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Cinema’s Alchemist: The Films of Péter Forgács

By Bill Nichols and Michael Renov (eds.)

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, 2012

pp. 271, illus, b/w

ISBN: 978-0-8166-4875-7

Reviewed by Nico de Klerk


For a couple of generations worldwide, home movies and other films for private use were often people’s first experience with moving images. This was—and perhaps still is—a distinct experience and quite particular practice, since each of these movies were by and large made and watched by the same people, usually recruited from a small, intimate family circle. Rather than having makers and spectators, home movies are as a consequence better characterised as having “participants”, to use the term proposed by Roger Odin and Eric de Kuyper about these films. [1] For decades, moreover, this experience was enriched by the reduction prints, often in abridged versions, of commercially released films of all genres that were for sale on the home entertainment market; and in this context, such prints could also be used as ‘stand-ins’ for places or events a family had visited or witnessed. So, whether ‘home-made’ or purchased, the home movie, as practice and as experience, constitutes a significant fact of film history. This in itself should be reason enough for a film archive to include home movies in its collections as one particular instance of cinema’s many manifestations in terms of technology, use, purpose, venue or audience.

Yet with home movies a potential problem emerges. Because it is fair to expect (certainly in the case of publicly funded archives) that, once accepted as an asset to the collections, the effort and money invested in the preservation or restoration of these films must somehow be accounted for in public access and activities, including open screenings. But here, the routine, unproblematic asynchronism that recording equipment introduces may suddenly leap centre stage and cause a feeling of discomfort, as it now allows unratified spectators to inspect demeanours and interactions which they were not meant to witness (let alone participate in). This is not, of course, about looking at recorded improper behaviours (although home movies may contain those as well). Rather, this is about the clash between, on the one hand, the typical carefree-ness of home movies, the result of their specific participatory character and participants’ willingness to play along, confident that the screening of the recorded antics will be restricted to their inner circle, and, on the other hand, about the impropriety of another category of viewers watching the films instead of them. This is what makes the access and exhibition of home movies both interesting and tricky for any archive that decides to keep them (and, in the absence of any policy, silent neglect is often the default solution).

Admittedly, this problem, this discomfort does not seem to be a widely felt obstacle to the re-use and appropriation of this type of film. De Kuyper writes that as home movies age they become historical or anthropological documents of ”other times, other customs, other lives”, adding that this is a recent shift, effected by the rise in audio-visual culture, particularly the “insatiable appetite” of television for images of the past. [2] As a result, more often than not the home movie images preyed upon by filmmakers or their researchers for historical programmes are subsequently pressed into service as mere lively illustrations for phenomena of much wider scope than most private footage ever laid claim to. Thus, in order to become historically or anthropologically representative images, home movies must effectively cease to be records of private life. To tell its big tales, the mainstream practice of ‘devouring documentaries’ obfuscates the nature of private film, if not the variety of cinematic practices tout court (the anecdotal character of much newsreel footage or the propagandistic aspects of many other ‘factual’ genres are often suppressed, too; in many cases, elision of the soundtrack suffices). For home movies, then, to be re-used while retaining their identity without causing discomfort, Odin has argued that a reframing, a shift in perspective has to take place. [3]

Cinema’s alchemist: the films of Péter Forgács is the first English-language collection of essays devoted to the oeuvre of an artist who has built his filmmaking career on the re-use of home movies. [4] In his capacity as collector-archivist and found footage-filmmaker of these materials Forgács has evidently thought deeply about the problem of reframing, since he, too, deploys them within the framework of wider historical events: the social, political, military, cultural, and moral turmoils of Hungary and, in later works, of various European countries during the mid-twentieth century. Although his focus on home movies was partly determined by limitations on access and mobility, as we learn from Scott MacDonald’s interview in the book [5], Forgács must have realised that the very concreteness of film images makes them fundamentally unsuited to show “wider historical events”. (Mainstream compilation practice, therefore, usually resorts to the rhetorical figure of metonymy, making singular instances, with the help of narration, stand for complex and/or long-term processes and events.) The first two episodes of his Private Hungary series, THE BARTOS FAMILY and DUSI AND JENÖ (both 1988), were largely edited out of private materials in his collection, accompanied by his sparse narration identifiying people, occasions, and locations, and aided by a few invasive measures (freezing, slow motion, etc.). But besides these measures Forgács, over the course of his filmmaking career, has with increasing sophistication and certitude combined other (audio-)visual materials with the home movie materials. As a result, he doesn’t so much show historical events as evoke them by setting up relationships (of contrast, repetition, etc.) between the two types of materials. In other words, it is the combination of private films and other materials through which history is made, if not visible, then certainly palpable.  In that sense, ‘alchemy’ is a very apt term for what Forgács has been doing.

The success of his reframing is to a certain extent reflected in the lack of reporting on feelings of discomfort throughout the book. But it is not the same sort of absence of concern. For one thing, Cinema’s alchemist largely consists of academic papers, written up after repeated viewings (albeit not always accurately reported) of Forgács’ films—uneasiness, after all, is something one can overcome. More importantly, the interventions Forgács performs in his films on the materials he has collected circumvent, or preempt, that uneasiness. That may be the reason why Odin, in his essay a propos THE BARTOS FAMILY, can blithely write: “[I]n home movies, the characters look toward the camera, which is to say, toward us. Some of them address us directly.” No, they don’t; that’s a delusion. We are looking at them, but they merely look (or rather: looked) toward the cameraman, toward a co-participant. If it were otherwise, he would have had no need to write at the end of the paragraph, “[E]ach shot ends with a direct intervention by the enunciator: a freeze-frame. Thus Forgács intends to signify to us that these social actors look at us (i.e. they concern us).” [6] Even then I doubt they do; I prefer to think that such interruptions of the flow of the subjects’ activities allow us, today, to inspect their fleeting expressions and gestures for a longer time, so we can form an opinion about and become engaged with them and with the films they now form part of. As a matter of fact, they don’t even have to literally ‘look at us’ to concern us. [7]

Odin’s slipping on the freeze frame nevertheless points up the considerable work done, unlike the selection of ‘significant’ moments for your average historical TV compilation, to keep the materials in focus. Actually, while the measures Forgács has taken in his films are aimed to dissipate our discomfort, they also preserve the homeyness of the home movies, as their connections to the wider world, if any, are mostly incidental and untroubled. The first casualty of these measures are our own (received) opinions. A good example comes from his film BOURGEOIS DICTIONARY (1992), in which Forgács has subtitled a scene on the  basis of lip-reading. What we learn is being said doesn’t reveal anything significant beyond the trivial. But at the same time he has preempted our own stereotyping—our ‘world knowledge’—and potentially easy dismissal of the people in the images as, say, self-satisfied bourgeois. He cleans the slate and presents them as everyday individuals. And then, when he links the films to the wider world, Forgács is able—in the words of Michael S. Roth, in one the most moving contributions to the book—“to preserve the ordinariness of his subjects even as he frames them in extraordinary times.” [8] History is not permitted to overshadow the materials he has collected, excerpted, and recombined for his own films. (It should be said at this point, though, that this statement reflects the tenor of the book, in which private films that were made purposely for posterity are not considered. I think this does a disservice to Forgács’ oeuvre, as it limits the range of materials he has worked with and misses the opportunity to deal with, notably, ANGELOS' FILM [1999], a work that contains the most remarkable and heroic instances of such filmmaking by Greek patrician Angelos Papanastassiou, scenes that were shot—and later, at the 1947 Nuremburg trials, indeed used—as evidentiary material of the atrocities committed during the German occupation of Athens.)

Although the papers in the book are of quite uneven quality, the most interesting contributions, along with Scott MacDonald’s thoughtful interview and introduction to it [9], are about identifying and formulating the ways in which Forgács has gone about reframing his materials—their juxtaposition with voice-overs, more official audio-visual materials, and/or titles, etc.—in order to balance home and history, the private and the public, the particular and the general. A rough division can be made between, on the one hand, the essays by Michael Roth, Michael Renov, and Malin Wahlberg, who all tend to emphasise the nature of the reframing, the stuff the “rim of the frame” (Goffman) is made of: for Roth this is the notion of ordinariness and how it relates to the limits of the representation of trauma, the Holocaust in particular; Renov situates it at the intersection of the historiography of the Holocaust and the history of documentary, crediting Forgács with elaborating “the analytic and expressive functions of documentary [that] have remained largely underdeveloped.” [10]; while Wahlberg’s essay is rooted in the notion of indexicality and describes the arc of the trace as an ontological sign, of things “that-have-been” (Barthes), to one that, in an archival context, makes one aware of its fragmentary, essentially incomplete nature. [11] Kaja Silverman, Tyrus Miller, and Whitney Davis, on the other hand, tend to focus more on specific measures to realise these reframings. And it is, I think, no coincidence that the latter authors’ essays are largely or wholly devoted to two of Forgács’s works—the abovementioned BOURGEOIS DICTIONARY and WITTGENSTEIN TRACTATUS (1992)—in which the process of reframing is taken to another level. That is to say that whereas most of his films are the result of reworking a series of home movies made by one individual or family, these two are based on a selective, reasoned ‘catch’ of his entire collection of home movies. Here, the excerpts remain anonymous in order to better function as the building blocks for a more reflective and reflexive approach to the materials. While both are camouflaged as categorical documentaries, BOURGEOIS DICTIONARY obliquely traces the gradual but inexorable disappearance, in fact and in historiography, of Hungary’s Jewish population between the early 1930s and late 1940s, while WITTGENSTEIN TRACTATUS is, one the one hand, the pictorial half of a diptych with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus, and, on the other, a meditation on the signification of moving images—most cogently summed up in a Wittgenstein quote from Forgács‘s narration: ‘How hard it is to see what is right in front of my eyes.’

What is it, indeed? One may argue that the anonymity of the excerpts here takes us as far away from the sense of watching home movies as those that are compiled in standard TV documentaries. However, in these two films their very anonymity has two seemingly contradictory effects that serve one and the same purpose. First of all, it contributes to their individuality, because the excerpts are not made to ‘agree’ with whatever context they are inserted in. Instead they resist, not only easy historical interpretations, but also explanations of what they themselves are about, one reason being that we often have no way of telling what the subjects’ own opinions were about what the world was doing or what they were doing. The trace they left is truly incomplete to the point of illegibility; any attempt at attribution is futile. And that, secondly, makes the excerpts impersonal. Forgács does not elicit our emotions and sympathies, at least not beyond the normal transcultural effect of identification. Emotions (discomfort, for instance) would stand in the way of engagement. Because, in order for his ‘alchemy’ to work, Forgács invites us to think.

One trace, though, is pretty clear. Like in most of his other films, even in these reflective, reflexive compilations the most unimaginable event of the European mid-twentieth century—the systematic eradication of the Jewish population, in Hungary and elsewhere on the continent—is always present, however inarticulate (while WITTGENSTEIN TRACTATUS is primarily a philosophically-based, cinematic treatise, the person Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Miller’s words, “is a singular instance of the Central European Jewish bourgeoisie that constitutes Forgács’s primary focus in his documentary explorations.” [12]). Indeed, the absence of Hungary’s history, particularly of its Jewish population, in the Hungarian public debate—as well as, of course, in moving images, being the most unsuited event of all—was an incentive to the making of these films. That, incidentally, makes Kaja Silverman´s argument to overcome archival hesitation and—wisely—re-use these potentially unsettling home movies so compelling. Their re-use, she writes, is not just “ethically justifiable”, but “ethically imperative” (emphasis in the original), as “most of the people who appear in Forgács’s source material have died twice—once physically and once mnemonically. The first of these deaths is irrevocable, but the second is not.” [13] And it is the moral responsibility of our and later generations to do the remembering; another ‘Lest we forget’.

Of course, that phrase is used in commemorations of a variety of traumatic events, from slavery to the First World War to 9/11. As Silverman’s essay is part of the section ‘The Holocaust films’, it should go without saying that the systematic persecution and murder of Europe’s Jewish population certainly makes the films’ re-use imperative; and of course it contributes to Forgács’s films’ impact. But as dictatorship, war or genocide go on, the sense of unimaginable doom need not be unique to the films Forgács has collected or, for that matter, to other private films from that time. This type of film’s very innocence of wider concerns makes one realise that any home movie-maker today may not know either what threats might be in store for him: everything always seems to happen someplace else. (Although, alternatively, nowadays there may be a simple division of labour between technologies: a home movie-maker today, in Iran, Mexico or Greece, may well reserve, say, his cell phone for recording and disseminating the things that he does know threaten his well-being or life.)

From an archival point of view, Silverman’s exhortation, compelling as it is, still would involve ways of making spectators want to watch—and remember (and in her essay she describes two such ways). Paul Ricœur, quoted in the book, wrote: “The document sleeping in the archives is not just silent, it is an orphan. The testimonies it contains are detached from the authors who ‘gave birth’ to them. They are handed over to the care of those who are competent to question them and hence to defend them, by giving them aid and assistance.” [14] Forgács’s extremely competent aid and assistance—creating emotional distance in order to engage today’s spectator, combined with a thorough historical knowledge—is a model for archives (and TV programme makers) to emulate and come to terms with a type of film material, if not types of film material, whose (film) historical significance still suffers from unfamiliarity and uneasiness.


[1] Eric de Kuyper, ‘Aux origines du cinéma: le film de famille’, p. 16; Roger Odin, ‘Le film de famille dans l’institution familiale’, pp. 35-37. Both essays are published in: Roger Odin (réd.), Le film de famille: usage privé, usage public (Paris: Méridiens-Klincksieck, 1995).

[2] Eric de Kuyper, op. cit., p. 13.

[3] Roger Odin, ‘Reflections on the family home movie as document: a semio-pragmatic approach’, in: Karen L. Ishizuka, Patricia R. Zimmermann (eds.), Mining the home movie: excavations in histories and memories (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 2008), pp. 261-264.

[4] A Dutch-language collection of essays was published on the occasion of awarding Forgács the prestigious Erasmus Prize. See: Max Sparreboom (ed.), De kunst van Péter Forgács. Erasmusprijs 2007 * (Amsterdam: Balans, 2007).

*The art of Péter Forgács. The 2007 Erasmus Prize

[5] Scott MacDonald, ‘Péter Forgács: an interview’, pp. 8-12.

[6] Roger Odin, ‘How to make history perceptible: THE BARTOS FAMILY and the Private Hungary series’, p. 139.

[7] I commented on this type of intervention in my essay ‘No more holy innocents’, in: Cultural memory (Amsterdam: Praemium Erasmianum, 2008), pp. 8-15.

[8] Michael S. Roth, ‘Ordinary film: THE MAELSTROM, p. 77.

[9] Scott MacDonald, op. cit., pp. 3-38. The editors failed to inform the reader that this interview was already published in 2005, in MacDonald’s Critical cinema 4: interviews with independent filmmakers, at another press.

[10] Michael Renov, ‘Historical discourses of the unimaginable: THE MAELSTROM’, p. 92.

[11] Malin Wahlberg, ‘The trace: framing the presence of the past in FREE FALL, pp. 119-134.

[12] Tyrus Miller, ‘Reenvisioning the documentary fact: on saying and showing in WITTGENSTEIN TRACTATUS and BOURGEOIS DICTIONARY’, p.179.

[13] Kaja Silverman, ‘Waiting, hoping, among the ruins of all the rest’, p. 102.

[14] Quoted in: Malin Wahlberg, op. cit., p. 124.

Last Updated 1 October 2012

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