order mfj mfj special offer

Meanwhile Somewhere:

A conversation with Péter Forgács

Deirdre Boyle

From Millennium Film Journal No. 37 (Fall 2001): Idiosyncrasies

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:   Angelo’s Film (1999), The Maelstrom (1997), and Free Fall (1996).  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.
Meanwhile Somewhere 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 dimension.   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.   Meanwhile Somewhere 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.” 1   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. 2
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.
Péter 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 piece.

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.   [laughter]   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, Mensch, Untermensch .  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 are.
Sara Lane:   I have a question about sound.   I’m assuming that the images you used were silent.

PF:   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 apperception.   Do these things really exist ?  Is it real water?  Are they real persons?   You 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 work.   Sometimes 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.

Jerry Laskey:
 You used the word “dream,” and that’s what I felt I was experiencing, and not a very nice dream: it was very disturbing.   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 a cloud.”   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.
Reiko Tahara: 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 him.   He 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.
Ann Levy: I want to go back to talk about the music for the film and ask you two questions.   First 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 thing.  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 —for editing.  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.   [laughter]
AL:   Do the sound effects go in before or after the music?
PF:  After.   First is the music, and then you can find a balance of how it could be done.
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 .
PF:     That’s true.   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.
order mfj mfj special offer
order MFJ at
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?

PF:   The duty is to tell the story in a different way, to tell my story.
Questioner:   That’s what I want to know, what is your story.

PF:   Okay, I will tell you my story.   Let’s see….   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- stories.  So the duty is to tell your story and my story.  It’s 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 next question?
Questioner: 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.
Marilyn Hillman: 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.
PF:     Yes.   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.   Boring.  And bad.   So one has to dig a lot of sand before you find one ounce of gold.   But suddenly, you see all the sand is like gold.   It’s also a paradox.
Jennifer Matson: 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.
PF:   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 photography.   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 shaving.   One 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.
Lorca Shepperd:  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.
PF:   It gave me the possibility of having this image delayed.   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 is real.
Daryl Furr: 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.
PF:     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 3 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 editors.   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.
Deirdre Boyle:   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.
Chris Alexander:   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 pool.   Everybody 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.
Jerry Laskey:   Have the other four parts of “The Unknown War” been shown?

There are some technical and ethical problems around this series.   The 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.
Olga Rodriquez: 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 4 and Miklós Erdély, whose influence was very important.   They created the experimental section within the Balázs Béla Studio.   And I like Buñuel’s films very much.
Rachel Woursell:   You talked about not wanting to make a “regular” documentary.   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.
PF:   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 years.   He 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 thousands.   There 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 Hungarian government.   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 wouldn’t understand.   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?
Deirdre Boyle 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 Television Revisited (1997), a history of ‘70s video collectives in the United States.   Her writing on independent video and film has appeared in Afterimage, Cinéaste, The Independent, Television Quarterly, The Village Voice , and Wide Angle , among other publications.  This text, with audio clip and images, appears in the on-line publication, Immediacy

order mfj mfj special offer

this article was printed in: Millennium Film Journal No. 37 (Fall 2001): Idiosyncrasies