Young Zednek and his grandfather play-fighting in a backyard in Czechoslovakia

A Govaert family wedding lunch in Belgium in 1943.

The last skater on the Zuiderzee leaves the frame as the film comes to an end.



Contextualizing “open texts”

One answer to that question is suggested by Patricia Zimmermann’s description of amateur film as

“a text that defies traditional textual analysis of filmic form because it is an open text that can only be completed by historical contextualization.”[15] [open endnotes in new window]

In Meanwhile, Somewhere... Forgács provides that contextualization. At the same time, he invests his work with an aesthetic grounding and formal unity not found in the original home movie footage. He offers an original, creative analysis of “open texts” made by people who, as Forgacs has said,

“didn’t realize that they were recording so many other things that would be important for me, for us today.”[16]

His approach encourages us to see more—literally and conceptually—than a projection of the individual home movies in their original form would allow.

The process of historical contextualization begins with supplying dates and place names—“Prague 1940,” “Occupied Poland 1941,” “Vienna 1941,” “Breslau, Germany 1942,” “Lille, France 1943”—and identifying, when possible, who is being filmed and where—the Govaert family and the Drugman family in Belgium, the Svoboda family in Poland, the Apfelthaler father and son in Vienna, Marie Olga Kubisková and her brother Petr in Czechoslovakia. This sort of contextualization also includes information about special circumstances of filming—a member of the Polish resistance filming the Plaszow concentration camp with a hidden camera, an Athenian businessman secretly filming scenes of the German occupation of his city, a prisoner filming activities at the Westerbork concentration camp on orders of the camp’s commander.

While such factual information is useful (Forgács would probably insist it is essential), a richer, deeper historical contextualization results from Forgács’ use of montage to place images of a familiar, family-centered life enjoyed by the European bourgeoisie in the context of images of the abnormal, unfamiliar effects of war’s intrusion into public life. The former suggest life goes on as always, the latter suggest it does not. Through his montage, Forgács asks us to understand and evaluate each view in the context of the other. As the film progresses, the absence of the war in the domestic home movies increasingly becomes—for us, if not for the participants—a powerful presence. It becomes impossible to look at even the most innocent and playful scenes of everyday family life without an awareness of what else was going on in a European society transformed by war. By contextualizing images of private lives and public events, domestic tranquility and social unrest, nurturing family relationships and political scapegoating and persecution, Forgács challenges traditional assumptions about the guilt or innocence, resistance or collaboration, privileges and deprivations, and, indeed, the happiness or unhappiness of millions of people in wartime Europe. As viewers, we not only observe, but become intellectually and emotionally engaged with, the contradictions and ironies of the historical context forged by Forgács’ montage.

At the same time, the film’s soundtrack provides a subtler form of contextualization in which the viewer’s response to Fogács’ manipulation of sound and image becomes a crucial factor. Tibor Szemzö’s quiet, contemplative music and the occasional, brief insertions of synchronized sound effects help to establish a relationship between the viewer and the film that is both appreciative and critical, involved and distanced. As Forgács has explained,

“The soundtrack is also a part of getting near and getting far from the screen. And that’s how the music and the sound effects work. Sometimes it’s alienating and sometime it is very meditative, and you don’t know where you are. It’s part of a bad dream. Or sometimes you heard this very concrete voice or noise, the noise of the fire or the noise of the steps [of the Wehrmacht officer descending the steps at Sacre Coeur], and then it pulls you back from this abstract level.... "

In effect, Forgács endorses and expands upon Zimmerman’s call for “historical contextualization” of “open texts” when he adds,

“I would say this is a contextual art, that the meaning comes out of the context where it appears. It can be an abstract sound, it can be an image, it can be any layer of the piece.”[17]

Szemzö’s music works in tandem with the slowed-down movement produced by step printing the original footage. Together they introduce a subtle, underlying rhythm or pulse (audio and visual) that implicitly brings the diverse activities and events recorded in the home movies into the same affective and aesthetic context. They influence how we feel about what we are seeing, while also contributing to the formal unity of the work as a whole. I am suggesting, in other words, that in Meanwhile, Somewhere... contextulizing open texts involves more than bringing out the social, psychological, political, and historical implications of the home movies’ visual content. It also provides the means for eliciting intellectual and emotional engagement with those texts—whether regarded individually or as part of a a multi-faceted totality. It is unlikely that anything like that richness of reception would result from a screening of the home movies if they were “left alone.”

In addition to their aesthetic contribution, the formal techniques Forgács employs embody a moral imperative that is given its most powerful visual representation in his frequent practice of ending a shot with a freeze frame of someone looking directly at the camera. In our perceptual/psychological position as viewers, the effect is of that person looking at us. It is a look that implicates us and implicitly challenges us to reflect upon where we stand in relation to what’s happening on screen. The crucial issue becomes not only “how it was then” but how it is now.

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