copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
“How it was then”: home movies as history in Péter Forgács’ Meanwhile Somewhere...
by William C. Wees
“These amateur films are full of faults. The majority—let’s say 99% of these home movies are boring. Boring. And bad. So one has to dig a lot of sand before you find one ounce of gold. But suddenly, you see all the sand is like gold. It’s also a paradox.” — Péter Forgács [open endnotes in new window]
Home movies usually appear in documentaries for what Patricia Zimmermann has called their “nostalgic qualities, a time frozen outside history.” More adventurous and experimental filmmakers have used recycled home movies for other more interesting purposes. A prime example is Meanwhile Somewhere... (1994), one of a number of films in which the Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács uses home movies to explore the history of Europe circa 1930-1960. This history is lived—and filmed—by ordinary people going about their daily lives while the developments that occupy professional historians—social unrest, the rise of Fascism, the war in Europe, the Holocaust, the imposition of Soviet-style Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe—take place, for the most part, “off screen.” While our awareness of these events strongly influences our response to the footage in Forgacs’ films, we can also vicariously share the kind of naive pleasure the amateur filmmakers and their family and friends must have felt when watching the films at the time they were made. (As will become apparent, Meanwhile Somewhere... offers some notable exceptions to that generalization.)
Forgacs is not the only filmmaker to exploit the complex process of reception involved in watching recycled home-movies. As a preface to an examination of Forgács’ method of turning home movies into visual history, I will briefly review five other films made with material comparable to that used in Meanwhile Somewhere... but with significantly different results. The subsequent discussion of Forgács’ film should clarify the significance of those differences, without, I hope, taking anything away from the accomplishments of other filmmakers who have chosen to recycle home movie footage for their own political and aesthetic purposes.
Relations of form and content in recycled home movies
For Urban Peasants (1975), the U.S. experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs spliced together one-hundred-foot rolls of 16mm home moves shot by his wife’s aunt in a Jewish section of Brooklyn during the 1930s and 40s. Other than giving the film a title and opening and closing the film with several minutes of black leader accompanied by extracts from a language-learning tape called “Instant Yiddish,” Jacobs offers nothing in the way of interpretation of, or comment on, the original home movie footage. Nevertheless, as Jeffrey Skoller has argued,
“In an ironic and affectionate way, Urban Peasants shows not only what was lost of the traditional Jewish life through assimilation but also the ways Jewish life continued elsewhere despite what was occurring in Europe.”
Drawing upon the concept of “sideshadowing,” a term coined by Michael André Berstein in Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (1994) to characterize events related to, but not incorporated within a dominant historical narrative, Skoller says Jacobs’ film
“is a sideshadow on the narrative of annihilation [of Europe’s Jewish population] and its claims of inevitability by showing the prosaics of other Jewish lives.... These artifacts of everyday Jewish life speak to the idea of a quotidian existence in the mist of catastrophe.”
Skoller’s reading of the film may or may not accord with Jacob’s intentions, but it seems to support Jacobs’ contention:
“A lot of film is perfect left alone, perfectly revealing in its un- or semi-conscious form.”
That statement could apply to Abraham Ravett’s short film In Memory (USA, 1993), in which unedited home movies of everyday life in the wintery streets of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, end with footage of the hanging of nearly a dozen men on a large scaffold in a village square. Like Jacobs, Ravett provides no explanatory titles, no voice-over commentary, in fact no sound at all while the images are on the screen. Instead, at the beginning and end of the film, while the screen is totally dark, we hear a prayer for the dead sung in Hebrew, with an English translation on the screen in the concluding sequence. The archival footage is shown "as is," as if to suggest that nothing can be said about it, and that to manipulate it through montage or other formal devices would be a disservice, perhaps even a desecration. As unpretentious and impersonal in form as it is graphically precise in content, the archival footage becomes a cinematic memorial to the dead, framed by darkness and prayer.
To make Günther 1939 (Heil Hitler) (1994), the Austrian filmmaker Johannes Rosenberger re-filmed home movie footage so that frame lines and part of the sprocket holes are visible on the screen. By emphasizing the film as film, Rosenberger distances himself from his source, as if to say the original footage is a separate, distinct document for which he bears no responsibility other than choosing to show it to us. As in most home movies, the separate shots appear to have no particular order or necessary relationship to each other. A shot of a woman nursing a baby is followed by a shot of the woman holding the baby, which is followed by a few seconds of black. Then we see a high angle shot of a crowd-lined street taken from a second story window or balcony. Police move the crowd back. Two men in the crowd look up and wave at the camera. A cavalcade approaches. In an open limousine sits Adolf Hitler and some aids. Then a second limousine passes by. In the next shot a woman and man sit in a small sailboat; this is followed by a shot of two men; then the camera closes in on a blurry, shadowy face. And that's it. Rosenberger emphasizes Hitler's presence among these typical home movie images by step printing the footage so that it appears in slow motion, but otherwise it is no more remarkable than any of the other images. Rosenberger lets the juxtaposition of historically significant and ordinary home movie images speak for itself—or rather he lets us recognize and contemplate the ironies of that juxtaposition and the historical consequences it implies.
Of other films made with home movies, two by U.S. experimental filmmakers provide a particularly useful entrée to a discussion of Forgacs’ Meanwhile Somewhere.... For The Future Is Behind You (2004), Abigail Child re-edited anonymous home movies and added a fictional narrative about a Jewish family living in Austria in the 1930s. Through visual text, she “identifies” the family members and presents the younger daughter as the film’s “narrator.” Also through text on the screen, the daughter supplies information about family activities, comments on her thoughts and feelings, and recounts the fate of family members, some of whom perish during the Holocaust while others emigrate to Palestine and the United States. The soundtrack includes synchronized sound effects and music, and some of the footage is looped, slowed down, and momentarily held motionless in freeze frames. The narrative places as much emphasis on gender and social roles as on “the historical moment which remains as text trace,” as Child has put it. Fact (the actual home movie footage) and fiction (the narrative superimposed on the footage) merge in a critical/creative reading that is historically and psychologically plausible but is, nevertheless, an imaginative recreation of a family history illustrated with home movies. The result, Child has tentatively suggested, is “a documentary with fiction intruding.”
Alan Berliner’s The Family Album (1987) is composed of anonymous footage from a large number of American home movies shot between the 1920s and 1950s. Beginning with shots of new-born infants, the film progresses to young children learning to walk, to older children playing, to teenagers and young adults partying, to marriage ceremonies, to the appearance of another generation of children, to elderly people and funerals. Like Child, he adds a soundtrack with music and some sound effects. The film is intended to be, in Berliner’s words,
“a universal yet intimate portrait of American family life, not scripted, not rehearsed, not immune to the conflicts and contradictions underlying family life and its rituals.”
To call this collective family portrait “universal” is questionable. It is essentially an evocation of white, middle-class American family life in the first half of the twentieth century. Berliner’s characterization of it as “an intimate portrait” correctly emphasizes its lack of references to public events and the larger historical contexts within which these families lived and recorded their lives on film.
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....”
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.”
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.”
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.” 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. 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.
Evidence of the persecution of Jews and the Nazification of much of Europe appears in a number of other home movies:
The Athens footage (shot at great personal risk by an Athenian businessman, Angelos Papanastassiou ), 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?
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
An earlier version of this essay has been published in Spanish in La casa abierta. El cine doméstico y sus reciclajes contemporáneos, Efrén Cuevas, ed. (Madrid: Colección Textos Documenta, Ocho y Medio, 2009).
1. Quoted in Deirdre Boyle, “Meanwhile Somewhere... A Discussion with Péter Forgács,” Immediacy: A Forum for the Discussion of Media and Culture (accessed 17 May 2006). [return to text]
http://www.nsu.newschool.edu/Immediacy/Past Immediacy/public_html/memory/2001/Forgacs/forgacs.html, 9
2. Patricia Zimmermann, “Morphing History into Histories: From Amateur Films to the Archive of the Future,” The Moving Image 1.1 (2001): 129.
3. Jeffrey Skoller, Shadows, Specters, and Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Films (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 53.
4. Ken Jacobs, Filmakers’ Cooperative Catalogue No. 7 (New York: The New American Cinema Group, 1989), 272. Jacobs’ remark refers to his Perfect Film (1986), but it applies equally well to Urban Peasants.
5. These comments on In Memory and Günther (Heil Hitler) originally appeared in a slightly different form in, William C. Wees, “Old Images, New Meanings: Recontextualizing Archival Footage of Nazism and the Holocaust,” Spectator 20.1 (1999-2000): 73.
6. Abigail Child, Notes on The Future Is Behind You, included with a video copy of the film.
7. Abigail Child, email to the author, 5 November 2004. In the same email she offers the work of the novelist W.G. Sebald as a precedent for the merging of fiction and fact in her film.
8. Alan Berliner, Filmakers’ Cooperative Catalogue No. 7, 31.
9. Scott MacDonald, “Peter Forgács,” A Critical Cinema 4 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 299.
10. Ibid., 300.
11. Ibid., 314-315
12. Boyle, 6.
13. As Forgács has explained (Boyle, 9), this is an example of necessity being the mother of invention. Forgács used these inserts to cover up the logo of the Warsaw Film Archive, which occupied the same corner of the frame in the footage the Archive provided for Forgacs’ use.
14. Footage from Angelos Papanastassiou’s home movies provided the material for Forgács’ Angelos’ Film (1999).
15. Zimmermann, 111.
16. Boyle, 6.
17. Ibid., 4.
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