The Labyrinth: A Strategy of Sensitive Experimentation, A Filmmaker of the Anonymous

By Kristian Feigelson (University of Paris III - Sorbonne Nouvelle)

Amnesia is not a goal but a disorder. As the past has been eradicated, a threat to identity, history has become an indispensable task. —Yosef Yerushalmi (Harvard, June 1970)

The Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács has for over twenty years been engaged in the painstaking project of reconstituting film archives based on 9.5mm and 8mm amateur footage. The goal of the project is to retrace the itinerary of Hungarian or Jewish families in Central Europe in the 1930s and under the Nazi Occupation from 1939 to 1942.

In tandem with a seminar devoted to his work at the Helsinki Film School (May 2005), Finland's Kiasma Museum of Modern Art presented his most recent traveling multimedia installation, The Labyrinth Project: Danube Exodus, originally created at the Annenberg Center of the University of Southern California (Los Angeles) around his film, Danube Exodus (A dunai exodus, 1998), before opening in the Gallery of the Getty Research Institute in 2002; it was subsequently exhibited in Berkeley and in Europe (see Feigelson “Filmmaker of the anonymous”). A filmmaker and experimental artist often neglected in his own country despite the prestigious prizes he has received abroad, Péter Forgács remains a personality apart on the European cultural scene,[1] the author of performances, installations, and videos such as The Case of My Room (A szobám esete, 1992), Two Nests (Két fészek és egy s más, 1992), and Hungarian Totem (Magyar totem, 1993). Beginning in 1988, his series, Private Hungary (Privát Magyarország), based on amateur film archives, comprises an ensemble of twelve films investigating the relationship between history and memory, including  The Bartos Family (A Bartos család, 1988), Dusi and Jeno (Dusi és Jeno, 1989), Either/Or (Vagy/Vagy, 1989), The Diary of Mr. N (N. úr naplója, 1990), Photographed by László Dudas (Fényképezte Dudás László, 1991), The Bourgeois Dictionary (Polgár szótár, 1992), The Notes of a Lady (Egy úrino notesza, 1992-94), The Land of Nothing (A semmi országa, 1996), Free Fall (Az örvény, 1996), Class Lot (“…osztálySORSjegy…, 1997), and Kádár's Kiss (Csermanek csókja, 1997). This collection of thirty reels, exhumed from over 40 years of history, was followed in 1998 by Danube Exodus, winner of awards at the Hungarian Film Week and in Cracow in 1999, concerning Nazi persecution in Central Europe. In 2005, Black Dog (El Perro Negro) received first prize for best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival (New York), and was followed in 2006 by Miss Universe 1929: Lisl Goldarbeiter, A Queen in Wien (Miss Universe 1929: Lisl Goldarbeiter—a Szépség útja).

Status of the Images

For nearly thirty years, Forgács work has been original, exemplary, and often solitary, consisting essentially of re-working—on the basis of film archives—issues of memory in European societies.[2] Using the strategy of the Labyrinth Project, the filmmaker patiently weaves together, in artisanal fashion, the numerous threads of cinematic memory. In both its material and oneiric dimensions, then, this heterogeneous and labyrinthine model refers above all to a logic of appropriation in the use of supporting materials. Based on the exhibition of the archives of amateur filmmakers, this framework depends extensively on interactions negotiated at every level of the project's objectives.[3] In this sense, the amateur film constitutes an original document, one that has not yet become indebted, at this time, to the technology of mass production.[4]

This form of archive interrogates a period that preceeds the era of video or digital photography, permitting images derived from private worlds of the past to be re-appropriated by reworking the very materials out which they were created. These archival images, recomposed and often colorized in blue or sepia tones in reference to silent cinema, bear witness to individual past histories, inscribed within History in the larger sense. The majority of private amateur archives in Hungary date back to 1920-30 in a context determined by a very specific relationship to reproductions of the image, when photography had existed for less than eighty years and cinema for scarcely twenty five.

Forgács explains this particular status of the image as a relationship of social defiance.[5] The relationship to the image becomes gradually domesticated in the 1930s, when the act of filming involved a social as well as an economic investment. Indeed, in view of the cost of film stock, amateur cinema was considered an élitist practice reserved for the bourgeoisie, who primarily filmed scenes of daily life, such as a three-minute sequence of a wedding ceremony. For these family members, the act of recording amateur cinema footage lay at the very heart of the intimacy of such an event. Forgács' work refers to a microhistory that reconstitutes, through the editing process, heterogeneous archives and sources of great diversity. A tangible element of this intimacy is the treatment of archival materials that constitute family memory,[6] in which voiceless characters play their own roles through expressions and gestures that are often exaggerated by virtue of the camera's presence. The juxtaposition of shots, then, endows this intimate diary form with a kind of dramaturgical narrative element.

Taking the past as its object, these documents, within the prism of Forgács' discourse, acquire something of a pedagogic quality, claiming to interrogate the future in spite of the difficulty, particularly actue in Hungary, of writing the history of the present (see Gradvolh and v. Klimo). This amateur cinema, thus, functions as a tool that perpetuates family patrimony, for the status of these images refers to the last traces of a past that has been erased—the impossible memory of Eastern Europe.[7] The filmmaker's project is related to an archaeologist retracing an itinerary in a quest for historical truth, for the truth of identity.

Through the specific vision of a filmmaker carefully re-editing the archives, the figure of the labyrinth sculpts individual destinies caught up in the web of history, shaped by a more general collective memory. Images of the past, exhumed in the present, embody or freeze a form of atemporality, so that the memory they reconstruct acquires a status beyond that of history.[8] These different materials are meant to interrogate the very definition of a re-contextualized archive.[9] In this sense, cinema functions at the level of a more empathic public space, in which individual and collective destinies are combined with what is said and what is silenced, with the visible and the non-visible. Hence, the need to understand this kind of cinema as an “agent of personalization” that lends a new visibility to the zone that lies between historical film and testimony; the various functions of private images on-screen, thus, become readable within the framework of a new visual system created among the video monitors installed in the space of the museum.

The intimate images re-enliven a space of privacy within public space, whereas the filmmaker's background meditation, often in the form of an off-screen voice or in commented texts, maintains a connection that is at once intimate and artistic, constituting a wider historical plot within the context of a visual re-writing of history as a collective message (see Odin, “La famille…”). This system, thus, enables the filmmaker to deploy a series of scaled operations, of various gazes that allow for an adjustment of points of view.

Danube Exodus

The museological and multimedia project Danube Exodus reconstitutes the itinerary of family members who survived the Holocaust, filmed in 1939 by Captain Nándor Andrásovits, an amateur filmmaker. After studying political science and entering the Naval Academy, he filmed his subjects' itinerary from 1939 to 1940. Removed from office by the communist regime in 1948, the captain disappeared in 1953. Forgács positions the filmmaker-captain as a pivotal figure of the events that took place throughout this voyage of 2,700 kilometers on the Danube,[10] a key element that authorizes the reconstruction of a narrative that is all the more explicit in the museum exhibition, foreshadowing as it does the catastrophes of the 20 th century: 12 March 1938 marks the Anschluss in Vienna, followed by the German entry into Prague on 15 March 1939 (with documentary images), as 608 Slovak Orthodox Jews negotiate their departure from Bratislava to escape from Dachau. At the end of an extraordinary epic journey through the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the ship lands in Haifa, Palestine on 17 September 1939.

The history of Bessarabia recounts the forced exodus of 93,000 Germans repatriated from the territory of Russia/Romania after the Hitler-Stalin pact. Disenchanted and betrayed by the “promise of Paradise,” the majority were sent back after 1942 to the Russian front or deported to Poland. In this round trip of biblical proportions, the phantom ship Érzsébet Királyné, requisitioned to transport these different ethnic groups in turn, becomes the living trace of an amateur camera-eye. Punctuated by a background score (composed by Tibor Szemzo) that avoids all traces of dialogue, the film reveals the paroxysm of these parallel worlds and offers the survivors the chance to re-discover traces of their past.

The Labyrinth installation, presented in various museums of modern art as a complement to the film screenings, authorizes the work of memory in interactive fashion through the use of multimedia consoles. The public and the survivors interviewed in Israel, the US, and Germany are, thus, granted the opportunity to relive these events after the fact with a real force of conviction, sixty years later; putting into perspective our own vision of history, these communities can today reclaim theirs. The crossing from Slovakia to former Yugoslavia, revisited thanks to this cinematic strategy, takes the participants back to the particular tragic atmosphere of the events in light of the recent history of Central Europe. The asymetrical destinies of the two persecuted communities—Jewish and German—are foregrounded in two stages, uncovering an unrecognized aspect of the Second World War. As an explorer of this past and as a contemporary filmmaker, Forgács suggests the compromises that were made at the expense of these thousands of anonymous subjects, consigned as they were to the dustbin of official history, betrayed and abandoned by the world.

Theirs is a story that echoes, within limits, the situation of former Yugoslavia, in which Europe recently witnessed new genocides.[11] But beyond History writ large, the strategy of the Labyrinth project sustains a more privileged relationship with intimacy, reactivating visual and sensory perceptions of the survivors who are interviewed. Their testimonies reveal the gaps and traumatic sequels whose tragic aspect is missing from the images, the events having been situated a posteriori within the scope of history. It remains, then, for us to reinterpret the totality of the images in light of the present. For Forgács' gaze is not limited solely to a single historicizing posture, but rather may be said to constitute an ethical approach. These images and testimonies, delivered in public space, infer a more universal posture through which, in light of the catastrophes of the 20th century, each of us is capable of identifying with a member of one of the families in the process of being filmed. Such a strategy offers a kind of restitution to a hidden layer of history, represented here to the spectator-witness. History, thus, functions as a wider museological device that transcends the limited framework of film in order to demonstrate, via the circulation of archives, a world as it might have been perceived by these protagonists—Forgács himself, the amateur captain-filmmaker, the involuntary actors of this departure, the survivors, the museum visitors, and so on. Danube Exodus serves as an interactive strategy of memory, inducing a wider circulation of diversified representations. The recomposed film in turn acts as a synthesis of history in progress, gesturing toward the anxieties ahead and foreshadowing in 1939 what the Shoah was to become. By encompassing this reality, it imposes at the same time a particular writing of history.

Writing History

The amateur filmmaker's camera displaced the conventional gap between the written and the visual. All the events captured on the filmic level are part of a recomposed diary, confronting on-screen private history with public history. In counterpoint, this is indeed a history seen from below, one that reflects what might be considered to be the “impossibility of memory” in Eastern Europe, or rather a non-official way of re-writing history by placing in a past context questions that are contemporary. The history of historians, or rather of a particular historical tradition, has rarely been a history from below, in order to avoid retracing the everyday life of these anonymous souls. In fact, from this perspective in relation to official history, autobiography became a dominant genre as a representational mode in communist central European cinema.[12] In this respect, Forgács' strategy of recomposition allows him to reintroduce this very quotidian element missing from official history. Traces of the past are replayed in a “more dialectic montage” that contributes to reformulating the history the filmmaker revisits through filmic devices such as cutting, selection, and editing. Each fragment contributes new elements[13] from the private archives as the director foregrounds key moments of everyday life—despite the anxiety-producing climate of the period—as they were experienced aboard Andrásovics's ship, from dances to weddings to mealtimes.

Such an invasive daily life might appear to restrain the filmmaker from delivering a true message about the events in question, for the banality of these situations helps create a kind of dichotomy between private and public life in Danube Exodus that threatens to leech off the relationship with history. The repercussions of family amnesia in the videos in the museum exhibition at times erase the negative aspects of the quotidian or overshadow them by replaying them in a different register. How, then, can one illustrate on-screen a more narrativized history of these characters who are, today, often anonymous actors of a history that has crushed them? The juxtaposition of the nearly symmetrical destinies of these Jewish and German communities attempts to erase their differences, resulting in a less restrictive reality often idealized on the side of the winners in the cinematic framework of the tragically tumultuous history of Europe from 1939-40.

The reconstitution of a contemporary film makes Forgács the guarantor, the mediator, or the trustee of a new form of Hungarian history that could not be written otherwise. This very specific project remains open to multiple interpretations,[14] in contradistinction to many documentaries about the Second World War that are too often enclosed within their single object. Here it is rather an attempt to accord a measure of flexibility to temporality in face of the tragedies recounted.[15] If indeed history can be manipulated, written, and inscribed after the fact (and all the more so during the communist period from which Central Europe is only now beginning to emerge), the smaller history of these anonymous protagonists opens up new perspectives. But it also becomes a point of tension that these films embody as a more or less fictional inheritance of a history that can never be fully claimed.[16] Forgács' integrated process shatters images that infer discursive discontinuities:[17] Captain Andrásovits's aesthetics of camera shots; ordinary archives of the passengers portrayed in daily activities; news reports of the time; the words of witnesses recorded after the fact. In this context, linked to a specifically Hungarian historiography, the status of a visual history proposed by Forgács acquires an essential, alternative form in the context of the device I am discussing here, among other things by interpolating the question of borders. Danube Exodus transcends the border debates so crucial to the former Austro-Hungarian Empire since the partition of the Trianon Treaty (1920) and going back to the revolutions and counter-revolutions that successively mark off these societies in the 20th century.[18] Since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hungarian society has generally been incapable of proposing a clear analysis of the Holocaust. The various governments on both the left and the right that have come to power have eluded the question, more often than not, in order to reinforce a nationalist perspective of history, in a context in which professional history remains in a more or less amnesiac state, thereby opening the field to every kind of revisionism.[19]

In the context of these discussions, Jews were considered to be subversive elements in theses and laws legitimated in 1938, when an openly fascist government collaborated with Nazi Germany. Ultimately, during the communist period, the question of the Shoah was further avoided in favor of ideas postulating Hungary as victim of a destiny beyond its control, without actually designating those responsible for the massive deportation of 600,000 Jews and the extermination of this Hungarian community in the camps of Auschwitz. The Hitler-Horthy pact of 18 March 1944 signed off on this massive annihilation, in which, on 6 June 1944, the date of the Allied disembarkation, a final convoy of 12,000 Jews from Transylvania was deported to Auschwitz, thereby concluding the process of making Hungary Juden rein. Beginning in 1948 with Stalinist communist power, the revisionism then in force again raised the question of the status of minorities, both Jews and Germans, in Central Europe. Thus, these questions raised by Forgács a half-century later are not in vain; instead they bring to the attention of an amnesiac civil society the stakes of far deeper and more traumatic debates on the “nationalization of history” and its confiscation. There are parallels between the fate of these communities in the period 1938 to 1944 and to the instrumentalization of the Holocaust, which was not mentioned until 1956 during the Stalinist period controlled by the Soviets, then later evacuated in favor of an anti-Soviet focus linked to 1956, before resuming more cautiously after 1962 during the Thaw: the issue of “national responsibility” in the face of history.[20] It is perhaps possible to take such an approach to history from the outside.[21]

After 1989, these questions remain embarassing if not altogether taboo in a traumatized Hungarian society. How, indeed, can one assume political or collective responsibility for such a major issue that interferes directly with that of identity and assimilation? To be “Magyar” and observantly Jewish depended upon a strong identity in the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Jews participated in large numbers in the nation's modernization beginning in 1848.[22] To be a Jew in Europe presupposes in this regard a multiplicity of belongings between exile and citizenship.[23] The Hungarian political context of the 1990s took up the strategy of the scapegoat, aiming to re-nationalize history under the guise of revisionist purification (see Braham “Offensive...”).

A politics of this kind permits once again a distinction between “good” and “bad” Hungarians, justifying in its way the dark period of the Horthy era. The responsibilities of genocide are recentered on the Germans and a number of administrative obstacles are set up to those seeking acces to Holocaust archives; economic reparations to survivors are then restricted. A series of projects, including a controversial exhibition in 1999 devoted to Auschwitz, which promotes the revisionist point of view, are promoted under the aegis of the Ministry of Cultural Patrimony in order to minimize the role of Horthy and the Arrow Cross, the fascist militia of the period.[24]

Certain approved historians are invoked to act as guarantor for these representations. Putting into perspective the scope of the Holocaust in Hungary also permits giving clearance to the communist era when compared with the Nazi period. The media target the Jewish origins of a number of Bolshevik leaders of the ephemeral Republic of Councils in 1919, just as of the post-war Stalinists such as Rakosy and Rosenfeld.[25] Elsewhere, Auschwitz is described as a model foreshadowing the Soviet GULag, while in Budapest the House of Terror mixes genres by including both. It is in this context at the end of the 1990s that Peter Forgács' Danube Exodus project emerges; its sources take on an entirely different meaning in that the amateur archives of silent cinema have since acquired a voice, re-inserting the least visible aspects of an unrecognized history. The discourse of the Labyrinth mechanism, thus, takes on a dimension that is more ethical than political, foregrounding as it does this history in order to affect, within the terms of the debate, a group of actors on the Hungarian public stage and to question European responsibilities for this genocide.[26]

The interactions postulated by Forgács are numerous, surpassing—within the framework of Danube Exodus—the actual question of Judaism, to pose, more fundamentally, that of the victims and of the connections between these minority communities to a fate that linked them to different outcomes in an inverse process of extermination. The interval of a single year, between 1939 and 1940, on the Danube in the heart of Central Europe, serves here as a metaphoric site of imaginary encounters. Forgács reinvests these meanings in the more distant or spiritual perspective of a “promised land.”[27]

The Era of Witnesses

From film to multimedia installation, the focus of Danube Exodus is not only an endeavor to accumulate life narratives, in which communities of individuals are likely to come in contact with each other through the contingency of events at differentiated historical moments. In this specific contribution, quite different from that of the documentary genre, the filmmaker includes the bias of collecting image-memoirs, in which the impact of autobiographical experience is probably reevaluated with regard to the weight of history.[28] This critical re-reading of European history, of a moment as crucial as that of the summer of 1939-40, through family films mainly recalling everyday scenes aboard ship, is obviously quite different from a re-reading of so-called “national history” accomplished after the fact in a context that remains ideologically inflected.

With regard to the tragic trauma caused successively by Nazism and Stalinism, Forgács seeks to call seriouosly into question the codes that are culturally acceptable, which raises indirectly two essential issues: the distortion or the relation between “collective memory” and the “autobiographical status” in the project as a whole. What contribution does this kind of mechanism offer to a true re-writing of history? The cinema of Central Europe in the documentary tradition perpetuated by the Béla Balázs Studio in the 1980s remains the reinvented form of rewriting a history that is otherwise impossible (see Jeancolas).

Here, it is rather a process of collage, underscored by an interaction between voice and music in a spatio-temporal network of the welcoming spaces of museological sites. This process integrates form and content by mixing public space with private life, and by creating an encounter between elements of history and memory. A process in perpetual tension, it favors a deconstruction of these elements, continuously referring witnesses to their own images in the film. A meditative process, it also offers a poetic paradigm of a deeper deracination through an itinerary without borders and, at the same time revealing nostalgia for such roots. In the era of witnessing, the mechanism interrogates the history of professionals who have ignored this level of recording history while at the same time questioning, in contemporary musealogical space, new forms of aestheticizing horror that have appeared around the world in various Holocaust museums or foundations (see Sorlin; Walter) . More important still, this mechanism or strategy interrogates history in the quest for truth while at the same time questioning the status of memory in search of fidelity by situating the film along axes of credibility.

To this extent, then, it raises the question of reception in a public space that is—if not hostile—at the very least indifferent. Echoing the premonition of Walter Benjamin, the filmmaker caught up in this labyrinth reduces his narration to silence or to the traumatic experience of successive generations: “With the First World War we saw an evolution taking place, a process that since that time has not ceased accelerating…: the combatants returned from the front mute, not wealthier but poorer in terms of communicable experiences.”[29] As a bearer of symbols, the narrative tautology of the mechanism refers to a reconstituted community. Those who witness the installation have probably lost the thread of their history to the benefit of this reconstitution of memory, which at times spills over into anecdotal situations. Reduced to the level of historical fresco, this history has much in common with shared experience. The war constituted a rupture in narration; hence, the passage from silent (archives) to sound (multimedia) that transfers the speech of survivors to images refers to the aphasia typical of trauma, evoked by Walter Benjamin (beyond the archive)—a history from which its actors return mute.

In the art of causing this history to be relived, of encountering the double relation between silent film and mute individual, Forgács reconstitutes its features. The image, thus, becomes an indicator, while the voice brings back a living memory. In this mechanism, the voices of witnesses have gradually been transmuted into new sources of history. The testimonial status of the mechanism seems to be primordial—listening and showing witnesses recounting the uniqueness of their own journey in the face of the triple constraint of the history of Central Europe; a history appropriated by power in a matrix that is at once revisionist and anchored in a certain kind of positivism; a history identified especially with the discourse of the conquerors; and the constraint of the growing silence of those persecuted in official historical accounts. The image restores speech on the basis of a generational silence. Like a fugitive passage on the Danube, this mechanism—in the form of testimonies—organizes a final transit between memory and history.

Translated from the French by Catherine Portuges


1] Born in 1950, Péter Forgács defines himself above all as an artisan and independent filmmaker: “In Communist Hungary, I was excluded by the Academy of Arts after 1971, accused of activism in the group Orphéo of Marxist inspiration (laughter) in the anti-Soviet climate of the period. Attracted by minimalist art, I was connected to the margins and the underground, with Gábor Bódy, Tibor Hajas, and Miklós Erdély, around the Squat Theater in Budapest. Since 1978, the minimalist music of GROUP 180 has had an essential impact on my work. In contrast to the film studios that were controlled by state censorship, music escaped strict control. We were living in a period of unbearable compromise and hypocrisy that benefited the caste of filmmakers close to power. But those years, between 1970 and 1980, were actually a good training period. Our marginalized group met at Béla Balázs Studios, which was then free enough to make avant-garde films. After 1982, I started collecting family footage just by putting out announcements in newspapers. I've always worked in a spirit of independence, even if some of my films were co-produced with Hungarian television. We were at the time (the 1980s) a small team excited by this quest for images, looking for unusual objects, decomposed photos or films” (Feigelson, “Filmmaker of the anonymous” 105).

2] See Boyle; Portuges; see also Nichols. Forgács's film Black Dog (El Perro Negro) devoted to the Spanish Civil War, was broadcast in France in November 2006 on the Art et Essai circuit. For a bibliography and current filmography, consult the sites Artportal or Danube-Exodus.

3] As defined by Michel Foucault with regard to prison: “A thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble, consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, oral and philanthropic propositions—in short, words, but also what is not expressed in words. The dispositive itself is the network that can be established between these elements ” (“Le jeu de Michel Foucault” 299; editor's translation). See Blümlinger on this Foucauldian perspective applied to the multimedia installation in a museological space

4] Disconnected from cult values promoted by the dominant classes, art will lose its orignal autonomy at the turn of the 1930s, marked by the rise of totalitarianisms. See Benjamin: “Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. [...] This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art” ( “The Work of Art” 242).

5] “At first, almost no one smiled on those old yellowing photos, nor in the archives of films that I exhumed” (qtd. Feigelson, “Filmmaker of the anonymous” 105).

6] In distinction to the status of these archival images: “Today, video has expanded as well to the working classes; there are no more limitations in filming a family event. Besides, today a television station such as MTV mixes amateur and professionally-shot images. It's as if in our ‘societies of the spectacle,' we were suddently witnessing a widespread process of decomposition of animated image culture inherited from the beginning of the 20th century—a kind of trash culture similar to ‘consumer fascism of the Berlusconi type.' Any relationship to intimacy has more or less disappeared in contemporary presentations that paradoxally summon up tele-reality” (qtd. Feigelson, “Filmmaker of the anonymous” 106; editor's translation).

7] Referring here to the limits of awakening civil societies, distinguishing different typologies of memoirs—erased, manipulated or disputed (see Brossat, et al.)

8] See Hartog, especially chapter 5: “Le témoin et l'historien” (191-214).

9] Which presumes to interrogate the genesis of these images likely to have existed earlier. But before what? They do not depend exclusively on compilation film, in the sense that Leyda understood when he proposed various forms of categorization (archive film, found footage, chronicle montage), or in the semio-pragmatic approach of spectators in the era of silent cinema (see Odin, “La question de l'amateur”).

10] A documentary of another kind by Dietmar Schulz retraced in 2005 for ZDF the trajectory of the Saint Louis embarcation on 13 May 1939, with 937 Jews bound for Cuba while waiting to land in the USA. In the end, with American quotas on immigration and the country's entry into the war, the Saint Louis was forced to turn about in Europe, where a number of its passengers were deported to the death camps.

11] Qtd. Feigelson, “Filmmaker of the anonymous”: “In Private Hungary, the distance from the events replays our gaze after the fact. But the danger would be rather no longer to feel concerned or implicated. A film can stimulate us to wonder what we are doing with this history in the present. It is not only about ‘History' but about ‘one's own history' or ‘our history'” (107; editor's translation).

12] For a Hungarian example in cinema, see Feigelson, “Du Journal intime”; for a Soviet example, see Garros.

13] See the analysis by Lindeperg in connection with a film in history in which “The uses of Night and Fog are readable not only in written traces but also in the very material of the short subject as it was distributed in some countries: truncated shots, deleted musical phrases, intentionally falsified translations, distortions between image and sound, establishing previously unheard-of correspondences. Re-readings of Night and Fog are expressed finally in its use in fragments” (11; editor's translation).

14] Reference to a citation by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in which “everything that can be described is other”; extract from an earlier film of Forgács inspired by the Tractatus of Wittgenstein in 1992. Or as Sylvie Rollet has written concerning the work of the filmmaker Béla Tarr, for whom history as an inexhaustible form takes on an atemporal aspect: “An image that springs from the depths of the century's memory. History does not repeat itself; it stutters... The spiral of historical time is infinite” (101-103; editor's translation).

15] On the question of anti-Semitism in Hungary, see the work of Braham, Politics of Genocide.

16] As Péter Forgács explains: “The past was destroyed and re-written in Orwellian fashion, the past is always already a re-written story: it is a common identity crisis in Central Europe” (qtd. Feigelson, “Filmmaker of the anonymous” 108; editor's translation).

17] As Walter Benjamin suggests, “… the continuity of history belongs to the oppressors; the history of the oppressed reveals discontinuity” (“Paralipomènes et variétés des theses” 38; editor's translation). See also the illuminating article on this subject by Felman.

18] Concerning Hungarian history of this period, see Gradvolh.

19] See Karsai. Beginning in 1948, with the Stalinist Communists in power, the revisionism in effect once again brought up the status of Jewish and German minorities in Central Europe. To this extent, then, the questions reiterated by Forgács a half-century later are far from vain; in an amnesiac civil society they bring to the surface the stakes of much deeper and more traumatic debates on the “nationalization of history” and its hijacking. There are clearly parallels between the destiny of these communities between 1938 and 1944 and the instrumentalization of the Holocaust, which was not mentioned until 1956 during the Stalinist period controlled by the Soviets, and then later evacuated in favor of an anti-Soviet focus linked to the uprising of 1956, before assuming, after 1962 and during the thaw, a more timid “national responsibility” in the face of history.

20] In a different context, see Vidal-Naquet.

21] The American historian Paxton provoked a salutary shock within French society after the release of Marcel Ophüls' documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la pitié, 1969), followed by Louis Malle's feature film, Lacombe Lucien (1974) on the subject of collaboration.

22] Suleiman's analysis of Sunshine (A Napfény íze, 1999) by István Szabó, tracing the itinerary of four generations of Jews in history, generated controversy in Hungarian public space upon its release.

23] See Birnbaum, in the sense that Catholic anti-Semitism in Europe of the 1930s contributed to reinforcing these strong tendencies.

24] See Braham (“Offensive contre l'histoire”) citing the writer Sándor Csóori in 1998: “The liberal community of Hungarian Jews wanted to assimilate the Magyars into their manner of being and thinking” (129; editor's translation). On 3 July1994 at the World Jewish Congress, former minister Gyula Horn stated his personal views proclaiming the idea of confronting the past and offering an apology. A documentary film, Blanchir la milice, was produced and broadcast on the public television station Duna TV on 6 December 1998

25] In 1989, the Hungarian Communist Party numbered some 800 000 members. Jews had been substantially eliminated after the anti-cosmopolitan campaigns of the 1950s, and then by the anti-Zionism of 1967.

26] A question that has already been revisited in fiction film, such as Welcome in Vienna (Wohin und zurück; dir. Axel Corti, 1986).

27] “My recontextualized construction is closer to a dream in its restructuring process than to an illustration of these lives” (qtd. Feigelson, “Filmmaker of the anonymous”108).

28] With regard to the issue of solicited testimony, see Pollak and Heinich; also see Wievorka.

29] Concerning the status of a language that is difficult to communicate today, see also the acceptance speech by Imre Kertesz for the Nobel Prize in Literature (Stockholm, 10 December 2002): “To my horror, I realized that ten years after I had returned from the Nazi concentration camps, and halfway still under the awful spell of Stalinist terror, all that remained of the whole experience were a few muddled impressions, a few anecdotes. Like it didn't even happen to me, as people are wont to say… But the hero of my novel does not live his own time in the concentration camps, for neither his time nor his language, not even his own person, is really his.  He doesn' t remember; he exists.”

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Paralipomènes et variétés des thèses sur le concept d'histoire.” Ecrit Français. Paris: Gallimard, 1991. 348-349.

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All stills courtesy of Péter Forgács

© Kristian Feigelson, 2008

Updated: 10 Feb 08