AT ANOTHER PLACE
Bert Rebhandl, 2007
At first, the Jew Franz Weintraub (later: Franz West) of Magdeburg experienced Vienna between the wars as liberating. In the Leopoldstadt district he did not have to feel like an outsider and freely participated in public life ("back then people were only interested in soccer"), but at some point he could no longer avoid the political questions. "Red Vienna" offered numerous mass-experiences, which allowed him to clear up a central question: Social Democracy or Zionism? Social Democracy meant staying in Vienna and dealing with the increasingly radical political landscape. Zionism would have meant migrating to Israel and to participate in the foundation of an emerging state, whose future status was entirely uncertain. Franz Weintraub opted for Vienna, he experienced the years between 1924 and 1934 first as a supporter of the Social Democratic party, and, later on, of the Communists. He witnessed how Austria under pressure from illegal Nazis turned into a corporative state.
West speaks extensively about these developments in RETURN TO VIENNA, a film by Ruth Beckermann and Josef Aichholzer. The directors added numerous historical clips from those years, among them contemporary footage of the fire at the Palace of Justice, a dramatic turning point in the history of the Austrian First Republic. Franz Weintraub was part of the crowd that is shown in those images- in RETURN TO VIENNA his account is enhanced by the complementary historical footage, and brought to a depth that could never be achieved by an interview alone. This documentary about Franz Weintraub stands at the beginning of Ruth Beckermann's works - it marks a transition from her early, largely collaborative work which had dealt with the then current political situation in Austria, to a more personal confrontation of historical questions and Jewish identity in a country that was rather hesitant in avowing its own contributions to the Shoah.
At the end of RETURN TO VIENNA Franz Weintraub takes the initiative by confronting the filmmakers with an audio-tape where he speaks about his personal history concerning the "Third Reich" - a history of the dead and the disappeared, which have no images, but instead are evoked by a long traveling shot on a railway line that leads out of Vienna into the East; it leads to the place from where so many immigrants had come, who had once made up the Jewish population of the Austrian capital. Ruth Beckermann's father also came to Vienna from the East, shortly after the war, and remained there. His wife, who had come to Vienna from Israel just for a visit, stayed as well, for her husband's sake. Thus their daughter was born as a Jewish Viennese woman, to a family of survivors.
PAPER BRIDGE tells the story of Grandma Rosa who did not show up for her deportation to Theresienstadt, and managed to survive the war-years in the underground of Vienna. With this film Ruth Beckermann takes charge of her own voice. Till then she had added comments off camera, for example to the dispute between the workers and the managers of the state-run industry (SUDDENLY, A STRIKE, 1978 and in THE STEEL HAMMER OUT THERE ON THE GRASS, 1981). Now she talks about herself, her trip to the Bukovina and to Yugoslavia. Working on this film takes her back to her own family - her father and mother relate in front of the camera how they became Austrians. But current Austrian history pushes to the fore during the editing of PAPER BRIDGE: Passers-by are excitedly discussing the election campaign of Kurt Waldheim on Vienna's central St. Stephen's Square; Waldheim who had served as U.N. Secretary General, was now running for president as the candidate of the conservative Austrian People's Party. As a member of the German Wehrmacht, Waldheim had simply done "his duty" during World War II, and had basically skipped over this period of his life in his autobiography. In the heated pre-election mood ever new accusations about the Wehrmacht-soldier Kurt Waldheim became public, while his campaign proceeded under the motto "Forward, in spite of it all." The antisemitism of the passers-by is obvious: "Who is still ruling the world, after all?"
The final shot of PAPER BRIDGE shows Ruth Beckermann as a little girl. She actually makes a bridge between the time when Austria could appear as a "land of liberation" to her father, and the present time of the movie, when the country was about to bring its lower instincts back to bear on its government. The question "Socialism or Zionism" that Franz Weintraub had posed to himself, is no longer a choice for Ruth Beckermann. That is why her next film TOWARDS JERUSALEM is not a documentation of a trip that leads to a new place where she might want to live. She comes to Israel as an observer, travels along the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem collecting impressions from a land, whose deep religious and ritual underpinnings nevertheless permit rather practical solutions. An advertisement for Schweppes refers explicitly to Ramadan, the onset of the Sabbath is announced precisely at 5:28 PM, whereupon no further filming is allowed, even though the most interesting scenes might actually occur. "We want the Messiah now"--this urgent hope of certain Orthodox Jews is captured in TOWARDS JERUSALEM by the patience of the observer, who travels along a security road encircling a settlement, looks over the shoulders of a man playing an Intifada game in a video arcade, and follows the complete manufacturing process of a Passover matzah.
At the end, the film shows the road to Jerusalem disappearing into the fog--a characteristic image in Ruth Beckermann's films, which are not about taking possession of something with the camera, but rather document a passage that does not force a choice between false alternatives. This is how it becomes possible for her in her other road movie A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT to step into the shoes of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, who had attempted to "disappear from the scene" in the 19th century and enter into her own point of view. Elisabeth crossed the Mediterranean into Egypt, largely incognito and with a small entourage. The reports that have reached us from these Oriental sojourns inspired Ruth Beckermann to an experiment of replacement: what might Elisabeth have seen in this foreign land? Elisabeth, who is known in Austria mostly as "Sissy", since the so-named films starring Romy Schneider have become a screen memory for the historical figure. A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT earns its decisive openness through the identification of a Jewish woman with an icon of the Habsburg monarchy. This maneuver looses its surprise rather quickly. It certainly does not deal primarily with Egypt, which still exerts a powerful position in the Middle East, but rather offers a possibility to escape the identity-trap by becoming anonymous, and thus come to know oneself as a subject which will always be in "another place" (Edward Said).
A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT is possibly the most surprising of Ruth Beckermann's films, while at the same time following a rather compelling logic. Images and stories have corresponded in a rather non-linear fashion ever since Franz Weintraub had begun to speak. The documentary quality derives in Ruth Beckermann's films not from images that amount to certainty and knowledge, but rather from images that persistently dissolve the boundaries of the spoken word--and thereby also dissolve the person behind the film, the director as author, the woman, who inscribes herself with the camera. The relationship between pictures and spoken words becomes particularly striking in EAST OF WAR, which was shot entirely within the space of the so-called Wehrmacht-Exhibit, which had made it to Vienna in 1995 surrounded by a major brouhaha.
This exhibit documents the share of the German Wehrmacht in the war of destruction that the Nazis waged in Eastern Europe. Photographs played an important role in this exhibition (one aspect of the endless controversy surrounding the exhibit had to do with supposedly incorrect titles going along with the images). Ruth Beckermann and the cinematographer Peter Roehsler shot during the opening times of the exhibition; they documented what kind of discussions took place, and created a protocol of people (mostly men from the war generation) who felt compelled by the photos to come up with their own statements. In the course of their work it becomes clear that photographs cannot simply assume the role of evidence within the process of remembering (as the organizers of the exhibit had tended to assume). Rather, they trigger a complex reaction concerning everyone’s particular role: only the statements (and the debates among these men) add up to a kind of truth in EAST OF WAR that is not concerned with historical factuality, but rather with the presence of events that fifty years later still have traumatic effects.
This relationship between history and the present remains open in the films of Ruth Beckermann in two directions: towards the mutability of traditions and history transmitted from the past in the form of images and text, and towards the mutability of an individual who uses this material to keep reinventing herself---as a Jewish Austrian woman full of the ambivalence that resounds inescapably in the connection of these two ways of defining identity after 1945.
In two more recent documentaries, Ruth Beckermann confronts this subject in the form of making observations: HOMEMAD(E) shows the quotidian life on Marc-Aurel Street in the central First District of Vienna. This is where the director lives, and where an important part of the city’s intellectual life takes place on the street and inside the Café Salzgries. There is a Jewish textile merchant who cannot find a successor for his store, a Persian restaurant, and several other distinctive institutions. The shooting which extended over a year once again coincided with a significant turning point in Austrian contemporary history: A coalition government was formed at the beginning of 2000 between the conservative People’s Party and the right-wing populist Freedom Party and it polarized the country to an unimagined extent. The protest against these developments, which is amplified by the filmmaker and photographer Lisl Ponger, is contrasted by Ruth Beckermann in HOMEMAD(E)with the long duration of the Austrian post-war history as exemplified by the textile merchant, and quite possibly by herself, since she has experienced a great deal in this country, and might no longer see a reason to allow herself to be driven crazy. HOMEMAD(E) locates a positive Utopia in a particular place by mediating between the still virulent memory of historical traumata and the particular kind of non-history that has found inimitable expression in the Viennese Cafés: Uproar about world events goes along with the dispassionate ritual of reading the newspaper and the telling of tall tales.
What appears in HOMEMAD(E) as a small world embodying the world at large, is discovered by Ruth Beckermann in ZORRO’S BAR MITZVA all over town: she observes four Jewish families during their preparations for the Bar Mitzvas of their children. Their predilections and forms are as divergent, as Jewishness is in its entirety: an Orthodox family rehearses patiently how to apply properly the leather straps of phylacteries, while another father hires the videographer André to shoot a sequence for his son in which the story of the Mexican freedom-fighter Zorro is adapted to the purposes of a Bar Mitzva.
One of these rites of passage into adulthood takes place in Israel, another features a girl, whose mother barely escaped the tsunami in South-East Asia. In ZORRO’S BAR MITZVA Vienna appears as a transitory place: Guests arrive in order to celebrate in grand style; others leave the city for Israel in order to celebrate with proper dignity. As in all rites of passage, there is no pure form here either: constructing the identity of a newly emancipated young Jew encompasses other elements than the ones intended by tradition—a self-confident young woman and the boy, who sees himself as Zorro, both children of a popular culture as much as they are the offspring of Jewish families.
This is the modern point of ZORRO’S BAR MITZVA: Jewish life in Austria is not be reduced to one core element (as it might be in the service of an ethnographic documentation), but is rather extrapolated from the familial and imaginary transitions which specifically make up these Bar Mitzva rituals. The kind of binary thinking that had shaped Franz Weintraub’s decisions at key points of his life (Socialism versus Zionism), has yielded in modern times to more flexible alternatives—this is a fact that Ruth Beckermann’s films pursue in the form of multiple concrete and experimental self-designs. The films each create an other place, a point of departure from where ones own existence (the existence of the filmmaker, the spectators) can be freed from the patterns of identity that are ultimately at the root of fundamentalisms.
Translated from German by Peter Stastny