Péter Forgács’s “Private Hungary”
It is not a matter of the difference in quality between art (or “experimental”) films and commercial (feature) films. These are all equally artificial, more or less perfect industrial and/or artistic products. The complex process of accomplishing them technically may be hidden (or else placed on deliberate display), but it yawns as an invisible (or explicit) gap between viewer and art object, obstructing direct contact and immersion. To say nothing of the highly artificial colours acting like wallpaper. It is not just the Lacanian “fire screen of signs” that is jammed between my eyes and the world but even this completely, blinding, semantically usually empty layer of colour which covers and takes possession of my field of vision.
With Péter Forgács, by contrast, the shadowy-grey, pulsed and always “flawed” archive film footage that comprises the core of his “films”, beyond any figurative content, opens yet another tunnel-like channel through which I can make contact with the incipient and dying colourless light itself, the source of which is unknown to me. The form-shaping and form-dissolving play of the lights, the bowing and scraping or fixed posing of faded blotches, the moving into frame and freezing of the chiaroscuro statues of faces and figures, this black-and-white, gradated flickering and the moments when sheet lightning descends, create before my eyes the obscure story from something that is the secret itself. And there are eyes as well here—the eyes of the performers, the filmmaker often himself becoming a performer, the recording witnesses, the eyes that sense this unfathomability, see it, angle it, let it rest, submit then again stare in wonder. The sounds and noises bring into the picture another space, now expanding and totally unfamiliar, now narrowing down and familiar, seemingly buzzing, sharply signal, fly off and alight, comment, narrate, exclaim, chatter, fall silent.
The “film”, then, is not ready; it is being born—in the past as in the present, from the past into the present (interrogating the future—and it is part of a process of participation. When Péter Forgács first came across, and comprehensively worked up, the old reels of film, he partook in something that he shares with us, the viewers, too. There are innumerable traces of these events and gestures in the work of art. The objet trouvé becomes part of a complex (existential, aesthetic, intellectual) process. From that the work, the old film material that has been reborn from its ashes and enriched, is like a gift or donation. The action-like nature of a work of art also springs to mind. To put it another way, what is going on is the passing on of a heritage or tradition; also a gesture is enacted that endures in and through historical time. It therefore cannot be said to be simple: the “interactive” relation that draws the past, present and future into the acts calls into being the special, sonorous light object, between the director who discovers, “packages” and hands it on and the viewer receiving it, who does not just receive but is addressed, indeed summoned.
The intermediaries of that summons are the director-creator and the music composer of the “films”. The creative artist in this case is not one person, or even two, maybe not even a person at all. The old film people (the phrase “our film man” is heard on several occasions), the discoverer and modifier of the old films (the director and his crew, which is to say the interdisciplinary team of researchers and film-makers), the freelance composer. Nor must we forget time, for time is a co-author too! The shots have not just hidden-away but displayed dust and patina: the graininess and scratchiness, the clicking, the whirring, the paleness, the murkiness, the primitiveness, the muck that has stuck to it, the traces of damage and deterioration make materially visible the invisible and elusive, mute time dimension which is also both a creator and a part of the work. Its genie, one could say. It is in the “package”. In short, we “get” time itself written in light and shade, in noise and sound, assembled and broken up into figures, pointing beyond figurality in particular, along with a mystical character. Viewers watch and listen through the multiple processes of technical realization: they can see or hear, sense the old cine camera and the old film person (his human form, his hand, his eye, his excitement and his disappearances), and equally can see, hear and read the interventions made by the modern-day director; they experience the birth and death of the images that unfold before them, the disintegration, the process of bringing to life, and thus they distinctly sense the material of life, the formation of a story and the chronological time, at once mundane and remarkable, significant and insignificant, of which history is made.
Viewers are not hit simply, and not even predominantly, by visual stimuli, nor even just by narrative impulses that instigate the perception and reception of stories; they are called upon for another kind of reception than is the case with feature films or art films that put the auteur on show. Viewers do not see actors and theatrical or picturesque scenes but long-gone people, the dead, invite them repeatedly into their long-gone lives like guests, so to speak, offering snippets of their life. In point of fact, this is what happens in any more profound dialogue that has not been honed purely for intellectuals; it is just that here the contact is realised through “blunted” time. The moderator of this unusual communication is the director, striving for understanding and participation. It all depends on him, after all: without him we would be greeted from the past by sheer chaos and boredom, we would not understand, not even comprehend what we were watching.
Documentary films? Except they document nothing as they, as archive footage, are a basis and starting-point, they themselves, in their own death, are what is important; the films do not explain or illustrate anything, but the director endeavours with the aid of a few words and pictures to help them across to us, to circumscribe, commentate, preserve, because without that assistance they would, together with those former lives, vanish into nothingness. Frail materials. In contrast to the massive material of modern films (with the thick cakes of make-up, clod-hopping plots, stridently imitative or influential sound layer), these footages are friably featherlight, mortal, wounded, and they would crumble were it not for the director’s rescuing touch. They are this way not just physically but in terms of their purport as well, because they were not provided with lasting meaning, that is to say, with meaning preservatives. They came out of nothing and they would decline into nothing, like everyday life itself, had Péter Forgács, the video artist, and Tibor Szemzo, the composer, not lifted them across into the domain of communication, into an audiovisual space that is still both emotionally and conceptually accessible today. It is not their goal to use the clips to document, or prove or illustrate anything (history, film history); simply to enable viewers to get in touch with them, and then proceed as they see fit.
Péter Forgács discovered something in these meaningless, condemned reels of amateur family film footage and ephemeral visual private diaries. As to what the “something” was, that is what his creative work is about. He did not discover history written out in capital letters; after all, the dates, the events, the chronology are all available. In that regard the films tell us little that is new. What Forgács discovered is precisely that which lies outside written history, does not fit into our historical perspective, and we have a hard time finding a place for it in our cultural memory; indeed, it virtually contradicts and speak against history. In fact, the emotional life of the dead, dead lives, and their own time bordering on timelessness—what in language is paradoxical and a play on words —is startlingly illuminated and made to speak through the moving picture and sound. To make this happen, that is, for the paradox to gain ground, interventions were needed, a shaping and, above all, great discretion, for without that the old footage would have crumbled even more speedily or might easily have become botch-ups (indeed forgeries), to say nothing of boring bits of film that documented nothing more than banalities, triteness.
As it is, Forgács is not the only discoverer. To be more exact, what he discovered is what the old film makers discovered, which is film, the techniques that they started using when they started to play with it. The series makes early-making itself its subject, the newfangled homo technicus, the eagerly modernizing bourgeois and receptive petty bourgeois who show a lively interest in technology and technical abilities, who strive to adopt the new, to learn how to handle new devices. These inquisitive enthusiasts for technological gizmos made up modernity’s invisible swarm of locusts. For them the production of motion pictures and the machinery for making their own pictures was very evidently—something Forgács brings out with a delicate touch—a great adventure, a game for mortal adult beings; the cine camera was a eureka, the technical, yet still magical device of the no longer transcendent, mundanely middle-class technician. (As Flusser said, “the function of technical images is to liberate their receivers by magic from the necessity of thinking conceptually, at the same time replacing historical consciousness with a second-order magical consciousness and replacing the ability to think conceptually with a second-order imagination. [This is what we mean when we say that technical images displace texts.]”) Our old film-makers were (early) modern individuals for whom it was not God’s eye that saw everything, but the cine camera that was at their disposal was able to see and record, even in some cases to transcend everything (e.g. the groins of women and men, airplanes, and drops of water too). The discovery of the techniques of film-making strengthens a complex intellectual need: a need to document, to “block out” and communicate their own (and not just their own) life, to which were associated erotic and aesthetic, even metaphysical needs. For them film was testimony to the ups and downs of a life that was known to be fleeting, a life lived continually on the move in its own changeable sensual richness. And apart from that an erotic (occasionally sexual) and sensual meditation and, beyond its techniques, a metaphysical attempt at immortalization, at fixing timelessness.
They spot the erotic power and authority of film; the camera enters the circulation of desires. The cine camera is able to capture the thing that fans the more or less hidden desires in men and women, and the erotic object reacts. Transfer and countertransfer raise their heads. Celluloid and cine camera are the preservers and intensifiers of ephemeral beauty and allure, an aphrodisiac for film-maker and filmed alike. In the spell of transience, the film-maker of old was the enhancer and perpetuator of attraction and the corporeal aesthetic. He thinks in terms of bodies, hunting for little transcendences, which, even if they do not project life beyond them, dangle and at the same time bring it up short in a way that cannot be done with a bird. Our film-makers of old put a sparkle into real life; their delight and state of deep emotion are plain to see (thanks to directorial interventions like highlighting, slowing down, freeze-framing, repetition etc. in which the music too plays a part). In these cases the cine camera is their accomplice or best buddy, and what they seek to master with it is the ephemeral banality and boredom of middle-class life. The cine camera is not a slave but a sly partner; what is perceptible in the films is the joy of creation, of playing, not least because they are sharing it with us. Filming family movies also denotes a good-natured sharing, a modern symposium.
It is said that medieval monks bent over a parchment in an entirely different spirit from that in which we of later days bend over a book. A medieval manuscript sheds light, and a reader’s eyes also gleam; the gleaming eye—with divine mediation—is a precondition for seeing. The history of the technique of reading, says Ivan Illich, also permits an insight into the history of the heart. The position is much the same with the eye that looks into the camera, except that as a result of accelerating time, the running down, the wear, is also quicker. The pleasure and thrill of recording, the playing with time that is still evident in the old shots nowadays already strikes one as childish. We have all become disenchanted with film’s capabilities for magic; nowadays we all know that films lie and deceive. The film-makers of old, however, were still playing their deceptions, their conjuring tricks, and experimenting on the borders of conjuring and art for fun and out of luxury. Péter Forgács also relays that quality—that blitheness, that fervour, that “gay science”—and this, placed in quotation marks, is how he passes it on.
One of the biggest differences compared with modern films is that the individuals who are being filmed are almost always saying something to the camera operator, in much the same way as he too is in partnership with his machine: he is familiarising himself with it, takes strolls with it, whips it out, puts it away, takes it with him into the bathroom or onto the beach, to work or to the front. The characters, if there are any, play for him, try to entertain him, they would like to show him something, they make jokes or are impertinent; they yield themselves, are obedient or defiant. They relate in some manner to the person (friend, relative, fellow soldier or fellow convict) who is beginning to do something with them and with their life, and thus we today see not only the film that was shot but the filming, the process, and not as a technical but as a social intellectual event (anything from acceptance of a common fate to clowning). We sense the man standing behind the cine camera and the human relations that charge the pictures with authentic life, but the situation is always also about the tension between the two: picture and situation. We see the reality, along with the counterfeits of reality, the manufacturing of illusions, all kinds of camouflage and masking; the reality is not raw but like this: acted, staged, glossed. The real truth is also like this: fractured, silenced, grimaced, danced away, jammed back and buried inside. As Huizinga noted in connection with historical reality, “In this case it is a matter of truth of a quite different order than what is of interest to philosophers: a truth that results from the mystic unification with the world and does not easily allow itself to be obscured by easily uttered abstract concepts.”
It is fortunate that Forgács has not entered into any obvious critique of the private films, any caricaturing of their visual codes, or any unmasking of their untruthfulness to life, but by emphasizing the tensions with various artistic procedures he has succeeded in “bringing into the picture” the life sticking out from behind the pictures that has been denied or hushed up. As a result, we also see in these amateur shots the things that were deliberately not recorded: the difficult days behind birthdays, the conflicts behind the jollity and prettiness, the ambivalence in the idyllic, the war prowling about in peacetime—in a word, trouble. (And that they would have been crazy to capture. There are only two exceptions to this: death and war, in which case the moral imperative of giving testimony to fate and to history raises its head. That is not, incidentally, the purpose of private films, although modern newsreel reporting easily fits in.) As the director himself has admitted, his films are shaped at least as much by the dynamics of what is missing as by the material that exists.
The bulk of our film-makers had no “artistic ambition”; for the most part, they were not conscious but “subconscious” creators—unless, that is, we dig deeper into the meaning of “artistic ambition” and take into account the elemental creative instinct and the middle-class drive to creativity. In truth, it was Forgács who gave shape to the shapeless or the arch, clumsy, ill-matched shaping. We can thereby catch a glimpse into the way life shapes up and is itself shaped—into where everything is still bubbling. We may express wonder at this subworld of creation, this “anarchy of chiaroscuro” that, like György Lukács, one must feel to be, on the other hand, the most rather than “the least genuine and living.” The vibration and pulsation of the material that is raised to the surface by the Forgács/Szemzo creative duo make it possible for us to share with our film-makers the naïve pleasure of life and creation, studded as it is with blunders; in other words, for us the act and gesture in themselves. The plot that gains ground before our very eyes becomes a source of aesthetic experience, Today the cine camera, for all its technical perfection, has become a lazy and dusty, cold device that simply takes aim and records, but in the hands of our film-makers of old it allows others to participate in pleasure, in mourning, in genuine aesthetic delight; it shares emotions and happenings. More than that, it is also active metaphysically, busying itself between the now and the eternal, the now being whatever is the “big” present moment, between transience and death. Often it does so ambiguously, in too spontaneous a fashion, without reflection, “anarchically” or, for that matter, in an overcodified manner, banally, but its awkwardness and “unclean hybrids” (the qualities that Lukács spurned), brought to life and summarized by Forgács and his colleagues, and reflected at us, as it happens make clear that “blossoming” that the philosopher did not find in mongrel life and therefore resorted to ideology. Those of our film-makers who were more progressive (László Dudas, for example) simply boiled down, artistically exaggerated and skilfully rhythmicized that mixing and anarchy, or to put it another way, they had an eye for the beauty of awkwardness.
The early film-makers virtually discovered through the eye of the cine camera the movement of machines and of people: an airplane’s flight, the gliding of motor cars, the trajectories of dancing and jumping, walking on asphalt, on grass, in the snow (the clatter and slight noises of the sound-tracks of their work help to underline this kinetic experience). Obviously, the four elements are also experienced: fire (and its cumulative states), water, air (sky) and earth, terrain. The fifth element is the face, along with its grimaces: laughing, yawning, mimicry, scowling—our film-makers are fascinated by the new genre of the “moving portrait”. (In one episode, the elderly parents sit before the cine camera as if for a still photograph, but at the same time the old man is giving a great yawn whereas his beloved is poking her tongue out at the courting cameraman—comic scenes like this give a good idea of the characteristics of the “new genre”: the semantic power and unpredictable aesthetic effect of moving away, of “mistakes”.) The image of man changes; ideas of human dignity and beauty/ugliness loosen up, the erotic becomes charmingly irreverent. The kinetic experience also comes across mentally, with dogmas and norms being smashed, becoming sources of new sensations.
The landscape—primarily a cityscape—is not some carefully selected location, scenery and backdrop, but people and their lives, the medium that in peacetime nestles in friendly fashion close to them, in war is desolate, and after war painful and begging for pity. We are on the threshold of mass society and before a good-time society that is calibrated for entertainment; the city has its own unadulterated life and death and resurrection. Our film-makers—urbanized citizens all—are visibly living in it as their own city, their own living space; that is how they scan and move around in it. The scanning and the casual moving around hint at a general condition of the urban naturalness of being in the world. The spontaneity of the sharing between the city (the community) and man is sensed in the fluctuating rhythm of merging and separation, of participation and detachment. (As to how big the difference is between when the city is a backdrop and when it is a living space, between when a face is at the mercy of chance and when the unpredictable is eliminated—that is succinctly in evidence is the comparison that Péter Forgács makes in one of the films where he juxtaposes the respective adaptations of Lajos Zilahy’s best-selling 1922 novel “Deadly Spring” made by the amateur László Dudas and by the pro László Kalmár.)
As I watch Private Hungary, I am taking part, first and foremost, though the form and poetry of form of the films, in the experience of history. That needs to be kept rigorously apart from the experience of writing history, as its essence (to follow the advice given by Frank Ankersmit) is the establishment of a direct contact with the time past, a sensual contact with the past, that is to say with a specific slice of it; the feeling that we have grasped (with our senses!) something from the past like never before, something we would never have thought of; that extremely subjective sensation, somewhat akin to déjà vu, that is associated with experiencing ourselves (it happens to us). The subject-matter takes possession of us, and we of the subject-matter, and that experience of “the plausibility of the implausible” makes the head spin. The experience of history, as opposed to history itself, is hard to explain, it cannot be narrated: “Where we have narrative, experience is impossible; and experience excludes narrative,” Ankersmit declares.
The director’s primary experience of history was when he discovered these films; when he did not simply stick them on the shelf for historical and film-history documents (curiosities) and did not just (mis)use them. Instead he lets them speak for themselves in their own way and their own language, with their stereotypes and codes; that is why he does not destroy them or even submit them to criticism (the way that, for instance, a narratological analysis might do, picking out the standard visual codes and clichés). What these film-makers and the people who perform for them embellished and talked up or lied about, what they kept quiet about or suppressed and what they pushed forward etc. is not an object of criticism but grows into an experience of these people, of that world and that era. Just as a process of drawing-in, as discussed before, came into being between film-maker and the people filmed, so too does Péter Forgács allow himself be drawn into a specific past, to become permeated by it, and he makes it possible for us too to enjoy this singular and, in the sensual-aesthetic sense of the word, sensational experiencing of the past. A kind of common involvement is established whereby the consciousness is awakened: this is our history, part of us, we partake of it, and we also have to reckon with it.
It seems that one thing that may have come to pass is the wish that Huizinga expressed when he wrote: “We want half dreamt, unclearly delineated images, leaving free play to our imagination and this need is better satisfied by a visual than by an intellectual apperception of the past.” The experience of history is not conceptual but sensual, like aesthetic experiences. The déjà vu kind of experience, intuition or insight, is not readily intellectualized or abstracted; its effect is not extensive, it does not add to knowledge but is rather intensive, deepening or altering knowledge, moreover disturbing or even fracturing it. In other words, it is authentic, more or less startling and upsetting. As Ankersmit says: “there is always something paradoxical about authentic contact with the world, something imperfect, something faulty, an awkwardness.” After viewing the film series which makes up Private Hungary, we shall not understand the history of Hungary any better, but we shall better fail to understand it. Or history at all, though it will thereby even more become an organic part of us. A jolting continuity of our imperfections, our faults and our awkwardnesses comes into being, the customary bird’s eye view and retrospective passing of judgement are corrected. Complicity can pass over into compassion and subservience into deeper rapport, and at the same time, given that this is all about the history of the recent past, a critical sense of responsibility may also be aroused.
In Hungary there is a disastrous lack of “consensus” about history. There are right-wing and there are left-wing interpretations of history that do not engage in debate but simply lambast each other, drum up supporters, who then sparkle in playing the role of being deadly enemies of the other side. (This is where one can collar passive forgetfulness, as well as actively eradicating forgetfulness, as being a source of repetition.) The postmodern interpretation of history, which is opposed to the jostling for power that passes itself off as intellectualism and which counsels a certain degree of (frivolous) tolerance, is for the most part narratological in inspiration and theoretical; it gets caught up on the holes and corners of language, on the surface of history, or as Ankersmit declares: “narrativism is not simply indifferent to the experience of history; it fosters explicitly hostile sentiments towards it.” Historicizing and metahistorical reflection alike are detraumatization (to use Jörn Rüsen’s term); they shut out authentic feelings from the memory. The handing-on of the experience of history within the family, by contrast, has become caught up in, or remained in, its class character precisely as a result of the traumatization of the history of the recent past. (Private Hungary also attests to these cleavages as does oral history, which is likewise a part of the series.) The unpatriotic, nationalistic and economic nature of the transition to democracy in Hungary in 1989-1990, above all its strong resemblance to bankruptcy proceedings, caused even greater deformations and corruptions in our historical consciousness. Neoliberal capitalism brought a new wave of depersonalization, and the fear that took hold in the country gave rise to a sense of rootlessness, which in turn hystericized the sense of time. (At such times, all that remains is the now, or a retreat into the darkness of ancient history.) Imre Kertész interpreted the cause of the exclusion of the experience of history in the following way: “Man in our day experiences his fate in such a way that history strips him of his autonomous personality, while he, having been liberated from the totality of history, as it were by way of compensation depersonalizes history.”
Bearing in mind the symptoms of this diseased memory—the focus on “great historical figures”, whether in a positive or negative sense, and the dismissal, the en bloc condemnation or acquittal of the faceless little man; class-based or alternatively racist perceptions of history; a functionalizing of politics that is attended by the counterfeiting and rhetoricizing of history, or in other words a postmodern ahistoricism (or historical “body snatching”); the tardiness of Hungary’s coming to terms with the Holocaust, and the speed with which it has become a perfunctory routine; the failure to assimilate the whole period that is referred to by the term “socialism”—and the dumbed-down, blame-seeking everydays of the present day, it is no great surprise that Péter Forgács considers that “this is a country that has been given a drubbing by segregations, murderous fury and lunatic forgetfulness,” where the forgetting is “immensely rapid and wretched.” That is why the artist feels especially motivated to give opportunities for, among other things, acquiring experiences of history and to present or relate even fundamentally historical facts in his creative works of media art, which then enter into a very broad domain of communication which extends in time as well as in space, a domain of communicative memory, and there arise, not just along several channels (visual, verbal, musical) but combining several types of discourse, multiply dialogic situations that question each other .
In these complex works of art the three types of history-writing distinguished by Nietzsche, the monumental, the antiquarian, and critical historiography, are equally crumpled up with sounds, images, applied documents and words. The job of rescue excavation, the collection, careful cleaning, selection and polishing of archive footage, is a task that combines the roles of archaeologist, restorer and museologist. We do not see the old films in their raw state but as they have been shaped to make them viewable, worked on at second hand, and all in the interests of transmitting them (“For a film to become such that the viewer should think of it as an amateur film, something I have done nothing with—that takes months of filing down, chiselling and polishing,” the director said in an interview.) Forgács does not “expropriate” the films as his own, he does not embezzle or exploit them, he rediffuses; it is not an act of appropriation but precisely the opposite: a rescue of the works of creative people of the past, bringing them to the surface from oblivion and passing them on, a stitching together of severe ruptures in the tradition. For that to happen artistic humility, tact, and respect for and sensitivity to the other/ otherness are indispensable. Péter Forgács’s interventions always manipulate the material benevolently or at most with a touch of irony, usually gentle, with a few tricks or, in relation to socialism, perhaps a hint of derision, but that is never done for the sake of asserting the self or his own potential. Without pursuing any sort of victimological discourse, he hands the word over to both the victims and the superiors, and helps them to tell their story by healing the aphasia with images and word.
The thread of “monumental” history is also not lacking from these works: the statement or written indication of historical dates, events and salient facts serves as a framework for memory, a mnemotechnical handhold, and it does not allow the stuff of memories to swim apart into nothingness; it pins it down at certain important points. Concreteness and objectivity are characteristic features of these creations. It is a question not so much of rationalism as of the upholding or stumbling of rationality as the case may be, and that in itself leads one into the choppy waters of critical attitude. The director does confront the sliced-up fragments of people’s everyday life and memory (the “anarchy of chiaroscuro”, the “unclean hybrids”) with definite sociopolitical monuments (cultural memories), private with public history. In the eyes of a wised-up posterity a surprising foreignness and distance stretches between the two, with frequent divergences and silences. A private memory, like a private diary, has the structure of a dream, being full of omissions, dislocations, compressions and cover stories. Forgács does not use “big history” to explain, he does not interpret, he does not replace the incomprehensible with something that is comprehensible (as in historiography) but instead brings astounding differences and huge tensions to the surface. (Let me repeat: the “plausibility of the implausible” is the touchstone of an authentic experiencing of the world. Throughout the entire opus Forgács indefatigably analyses the problem that for Villém Flusser is the central problem of history: the nature of the relationship between images and texts.) At the same time, “monumental” history” appears as brute force that mercilessly transcribes the “anarchy of chiaroscuro”, sticks its nose into lives, completes the things in which (to Lukács’s distaste) “nothing happens and nothing is completed; always new voices and sounds mingle with the resounding chorus.” Over time it is precisely big history that becomes unintelligible, and the well-intentioned life force and creativity at work in little worlds that become intelligible. (One can somehow understand the lady who feeds her dog from her own mouth, but there is no way of understanding the clearly articulated anti-Jewish laws that were in force.) Although the tension in question can be interpreted in various ways, there may be some viewers who call upon the little man (Jews and Hungarians) to account for historical consciousness, for the lack of an ability to size up the political situation—especially if they overestimate themselves.
Forgács does no favours for those who call others to account; the attitude is in any case unhistorical and presumptuous. He makes one see, first and foremost, individuals, each with a name and nickname, a family, a character, a dog and budgie; who own a car or motorbike, a cine camera, and bear a history of fate. He decontextualizes his protagonists, plucking them out of history by concentrating on them, on the time and personality that are tailored to them, their work, their hobby and love life, and recontextualizes by flagging up the historical background. What these family films make visible is precisely that a person lives through history in the cover of a private life and a sham protection, in the thick of intimacy, and that intimate little world is the nutrient substratum for his personality. A middle-class civilian is first of all a private being. What can also be read from the films is that there was a time once when there were more dealings between private and public life, and the various kinds of social structure did not appear as threats.
In Hungary in the first half of the last century—and especially during the period when these amateur films were shot—it was possible, for a short while, to live the life of a regular middle-class civilian. That was a world that was devastated, its relics ruined, by the Holocaust and the destruction wrought by the Second World War, then, after the war, by socialism. Communism carved up the very concept of a middle-class citizen, so that political abuses of the term once it was taken over as a symbol meant that after the democratic transition it had become practically unusable. In this way Hungarians lost not only middle-class civism but the very concept of it, and civility too; a possible human comportment, disposition, quality of life, way of doing things, culture, a certain fastidiousness, sensitivity and morality—that heritage was junked. Imre Kertész, in a remark from early 1990 in Galley-Boat Log, again has a beautiful way of putting the essence of the bourgeois sentiment: “Man's wonderment over creation, his rapt amazement that a perishable material—the human body—should live and have a soul. Amazement over the existence of the world has gone, and with it, as it happens, respect for life, reverence, joy, love.” The destruction wrought by Nazism and the Holocaust and then Stalinism in the elusive domain of the civilian habitude, the condition humaine, of perception, reception and reflection has been little explored to the present day, and it is hard to say—to quote Kertész again—“where it got European man, and what did he lose?”
Through Péter Forgács’s works we gain an insight into a destroyed world, and specifically thanks to the banalities of private films; into the once presently swirling but now vanished reality beneath the institutions, the great public sphere, social structures and public life. The faces, the figures and bearings, the facial expressions, the looks, the touches and contacts, the gestures—in our eyes today an impression of the otherness of the stuff of human substance. Least of all on account of the differences in clothing, hairstyles and customs. It is as if we had been enriched with an essence of some kind (“respect for life, reverence, joy, love…”). The soul manifested in eyes, movements and gestures in these films attests to forms of human behaviour and emotions that constituted a quality belonging to a past that differs from our own time. In short, not only was the way of life different, and living conditions, material culture, the regime, but attitudes to life, the state of “being human”, mundane morality and temperaments. Middle-class restraint and buffoonery, bashfulness and naughtiness, modest dignity and a sense of moderation, dissipation and a sense of humour, intrinsic optimism and melancholy, withdrawal from and confidence in others, life, the world, time, a sort of grit—those are just the faint call signs of a few conflicting concepts. With our brains accustomed to conservative representations and (new) left-wing critiques of the bourgeois world, to constant harping about its hypocrisy and to the literary analysis of its problematicalness, we barely know how to receive and order the experience of history that our senses pick up in watching these films.
It is not the motion picture albums of entertainments, Christmases, birthdays and excursions that play tricks on us. These are demands on the genre that the director counterpoints with film-maker treatments and irony. What is captivating is the care (solicitude) evinced for each other by the cine camera, or rather the person standing behind it, and the many different faces, awkward in their emotional openness, that are turned to each other. Forgács is able to draw the viewer into the family’s life, acting almost like a relative as he follows birth, wedding, a child growing up, divorce, burial… He too is imbued with a life without suspicion, a time when people were not prepared for being murdered, kicked out of their jobs or deprived of their homes. This is the atmosphere of loving rapport. There is also room in this for anger, dissension and so many emotions. This is what was brutally severed by the Holocaust, what led up to it and what ensued from it—irrevocably. What led up to it and what ensued, the events themselves on which the name “Auschwitz” has been bestowed, not only inflicted a deep wound in the history of mankind but beyond the human lives also destroyed a great deal in the sphere of the mind, intelligence and imagination that we can now approach only through the experience of history.
What radiates strikingly from these films, despite the fact that we are seeing them at second hand, is the irrevocability, irreversibility, on the planes of both individual lives and historical time. Forgács puts together “novels, life stories, from the clips of films that were born out of delight over the flurry that is the living present. Amateur films celebrate the present; they live out (and quiver through) the comic or tragic dramas of an “eternal” present. In sculpting them into stories the director is guided by the opposite intention: he forms a past by ordering them, as by his refusal to scrape off the patina of the film shots, because he works with what is passed on, and thinks in terms of history and stories. He does not attempt to project into the footage connections that were not there, and he doesn’t play tricks with his material, but rather joins together the budding connections that are already present in the films, paying attention to chance coincidences and to symbols that arise of their own accord, and he spies out the brutal or hidden actions of “big history”. He leaves in and signals where there is a hiatus, a gap, the hiatuses being just as important a part of his films as silences are to music. In most of the films the brisk passage of time is inevitable, unstoppable and irreversible. This is one source of the aesthetic pleasure that is afforded by Forgács’s films: one thing they simply never run short of is the element of wonder and/or astonishment about evanescence is; the sheer banality and mysteriousness of ageing nod at us at every hand. The biological process of the ageing of a young face takes on social, historical and even metaphysical dimensions. We marvel at the military course taken by “familiar” history, its blows and the ability to survive them, and we are astonished by what we knew “full well’: the death of the innocent victims. This is probably due to the decentralized presence of history, the fact that history that is lived is viewed through from new angles that we too, through the closeness to life of the films, are able to live through to a small extent, and this alters the stuff of our knowledge.
The film-makers of old were obliged to be thrifty with their film stock. We know that one of them, a Mr Bartos, shot only about six hours of footage over a period of 30 years. Their approach was one of compression, condensation, selection and direct cutting. They were on a war footing with time, captivated by the intensified ecstasy of recording the moment. They in no way saw the “story” that would eventually emerge from their life and their films. All the same, the idea of “recording for posterity” does reflect an awareness of transience, and to that extent Péter Forgács has finished off what they started: the business of turning their lives into stories. They too, like Forgács from the other side, were struggling with the time allowed, and they complied with that.
Aside from winding their way into history, Péter Forgács’s films keep a certain aesthetic (artistic, musical) distance in their evocation of the sheer mystery of time, the ruthlessness and mercilessness of the passage of time, heaped with historical crimes as it is. Besides that, though, they bring out the survival of a strange substrate of textured light and shade, adding a meditative quality to the material. Times does not just hide secrets, it is itself the secret. Maybe a simple secret, maybe a complex one; we have no way of knowing if it has any depth or not, whether it is mere passing or fulfilment. And what is the “indescribable” something that, on the track of “the lights, colours, movement, people, faces, events and cultural characteristics that have, by the grace of God, remained on celluloid,” leads into the tunnel of time past?
History is the administration of time; a story is an interpretation of time, furnishing it with meaning. A narrative is a progression that fixes the passing of time, endows it with a logic; a digital, conceptual and symbolic handhold for the mind and intellect. Time’s “interior”, however, is not expressible in words. As to what, in fact, it was—that is outlined by the film’s form, the visual poetry: this, that or the other flickered up, moved, danced, that passed, there was a murder, that too came to an end—and by being written in light some unknown was left behind: intimacy in foreignness and vice versa.
Péter Forgács’s films, while synaesthetically amalgamating one’s hearing and visual scanning and mobilizing one’s intellectual flairs, truly unlock the sense of time, as music unlocks hearing, painting—seeing, or love—the feel of a body. The tracks of the passing of time, streamlines that are now linear, now swirling, now abruptly tearing, can be seen on the celluloid; the irreversibility of time is palpable, but one has the impression that this shows through in the aiming and meeting of the looks. Not just those of the simultaneous looks but also the looks of those who belong to different times. Were? Are? Does this mean the work of art is the surface where they meet? And if the work of art is not a surface, where do they get to? Where are they headed? Whatever the case, these films have a singular power to suck one in, a power that is certainly not due to the plot or the artless stories but to a strange mixture of the was and the is, the them and the us, which is made palpable by the fleeting dance of light-and-shade, black-and-white (let it be added that it is not uncommon in the films to see the performers twirling in dance). And then there are the dead, with that peculiar, unique rigidity coming across like a slap on the cheek, an effect of photography. Although there are also live shots that are frozen, this rigidity is something quite different, just as much a riddle as the time-movement phenomenon. Movies of death, of rigor mortis, are peculiarly shocking in this life-like context. Perhaps the closest things to it are the moments of falling silent and loss of picture, the hiatuses and blemishes in the film, the times when almost unutterable darkness thickens into a point. At times like that, there is little else that can be said except that Mother died, and Éva, István or Lajos were left behind in the camp, in the labour battalion or at the front, or indeed that they came back from there.
In the episodes that make up Private Socialism there is virtually nothing to show of these mute and dark things (or non-things), or on rare occasions some clipped, stammering, embarrassed words will be let fall about them. These films are different in kind from those about middle-class Hungary. They are much scantier and less interesting when it comes to original material; there is no sign here of gay science and that delicate, bashful eroticism. Servile masses and little men make an appearance, individuality, unfettered personality and familiarity die away, but crude obscenity rears its head. The growing ugliness of the faces and the “dreadful state of the scenery” present a new challenge to the director, and, along with the composer, he turns a good deal more ironic, makes much more decisive interventions, and the deconstruction is much more vigorous. Ironical recollection is the response to the vulgar stridency of the discourses about power and the cynical policy of remembrance. Moments of the defeated revolution of 1956 are recorded by graves, tanks and ruins, and the lack of taste of the subsequent Kádár covers over everything. Enthusiasm vanishes and is followed by sequences, with subtle parodies by director and composer alike, of the surgical zeal that replaces it. The counterfeiting of history, censorship and strenuously advised forgetting tidied away the bourgeois age and the Shoah from not only the cultural but also the communicative collective memory. Private life also becomes poorer and greyer, more uniform, and the middle-class citizens fall into servitude. What little remained from the subculture of the middle-class amateur film-makers of old was smashed, along with any surviving bourgeoisie, by the Rákosi regime in the late Forties and early Fifties. Later on, television viewing spreads, any creativity is eroded by socialist petty-bourgeois inactivity, “the ranks of film-makers are diluted, and into the place of those meticulous, reliable engineer-types and gentlemen the awful banality of the ‘democratic’ amateur cameraman swamps the in any case decimated caste of the amateur film-maker,” Forgács commented in one interview.
The time of the family amateur film has drawn to a close, to be followed by the appalling rule of television, then the home video, but that is another medium and another story that belongs to another page. The new canon of history, which has no fears about dispensing with the work of all historians, the commodification of memory, the selling-off of documents, the prettifying of historical events into media spectaculars and museum sights further eat away at the fragile tissue of private memory; the manipulation of the private sphere is more professional than ever, and is eliminated in the form of cultural waste of personality from the omnivorous digestive system of the fun society.