A conversation with Péter Forgács
Hungarian film and video artist Péter Forgács
is fond of quoting Wittgenstein’s Tractatus
when asked to talk about his work:
“Everything we see could be otherwise.
Everything we can describe at all could
be also otherwise.” This is particularly apt when considering one of
his least known works here, Meanwhile Somewhere…1940-1943.
Forgács has garnered
an international reputation for an extraordinary series of compilation
films culled from amateur films shot in Europe before and during the
Second World War. Festival
and museum audiences in the United States have been introduced to some
of his recent award-winning works, such as:
(1999), The Maelstrom
(1997), and Free Fall
But few have seen Meanwhile Somewhere…1940-1943
(1994), which is not in distribution in the United States
because it was made as part of a European TV series commemorating
the 50 th anniversary of the Second World War, and
“The Unknown War” has yet to be broadcast in the United States.
This third installment in the five-part series
is arguably Forgács’ most fully realized work,
affording viewers the complex pleasure and irony of glimpsing what
life was like for middle class Europeans during the war.
It is a compelling meditation that raises
questions of bystander guilt and locates it not just in the past but
in the present.
opens and closes with an unforgettably beautiful scene
of Dutch ice skaters blanketed in a wintry mist.
By the end of the film, this atmospheric
sequence of figures navigating a slippery terrain has taken on a haunting
Using titles to identify the names of the families filmed or their
locations, Forgács weaves together the fabric of everyday life
for the European bourgeoisie of the ‘40s: bathing babies, celebrating
weddings, enjoying picnics, and taking vacations while a war was going
on and people were dying somewhere off camera.
Threading throughout the film is a story divided
into nine segments: it unfolds an act of public humiliation that links
Nazi racial and ethnic persecution to age-old prejudices and punishments.
In a public square a Nazi contemptuously shaves the heads of a Polish girl
and German boy, young lovers, as townspeople casually witness the incident.
This striking footage provides the spine of
a work that veers between innocuous home movies and clandestine scenes
of racial hatred.
The found footage retrieved here is ultimately shocking in its banality.
beguiles and informs the viewer whose thoughts are shaped
by the nuanced alterations Forgács has made—slowing down
an image, adding tints, selectively inserting sound effects—which
add subtle layers of commentary and interpretation to these silent
witnesses of the past.
This work reflects a post-Shoah
reluctance to indulge in graphic representations of
the horror of the Nazi holocaust.
Halting at the edge of the unthinkable, Forgács
compels the viewer to contemplate his own relationship to what is
happening somewhere off camera, now as well as half-a-century earlier.
In 1983 Forgács created the Private Photo and
Film Archive in Budapest to collect the vanishing aspects of the
Hungarian past. Until
1988 his work was “archaeological,” but with his first film commission
he began to try “to see the unseen, to de-construct and re-construct
his nation’s past through the ephemeral private medium of home movies.”
His series “Private Hungary,”
which now includes 12 “video-films,” has
expanded beyond the scope of re-constructing one nation’s past,
and Péter Forgács’ work has acquired an ontological
dimension insofar as it has become a reflection on the nature of memory,
the construction of history, and the phenomenology of filmmaking itself.
In March 1995, when
Forgács was touring the United States, he presented Meanwhile Somewhere…1940-43
at the Museum of Modern Art.
I invited him to show it and discuss it with my documentary students
at the New School the following night.
It was a magical evening—a teacher’s dream—as grad students responded
to the complexity of an artist’s work with probing questions that prompted
generous and candid responses from the filmmaker.
Six years later, Péter Forgács
is a Getty Scholar in Los Angeles and some of the students in my class
have gone on to work in and around film: Ann Levy and Reiko Tahara are
accomplished experimental and documentary filmmakers; Marilyn Hillman
has written an outstanding master’s thesis on the Nazi holocaust and videotaped
witness testimony, and Lorca Shepperd is a doctoral candidate in cinema
studies, to name a few.
What follows is an abbreviated version of their encounter with the
artist on March 15, 1995.
In April 2001 Forgács read and revised his comments to better reflect
his current command of English and his assiduous attention to detail.
His assistance with the preparation of this
essay is appreciated.
Forgács : ...
So we [the filmmakers of “The Unknown War”] made a 50-hour
pool of home movies from this 10-year period (1936-1945), and then
we divided the periods and chose who would direct each part.
Every one had an idea, but I didn’t have any,
so my colleagues left this middle period of the war for me.
Because I make decisions hesitantly—the final
decisions are the hardest.
The material was very rich, very disorientating.
It took a year to research, and the research
meant finding the archives or finding private persons, and conducting
interviews if it was possible.
And also it meant clearing up the license situations, fees,
royalties, et cetera.
It was not an easy process.
It was almost a three-year long route from the
idea to the present state.
I sat almost five months in an editing room to compose this
I have been working with a composer, Tibor Szemzõ, since 1978.
And my main aim was not to do a normal documentary
film—I can’t stand most of them, the educational newsreels and informational
TV magazines. I
wanted to create a work to keep the strength of my first impression—the
imprint of when I first saw this footage--because the first sight is
the strongest one.
It calls me.
It appeals so strongly, and I don’t want to forget that virgin sight
when I first look on the image.
I spent the last 12 years with home movies, mainly Hungarian
films, so this was a great experience to see different family stories
from different countries and from different angles.
For me the official history was not that important
because every historian writes this.
You can see tons of books and millions of meters
of film about the war--fiction, documentaries, semi-documentaries,
and TV magazines.
It was the 50th anniversary of the Second World War in
Europe, so if you opened any tap, the war came out.
And it’s normal, of course.
It was very important for the people in Europe,
this Second World War.
But what was important for me, coming from Budapest, where
I was born and am still living—was that only 300 kilometers away there
is a war going on in ex-Yugoslavia, and we are drinking wine like the
Belgian woman in Meanwhile Somewhere.
Tibor and I wanted to
make an opera. We wanted
to reveal an unusual aspect, a portrait of the European Übermensch,
. By the
way, that was the working title of this film.
I always had it in mind that if I were to drive
only 300 kilometers south, I would have a bullet in my head.
And this war is still on.
And it will go on.
There were of course many other things, but I hope
you will ask questions.
So, this was the frame of the project.
I’m open to answer any questions that there
I have a question about sound.
I’m assuming that the images you used were
They were silent films.
I noticed that you added sound very selectively.
At first I thought that you were only adding
water sounds--they really struck me.
I don’t know if this is a question or a comment.
I felt as though the water sounds were either
exclusively in the leisure or non-war images, and that there was some
kind of allusion to washing away what was going on.
I’d be curious if you’d comment.
It’s a good question.
First of all, the sound track was composed as
a whole soundscape, so every effect is a part of the music.
About the second, it’s true that there’s a very
big part of this work that’s about fire, skin, hair, touch, and body.
So let’s say, on the one hand water is
a Jungian symbol, but on the other hand, it’s also personal touch
for me. I
didn’t put sound everywhere it could have been because I don’t want
to use the sound effect to illustrate.
I wanted to use it on a metaphysical level of
Do these things really exist
? Is it
water? Are they
don’t hear them, but you could hear them.
Sometimes in my other films I synchronize visibly
spoken sounds—I hire someone who reads lips and we try to figure out
what they said.
So here I used the sound of water—but you can also hear fire, and
you can hear the steps of Otto Huhn, the Wehrmacht officer coming down
the steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris.
You hear his boots because the German boot [making
a thudding sound with hands] is very important.
So it’s a part of an abstract sound composition
that is a part of the music.
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
it’s alienating and sometimes it is very meditative,
and you don’t know where you are.
It’s a part of a bad dream.
Or sometimes you hear this very concrete voice
or noise, the noise of the fire or noise of the steps, and then it
pulls you back from this abstract level.
I am sitting here
and they are there
, and suddenly we are together
. And then
we are apart.
I would say this is 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.
You used the word “dream,” and that’s
what I felt I was experiencing, and not a very nice dream: it was
It was the way you used sounds and selected color, and the way
you juxtaposed the scenes as dreams, which are often distorted—I just
felt like you were trying to ask: Is this real?
The lack of sound emphasized that
even stronger because actions do speak more sharply when you take
the words away.
People are always trying to explain their actions.
The main concern is not only to create
the vision of how it touches me but also to give work to the audience,
for you to elaborate it and put it together in your mind.
I’m bored by the educational style of the screen.
Everything always illustrates.
You see a cloud and they say: “this is
You see grass, and they say: “It’s green, it grows downwards or
upwards.” The effort
of the viewer is the most important thing.
So there must be some gap.
Most documentaries are
educational, partly because the TV broadcasters
love them, they want to teach you.
But they are quite bad teachers this way because the
problem is not to get new
information, the problem is how to deal with information.
We have a lot of information.
I have 500 million bits of information
in this room, in this second.
I have to select, I have to look in your eyes, and then I
can’t see the other 20 eyes.
We are selective.
But all this is information and it is not logical and not rational--95%
is irrational, emotional, subconscious information.
What I'm doing--let’s call it documentary--I
do not want to use this verbal, descriptive, comic-strip style but
to send a message from somewhere else.
That’s why it’s disturbing because it disturbs me--the
Polish girl, this is disturbing.
I went to MoMA and opened
a book, where I saw stills from the film The Passion of
Joan of Arc
[by Carl Dreyer], and I saw the scissors.
Jeanne’s hair is being cut in the photograph.
And it’s a modern 20th century
scissors, but her head is just like the Polish girl’s.
It may happen some 800 years later, but the
humiliation is always the same.
And the funny thing is that in the fifth part of the series--the
title is “Boogie Woogie Victory” because drunken American soldiers
on the streets of liberated Paris are dancing boogie woogie--you
can see the French and Belgian villages where they shaved the heads
of the Belgian, Dutch and French women who had Nazi lovers.
And it’s fantastic that this medieval punishment is
repeated again and again.
And it’s racist and sexist.
When the French resistance fighters were shaving a woman’s
head, it was racist—the same racism, the same aggression and punishment.
What the hell was this woman punished for?
There is no justice.
I understood the relationship between you and the viewers because when
I watched it, I tried to get information not just from the people
in the film but from you as a filmmaker.
The soundtrack was very selective and so there
was some intention in it.
So I want to hear how you felt in the process of making this
film. The relationship
between you and the people in the film was very private—because the
footage is very private—and you are bringing them into the public.
It differs from footage to footage, from
filmmaker to filmmaker.
I have a very special relationship to the Polish man who recorded
the Plaszow concentration camp.
He’s 91, and he’s very small.
I visited him in Krakow, and I can never forget
wrote me a letter after seeing the film:
“Thank you very much.
This is a good film.
I’m proud of it.”
So I have a very special relationship with his
footage, what he did with the film cameras the U.S. army was dropping
down. They dropped
down Bell & Howell cameras to the Polish partisans as well as
the Yugoslavian resistance, cameras but no film, very little ammunition,
and whiskey. The
resistance was furious about it.
This man—I don’t want to go into much detail, but--he
was really a clever guy.
Somehow he had some local Volkdeutsch friends who bought 16mm
film for him, and he did his job.
He was filming from under his coat.
He had a double coat, a pelerine outside and a regular
one inside—and from the handhold of the pelerine he was shooting with
a 16mm camera. So
I have a special relation to him.
I have no relationship with the Belgian woman who is drinking
and dancing, because it was an anonymous film.
I don’t have an interview that tells me who
she was, but I fell in love with her.
So that’s a very special thing.
You can see, in those years, a woman was considered
old over 40. Now
she was almost 60 or more.
And she was full of life!
Maybe I had a little bad feeling that I put her after
the shaving because then you may see all the Belgian women as fancy and
drinking while others were suffering, but I felt that she was really
drinking in the year 1943.
She along with the vast majority was not informed that in Auschwitz
they were burning people, and in Greece they were executing people.
She was not informed, okay.
But she could have opened the papers and learned
what was happening around her.
I don’t mean that she shouldn’t drink wine, I mean something
else. So I don’t have a general connection with these films, I have a
very special one.
I know many of the filmmakers.
The important thing is not only that these amateurs didn’t
have a plan—they had a plan when they made these films of course,
but it was not to put it into a cinema.
They had a plan that I call a “spontaneous subconscious
diary devoted to eternity.”
Because when they recorded something, they didn’t realize
that they were recording so many other things that would be important
for me, for us today.
So I’m an archeologist in a way because I want to understand those times.
I love those old
clothes. I love
the different ways they wear their hair.
I love those streets.
They didn’t have the plan, they were not conscious
of all those details like a fiction film director who has every detail
designed. I wouldn’t say the home movie is more true, but I like
it more, I like it better.
I want to go back to talk about the music for the film and ask you two
of all, you refer to it as an opera.
Could you explain what you mean by that?
And I’m also very interested to know how
you worked with the composer because often in the more commercial
films in this country, because of efficiency, the film is basically
cut and then the music is added on, and I have a feeling that’s not what
you did. I’d
like to know how you worked with him.
I call it an opera because there are two
very important “songs” in it, which are repeated nine times.
They are two short sentences.
The boy says:
“I’m a traitor of the German People.”
And the girl says: “I’m a Polish pig.”
This opera is devoted to these two declarations.
I call it
opera because it’s not a play, not a novel, not
a documentary, not a newsreel, not fiction.
The only thing that I could call it, in my imagination,
is an opera.
And the composer is a very good friend of mine, Tibor Szemzõ.
We have worked together on films since 1987-88.
It’s a very intensive cooperation with him.
He is a minimal artist, minimal musician.
Normally I edit a work-in-progress to one of his previous compositions
to find the rhythm of the images before the new score is ready.
So I use his earlier music, and that makes
for problems, of course, but I have to have some music because
they’re silent movies, and it’s very hard to feel how long an image
should last—whether three seconds or just three frames. And if there
is music running, then it’s much easier to concentrate on the real
What’s the length of this shot, of this take, what’s the best choice?
And of course, the machines--I was editing
on BetaSP so I could change the speed of the image.
In this case I was using a previous film’s music—it’s
called The Bourgeois Dictionary
or Citizen’s Dictionary
And Tibor, my friend, was furious about that, how dare I do that!
He doesn’t like that music because the
strings are not playing correctly.
He was furious.
But I said, this is the only elegiac music I’ve found
without any pathetic gesture.
When it was edited, I removed the earlier music track, and
I gave him a silent tape.
Of course he was preparing himself for the music, and he already
had the idea that he would hire a different string quartet.
He had already written a lot of the score
because I kept him informed from the first stages when I had draft
cuts of the story, so he knew what I was working on in the editing room.
When the image was almost ready and the final
length was okay, he recorded the music, which was much longer than
the film—it was 33 parts of a complete suite.
I think he will publish it on disc.
But then there was a bigger problem of how to
apply his parts to my chapters.
This work has nine chapters because of the nine segments
of the shaving, and they are not equal.
And then I criticized the music because it was too monotonous
for me, there was not enough variation.
So there was a “fight” between us that he should
add more instruments, and it was quite a fight.
I consider this a real collaboration because he is
absolutely conscious about his job, that what he’s doing with these
films is giving a certain emotional meaning which never existed before.
So he has his big share in the creative work,
and he has reason to be
proud of it.
And sometimes he thinks that he can tell me how to direct things.
Do the sound effects go in before or after
is the music, and then you can find a balance of how it could be
Here an unidentified
questioner compares Peter’s work with a recent film by Werner Herzog,
noting that Forgács relies upon the audience’s memory of
the images of the war to provide a context that is experiential and
not just intellectual for seeing these amateur films
I made a film on a Dutch subject from home movies
from the ‘50s-‘60s-‘70s.
Just recently I finished it with a Dutch director friend,
Albert Wulffers, for the Rotterdam Arts Council.
There was a certain neighborhood in Rotterdam—a
new post-war housing area, and the films collected there didn’t
have any historical background.
The films were really home-sweet- home movies.
And it was quite difficult to create anything
from them. But
the real subject of this film was “the boredom of the affluent society,”
of the Dutch lower middle class.
So it was about “nothing.”
It was about happiness.
The title is Simply Happy,
because they want to be happy and they are happy because
they have reached their goal—the heaven of the working class. It was
a year-long hard fight with the material to find what to do with it
and how to do it.
Because as you said, when there is no historical background, it’s
not so easy to work with it.
Of course there is the
solution of being very, very personal.
If you are personal using your own home movies,
your father’s or anybody’s home movies—adding your personal touch,
taking that risk and trying to make a distance from the present time,
I think there is a chance to work with home movies.
What I think one has to avoid is being didactic,
teaching lessons, telling about the clouds, that they are white.
Questioner: You said earlier that you felt that you had a duty
to make this.
And my first question is why do you think you have a duty? Also,
how has this been received?
The duty is to tell the story in a different
way, to tell my story.
That’s what I want to know, what is your
Okay, I will tell you my story.
My grandmother Margaret Rosenberg, and her seven
sisters, their husbands, their children, their aunts, 76 persons
in my family were deported from Szatmárnémeti (Satumare)
to Auschwitz beginning in May 1934.
So I have a personal story but it’s not in the credits
and it will not be.
That’s my personal story.
The other personal aspect is this: I’ve been dealing with home
movies since 1982 when I established an
archive in Budapest; it’s called the Private Photo
and Film Archive.
I’m collecting the hidden, suppressed, forgotten, and oppressed
past of Hungary. There
is a mission here for me because Hungary is a country where in seventy
years there have been eleven different social and political structures,
where there were two devastating world wars and five unsuccessful revolutions
and counter-revolutions, four different [national-socialist, extreme
rightists, and communist] dictatorships, and only in my lifetime has
there been a revolution (in 1956) and a “soft” revolution (in 1998).
There is a duty to tell my
history because there is no “History” anymore.
There are his-
stories and her-
So the duty is to tell your
story and my
a kind of deconstruction.
It’s like when a bad boy takes a toy apart and tries to put
it together again.
It might function in a different way, but a bad boy can be a clever
one. What’s the
How was the film received?
PF: It has
not been shown yet in Hungary.
It will be aired in May or June.
But it has been selected by four film festivals
in Europe already.
I think that’s a good reception because there are so many documentaries
to choose from.
I wanted to comment on the extraordinary talent I thought
the film demonstrated because of the beautiful images, the soft focus,
the beautiful light, and the almost Photo Secession quality the film
had. And the
paradox of the nightmarish content of the old world, how all these
people could be living these beautiful privileged lives when we know
what else was going on--that paradox is so powerful.
It’s worth the work.
Every color has been added in this film except
the original color footage of the German family.
Each frame is tinted on the computer.
I see each frame almost like a photograph.
My background is as a visual artist.
And I enjoy the graphic manipulation of
these images very much.
I enjoyed making this film.
I felt that there was almost the quality
of the Czech photographer Sudek there.
But what is really interesting is that these amateur
films are full of faults.
The majority—let’s say 99% of these home movies are boring.
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
Before you said that you were bored….and that was interesting
because I really liked the image of—I guess it’s a face in the lower
right hand corner, and sometimes I felt it had different meanings,
and I was wondering what your purpose was or what you felt the meaning
of these were.
That film had one very bad technical problem
that I had to solve, and I solved it as a counterpoint.
For the footage from the Warsaw Film Archive,
they insisted on having their logo in the corner. [laughter] I don’t
feel bad about that because I had to solve it.
I could have put a grey sticker, and that
would have been a cheap solution.
But I thought that these faces—the faces of the
girl, the faces of Paul Hose, the Nazi “hairdresser,” and the boy and
the guy with the little cup, and the children walking by—they all became
I wanted to tell you: listen, look into their eyes.
So the bureaucrat from the Warsaw Film Archive
was very rude but he helped me to do something more creative.
Normally I don’t use too many effects because
I think they are misleading, but this came to me.
During the preparation
stage, the only film I kept showing to my friends was this head
of my friends asked me, “Why do you show it all the time?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I have to see it again
and again. I have to suffer with that girl and boy.”
So I think this logo in the lower right corner
helped me because otherwise I never would have thought of it.
I found it really compelling for me
every time that I could catch the moment when the moving image meets
the lower corner image on the screen.
It gave me the possibility of having this
You see it and suddenly it’s repeated.
I love the strength of this Polish girl.
And I like this German boy’s face--he did
not give up for a second: “You can do what you want, I love this girl.”
And I could see the same expression on the
girl’s face: “Do what you want, I love this boy.”
And the irony of this whole situation is that
there was the Nazi law: the Untermensch
(Poles) and Übermensch
(Germans) could not have sexual affairs, but in other amateur
films one could see Polish women friendly with German soldiers.
The double standard—for example, in the Spielberg
film, Schindler’s List
, you could see it in the beginning when the Germans are having
fun in the restaurant and the Nazi law was on.
Plaszow concentration camp could be Schindler’s
camp. But Plaszow
I wonder if you could talk about where the money comes
from or who is funding it, especially in terms of Europe versus the
United States and what your experience has been.
Well, I’m working on low budget films,
not films but video because that’s the low-low budget.
But of course it gives me the exceptional
freedom of staying in an editing room for a very long period to meditate
on what to do. Normally
for a documentary on Hungarian television they have standards that
10 minutes should be edited in under 12 hours on Beta, and 10 minutes
for me requires one month.
So it’s a problem.
For this film another, bigger problem was the license fees; the
copyright fees were quite high.
It cost approximately $40,000
for the license fees, and for $40,000 you can make two or
three documentaries in Hungary.
So it was very hard to convince financiers and commissioning
Then it took a year or more always with the possibility that the
financing would totally fall through because Hungarian television
is a field where the political war of the new era is being fought.
Free political elections are changing the
government; each new government wants to take over the media but the
old guard—we can call them the “TV Mafia”--still holds on to its power.
So it’s very unpredictable: you have
a signed contract
and tomorrow it may be worth nothing.
On the one hand, I could start in an easy way:
because of my previous work, the Hungarian
Film Fund gave me one quarter of the budget.
The other three-quarters I had to raise from
Hungarian television, which was very hard, because in Hungary they
don’t pay much for a documentary.
But I could save my project.
I didn’t have a producer: I was my own producer;
I didn’t have a researcher: I was my own researcher, I didn’t have
a secretary: I was my own secretary.
I had to learn a lot because one can’t hire staff for a long post-production
period on a low budget film.
There was another source of European money called MAP, which
is a loan for research—Memory Archive Program.
If you use at least 40% of archive material
in your film, then you can apply for a loan; the maximum is approximately
$45,000, but it’s a loan with no interest rate, and you have to pay
it back in a year.
If you don’t have the money, then you can pay it back in the second
year from sales. If
you can’t sell it, then you might have some….
If you don’t pay it back, the next time
you apply, they won’t give you one penny.
What about coproductions in Europe?
It’s very hard.
The first money is the hardest to get.
If I don’t have Hungarian money in it, nobody
else will join in.
The European structure can be very good.
If there are three different nations in it, there’s
a chance to get money—at least one third of the money.
But there have to be three European broadcasters.
And of course you have to convince them with a good script or with
a good idea because competition is tough. The real money is in the big
television station’s hand.
If, for example, the BBC2 is backing a film, the money from
other TV stations is almost guaranteed.
I was curious if you were aware of the potential
content of the other parts of the series, and if those filmmakers
were also aware of what you were doing.
And if so, how did it influence what you did or
what they did?
There was a quite tight cooperation.
Everybody knew the whole material in the
knew the others’ period of war.
We had several meetings, and at the half way point
we sent each other half-inch tapes.
Technically it was most important not to use
the same footage, so we worked out that there had to be some overlapping
of the historical periods because there is no date that cuts one
part from the other.
And we had a very decent and long discussion when we found
out that I was using the same footage and you were using the same,
what to do and how to do it.
We made one exception in the whole film—so all other repetitions
were illegal, but there are some.
We made an exception with the Polish filmmaker Tadeus Franszyn
and his footage of the concentration camp of Plaszow near to Krakow
because we thought the uniqueness of the footage is so important and
that it’s also a thread that makes a connection.
This is not the only thread that goes through the series,
because there are families that appear in the first part and also in the
third part. We
are using some of the Greek footage in my part and also in the last,
the fifth, part but there are different sections where it continues
from ‘43-’45. So it
was a hard game because everybody wanted to use the nicest film or the
more important things.
But we could save our face and not lose.
This was a quite hard game.
Have the other four parts of “The Unknown
War” been shown?
There are some technical and ethical problems around this
Dutch film director quit the series last March, so we had to hire another.
It was very late to raise Dutch money, so the Belgians
took over the budget for the first two episodes.
But the Belgians didn’t have much money in 1994,
and the deadline for ARTE was October 1994.
So the new Dutch director had to make the film
without money, and he was not so fast with it.
He was working absolutely free.
He had to run his company.
He had to pay his crew.
And he had to make other films. There were a lot
of problems that blocked the whole series for a while.
I hope that one day it will be released all around
Europe because ten countries including Australia have already bought
it. I don’t
know if an American broadcaster will buy it.
This is a five-part series.
It wouldn’t be fair to distribute my film
alone; it’s out of the question.
There will be one copy in the Museum of Modern Art.
Where did you learn filmmaking, and did you have any
maker who influenced you?
Well, I didn’t learn in the academy.
I didn’t learn anywhere.
I’m a self-taught filmmaker.
My background, as I said earlier, is the visual
arts. I started
to work with film in 1978 in the only independent film studio in
Hungary, the Balázs Béla Studio.
In Hungary, there were two very influential
avant-garde filmmakers, Gábor Bódy
and Miklós Erdély, whose influence was very
They created the experimental section within the Balázs
Béla Studio. And
I like Buñuel’s films very much.
You talked about not wanting to make a
You could have used very explicit footage, and you didn’t,
but there were parts where you used statistics and they were very selective
like the images. So
I was wondering why you chose to include certain statistics.
Statistics like in Westerbork?
Many things I couldn’t tell.
Oh, I could tell you stories for days and
nights and weeks.
I could tell stories about what I know about these films.
But in Westerbork it was a very special case
where I had to tell more because it’s so crucial to the Dutch.
Westerbork was a model camp where there
were no beatings of prisoners.
It was a transit camp.
Gemmeker, the SS officer who ran the whole system,
after the war was tried in Holland, and he was imprisoned for only six
wanted to make a show camp, a shop window concentration camp
--because the Dutch public was very much against the Nazi
laws imposed on the Dutch Jews.
So they wanted to assure the Dutch public that the Jews
were okay going to “work camps,” and they also wanted to avoid any
kind of hysteria or resistance from the deported Jews.
That’s why we see the Jews voluntarily going into
the railway cars themselves because they thought they were just going
to another work camp.
It was important to express that Westerbork was not like
Auschwitz or Birkenau or Dachau.
This was a camp where nobody was killed, nobody was beaten,
they were treated “well.”
Of course, there was another face to the Nazi manipulation--like in
Hungary in 1944 when the gendarmerie brutally helped deport hundreds of
were only 50 SS members in Hungary from March to August 1944 but this
was enough, under the leadership of Adolf Eichmann, to deport half
a million Jewish Hungarians because of the cooperation of the pro-Nazi
It was brutal and effective.
You have to understand that what happened in Westerbork--people
locking themselves into
railway cars--was because of Nazi manipulation.
And Gemmeker was running this camp with 28 personnel:
28 SS were enough to deport 120, 000 Jews of Holland.
So that’s why I had the feeling that now
I had to tell this story.
Just as in the Greek situation, which was a novelty, where
the Greeks fought with their bare hands against German tanks in 1942-44.
You have to learn how it happened because
it’s still a secret part of history.
There were those few exceptions where I had the
feeling that some information had to be given because otherwise viewers
You don’t have to understand why the pig is cut, but when
you see people closing with their own hands the railroad car door,
you ask: What hell is this?
is core faculty in the graduate media studies program
at The New School and has taught there since 1977.
In 1998 she was awarded the University’s
Distinguished Teaching Award.
She is the author of Subject to Change: Guerrilla
(1997), a history of ‘70s video collectives in the United
writing on independent video and film has appeared in Afterimage,
Cinéaste, The Independent, Television Quarterly, The Village
, and Wide Angle
, among other publications.
This text, with audio clip and images, appears in the on-line