer. And yes, I can say this staccato mode of information, this lack, black hole, the info black-outs function as in certain opera (Lulu, Bob Ashley Video Opera or Phillip Glass-Bob Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach), contrapuntally, yes….
As collage-like structures with musical forms, your films evidence a work of representation that refuses the realist conventions of classic modes of historical discourse. Realism provides no sanctuary; narrative offers no closure; characters achieve no resolution; they leave “the end” unstated and unachieved. That element of the story remains up to us. Are these films not a way for us to encounter the past with an intensified sense of the profundity of loss—both at the hands of the Nazis and, later, at the hands of the Soviets— but also with a restored sense of perspective? Can you say what aspects of that restored perspective seem most crucial to you?
The Banality of Evil, as Hannah Arendt put it, is very important feature for our times in light of xenophobia one hand and the commercial Shoah representation on the other. The good father, the loving husband, the horse-riding gentleman, the best grandfather—the mild, vegetarian, puritan Austrian petit bourgeoisie (Seyss-Inquart)—is a cold breath near our neck. We can almost touch him and his liebe Frau und so veiter…, so it helps us to imagine – feel - the Beast as a person, as a ‘human’ Being. It helps to understand (appreciate) the parallel stories of the Seyss-Inquarts and the Peerebooms, with different life finale for Seyss-Inquart’s little Gundel and the Peereboom’s little Flora and Jacques-Franklin (who was named after Rousseau and Roosevelt).