Another backyard bath: mother and son in Czechoslovakia

Mother and son after the bath.

Soft-core home-movie pornography

Russian prisoners of the Second Hungarian Army in the Ukraine.

Dead Russian soldier in the Ukraine.

The Acropolis in German-occupied Athens.

A tipsy Belgian woman dances for the camera.

Jews at the concentration camp in Westerbork, the Netherlands.

The train from Westerbork disappearing into the “mist” of a fade to white.


Preserving history, creating art

Like Berliner, Péter Forgács works with a large body of home movies, but unlike Berliner, he is concerned to preserve and emphasize their historical contexts. Home movies, he argues,

“can show us a great many things about the realities and complexities of history as it is lived by real people....”[9] [open endnotes in new window]

Like Child, he constructs many of his films (but not Meanwhile Somewhere...) from a single family’s home movies (which generally include extended family and friends), and he arranges the footage in chronological order so that we observe the activities and relationships of a particular group of people over a number of years. Notable examples of these family-oriented films include The Bartos Family (1988, made from the home movies of Zoltan Bartos), Free Fall (1996, made from the home movies of György Petö), both of which are included in Forgács’ Private Hungary series. The Maelstrom (1997) is devoted primarily to the home movies of a Dutch Jewish family, the Perrebooms, with additional footage from the home movies of the Dutch Nazi, Seyss-Inquart, the Reich’s Commissioner for the occupied Dutch territories. Unlike Child, Forgács goes to great lengths to accurately identify people, family relationships, locations, and some crucial public events that the film’s subjects lived through—whether or not the events are recorded in the home movies. In bringing these private histories into the public sphere, he is no less interested than Child in their psychological and social significance, but he provides only spare, factual information to complement the evidence provided by the footage itself. In his words,

“[T]hese films are full of revelatory moments about how it was then, about how they felt, about what they felt the need to represent. If these revelations of self are then placed in a context where you can sense the whole culture, its history and background, and how particular personalities fit into it, the results become very dynamic.”[10]

To create such a revelatory context, Forgacs is not satisfied simply to reproduce the footage without intervening in its presentation or influencing its reception. In a characteristically modernist move, he exploits formal and material properties of the medium to shape the work’s overall structure, rhythm and meaning. These medium-specific properties include rigorous editing and the integration of many different audio-visual elements, including (to quote Forgács again)

“not only the particular identification of people and moments (the history of the piece) and the tinting (for providing emotional tone), but the use of slow motion, freeze frames, blowups; the use and design of the visual texts, and all elements and layers of the sound: voice-over, sound effects, music. Each of these is like an instrument in an orchestra.”[11]

More than a compilation, Meanwhile Somewhere... is a composition in which amateur films provide a crucial, but far from the only, essential ingredient.

Meanwhile Somewhere... was Forgács’ contribution to a five-part series called “The Unknown War” intended for broadcast on European television. The five parts were made by five different filmmakers, all of whom drew upon a cache of fifty hours of home movies that were shot in Europe between 1936 and 1945. Forgács was assigned the years 1940-1943. (The full title of the work, as it appears in the film itself, is The Unknown War “Meanwhile Somewhere...” 1940-1943.) With home-movie footage from a dozen European countries, the film offers a panoramic, wide-angle view of life in wartime Europe—in contrast to the more narrowly focused family histories in films like The Bartos Family, Free Fall, and The Maelstrom. The film begins with a beautiful shot of skaters on the misty, frozen Zuiderzee. They skate away from the camera and into the mist, as if into the past and a world the passage of time has obscured. This film, we come to realize, is intended to penetrate that curtain of obscurity by bringing together home-movie representations of events (some banal, some deeply dramatic and disturbing) that ordinary people lived through during an extraordinary period of European history.

The shot of skaters fades to black and is followed by a rapid montage of stills or photographs that set the wartime scene: a large swastika in a wreath, fighter planes flying in formation, men in military uniforms, etc. They are superimposed on a shot of armed soldiers marching rapidly across the screen from left to right. As the last soldier exits the frame, the image freezes, and the film’s title appears over the vacated background. Another fade to black, and the skaters return. In three shots they skate toward us, away from us, and toward us again, until a last, lone skater glides past the camera, and only the mist remains on screen. (The same shot will end the film, some fifty minutes later, figuratively closing the curtain that was opened at the beginning.)

This carefully composed formal opening section—like much of the remainder of the film—is accompanied by quiet, unobtrusive, hypnotically repetitive music (composed by Forgacs’ long-time collaborator, Tibor Szemzö). While the music is the predominant element in the film’s “soundscape,” we also hear occasional, strategically placed sound effects, fragments of speeches, crowd sounds, and isolated voices. Much of the footage is step printed to give it a slower and slightly dreamy pace—an effect enhanced by Szemzö’s music and frequent fades to black between sequences. In the film's montage, the usual home movie subjects mix with the unusual events of wartime. As macro- and micro-levels of history overlap and interpenetrate, the cumulative effect is a kind of cinematic stream of consciousness flowing through the collective mind of wartime Europe.

The film offers little direct evidence of the war and fighting at the front. There are a few shots of destroyed buildings accompanied by a title, “Warsaw Eastern Entrance,” and some footage shot in the Ukraine in 1942 by Lászlo Rátz, an ensign in The Second Hungarian Army: troops on horseback, Russian prisoners of war, dead Russian soldiers, derailed train cars, and soldiers on a train trading bread for eggs with a girl at the side of the track. Otherwise, the war itself remains an understood, but unseen, context for Forgacs’ presentation of the war—not as newsreels, documentaries, or propaganda films would present it, but as home movies represented it, even when they show life proceeding as if there were no war: it is still, after all, life in wartime.

As one would expect of home movies, there are numerous shots of children, relatives, friends, household activities, family gatherings, parties, weddings, holidays. There is also a golf tournament in Belgium, a bullfight in Lisbon, topless showgirls at the Moulin Rouge, and a woman who bathes and slips naked into bed while smiling becomingly at the husband or lover behind the camera. We see the newborn Marie Olga Kubisková and her mother in their hospital room. Later in the film she is a toddler taking a backyard shower (one of several sequences with children or adults in showers or bathtubs). Early in the film a middle-aged couple playfully wrestle in a garden. They are members of the Govaert family of Gembloux, Belgium, who appear several times in the course of the film, including the next-to-last sequence, in which they gather for a wedding lunch in 1943. From the same year, there is footage of a Dutch couple celebrating their twelfth wedding anniversary with the entertainers dressed in elaborate eighteenth century costumes and wigs; also in the same year, friends gather for a party in a garden in Belgium, where a stout middle-aged—and rather tipsy—woman dances and mugs for the camera, much to the amusement of others at the party.

Meanwhile, somewhere, other home movies were recording events of a very different sort, the most compelling of which is a mini-narrative that unfolds in nine separate sequences as the film progresses. Shot in a village in Poland, it shows, in the words of a subtitle, the “racist punishment of lovers.” A young woman and a young man (identified in the film as, “The Polish girl called Maria, 17 years old.... The German boy called Georg Gerhard, 18 years old”) are led into a village square with signs hung around their necks. We are told in voice-over and subtitles what the signs say: "I am the traitor of the German people" (spoken by a male voice) and "I am a Polish pig" (spoken by a female voice). In each succeeding sequence, the voices repeat the same self-accusatory and humiliating declarations, producing a kind of verbal/musical refrain. Forgács has referred to them as “songs” and to the film as an “opera” that is “devoted to these two declarations.”[12]

Maria’s chief tormentor identified. Paul Hose cutting Georg’s hair.
Paul Hose ties Maria’s remaining hair in a pigtail. Georg gets the same treatment as Maria.
Maria and Georg paraded through the village. A young spectator in the parade looks back at the camera.

As villagers stand around watching, a severe-looking man, identified in visual text as Paul Hose, uses large scissors to cut off all of the girl’s and the boy’s hair, except for a forelock that is twisted and tied into the shape of a pig's tail. Then the two are paraded down a village street. An unusual visual element in these sequences is a small inserted image in the lower right-hand corner of the frame. In each sequence a miniature “snap shot” of something or someone in that sequence appears in the insert.[13] The most disturbing of these is not, as one might expect, the face of Maria or Georg or Paul Hose. It appears in the final sequence, which ends with a group of children following behind the procession. Several of them look back at the camera as the shot ends in a freeze frame. The insert shows one of them: a young girl whose pretty, expressionless face says nothing—and everything—about the ritual of “racist punishment” and communal cruelty she has just witnessed.

Of other footage depicting the insidious effects of racist doctrines during the war years, the most distressing comes from Westerbork, Netherlands, where the Nazis maintained a “model” concentration camp in which Jews were relatively well treated—before being transferred to death camps elsewhere. We see them arriving and being “processed” by clerks who efficiently type up the relevant information about each individual. Characteristically, Forgács not only identifies the location but explains that the footage was “filmed by Rudolf Breslauer prisoner, following the order of the Camp Commander Gemmeker,” and he informs us that between 1943 and 1945, 120,000 people went from Westerbork to the death camps. Sequences of footage from other home movies intervene before the film returns to footage made famous—or infamous—by Alain Resnais in Night and Fog. At Westerbork several hundred Jews are herded into box cars under the observation of Nazi officers in handsome, form-fitting uniforms and sleek, black boots, accompanied by equally sleek and handsome Doberman Pinchers. The final shot of the train leaving the station fades slowly to white, as if the train were disappearing into a mist not unlike the mist on the Zuiderzee at the beginning and end of the film. In addition to its thematic significance, the fade to a misty white has a formal, aesthetic function. From this point to the end of the film, the fades between sequences are to white, not to black, as has usually (but not always) been the case earlier in the film. With this formal device, Forgacs subtly prepares us for the film’s approaching conclusion. 

Jews at the concentration camp in Westerbork, the Netherlands. German officers overseeing the departure of a train at Westerbork

Evidence of the persecution of Jews and the Nazification of much of Europe appears in a number of other home movies:

  • Hungarian Jewish work crew marches in formation and digs ditches;
  • Jews in city streets wear yellow stars on their coats;
  • in Utrecht, “Dankt Adolf Hitler” is painted on a wall and “Jood” painted in large letters on a shop window;
  • over shots of Prague’s Old Town in winter Joseph Goebbels declares, “The complete disconnection of the Jewry is not a question of morals, but a question of the security of the state”;
  • guard towers loom over a concentration camp in Plaszow, Poland (filmed with a hidden camera by Tadeus Franszyn, a member of a Polish resistance group);
  • Dutch Nazis in full uniform frolic on a beach in Holland;
  • in Breslau, Germany, robust young women of the German Labour Front jog in tight formation;
  • in Bure, Belgium, German soldiers pile confiscated bicycles on the back of a truck;
  • in Lille, France, German soldiers and civilians mix in a narrow, crowded street;
  • a home movie’s original title, “Return of our glorious troops,” precedes shots of crowds of civilians giving the fascist salute as soldiers parade through the centre of Vienna;
  • in Paris, a Wehrmacht officer bounds down the otherwise deserted steps of Sacre Coeur accompanied on the soundtrack by the synchronized sound of boots hitting stone steps;
  • in Athens, the Nazi flag flies above the Acropolis,
  • people wait in line for food,
  • emaciated men lie on hospital beds;
  • crowds march with banners declaring “NO MORE EXECUTIONS!” “FREEDOM OR DEATH!” and are fired upon by German troops.
A Nazi concentration camp at Pazlow, Poland. Members of the German Labor Front jogging in formation.
A Jewish workers company in Hungary marching to work. The Shovelers Brigade at work.
A Wermacht officer descends the steps of Sacre Coeur. Crowds welcoming victorious troops in Vienna with nazi salutes.
Dutch Nazis cavorting on a beach in the Netherlands. An anti-German demonstration in Athens.

The Athens footage (shot at great personal risk by an Athenian businessman, Angelos Papanastassiou [14]), the Westerbork footage, and the footage from Poland chronicling the punishment of seventeen-year-old Maria and eighteen-year-old Georg most vividly illustrate the suffering inflicted on victims of “the unknown war.” But because of when and where the film’s home movies were made, all of them are pregnant with historical significance and emotional impact. Given the depth of meaning history has accorded them, one might ask: Couldn’t they just be “left alone,” as Ken Jacobs might recommend? What, justifies the formal devices Forgács applies to the home movies he appropriates for his own film?

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