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Meanderings of an Austrian Traveller




Christa Blümlinger

At first sight, two of Ruth Beckermann's films seem radically different. The first, taking place within a limited space, represents a sort of Austrian cinéma-vérité. EAST OF WAR is a chronicle filmed during an exhibition that detailed crimes by the regular German army (the Wehrmacht) using a form of intelligent questioning based on a confessional-like filming approach. Using home video becomes in this case a productive technical constraint. It gives a distance to the intimate which works well in this inventory of a generation whose repressed acts have made their impact felt in current political culture. The other work is sumptuously filmed in 35mm accompanied by a complex sound construction. A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT is an essay on the theme of travelling, on the search for images and points of view captured in the eyes of others, on the spirit of curiosity which is the starting point for a trip to Egypt covering the ground which, towards the end of the 19th century, made the Empress Elizabeth of Austria - later dubbed by the kitsch industry as Sissi - a pioneer of modernity.

On looking a little closer, the same style, the same "camera-pen" as Alexandre Astruc would say in his description of avant garde cinema, is recognizable in each of Ruth Beckermann's films. In different ways, the director and essayist has always dealt with the question of the heterogeneous, the nomad in our culture and she has, right from the beginning, used a highly personal language. Whether it be as an interlocutor, both sensitive and provocative, in her first feature-length film, a portrait of a Jewish and Communist Viennese whose life touches on the catastrophes and contradictions of the past century (RETURN TO VIENNA, made in collaboration with Josef Aichholzer), or as the narrator of her second film (PAPER BRIDGE).

If the „consulting-room“ tendency prevails over the „camera-pen“ tendency in some of her later works, it is probably due to the fact that she has begun, as a filmmaker, in the search for the most direct access, to film herself and the people whom she is encountering. She finds an appropriate way to proceed for each situation. This could be a rather typically Viennese chat in a coffee-house, as in HOMEMAD(E) (2001), where she portrays the inhabitants and visitors of her street, or in her installation EUROPAMEMORIA (2003), when she presents the intimate stories of (im)migrants in Western Europe without any other visuals or counter-shots, in close-ups.

Ruth Beckermann's and Josef Aichholzer's first full-length film, RETURN TO VIENNA, is devoted entirely to the 'memory-work' of a single person. It is a portrait of the Viennese Franz West, formerly editor-in-chief of the Communist daily „Die Volksstimme“, which in the early 1980s began to ask questions about the inter-war years that had not interested anyone in Austria for decades. This form of oral history first emerged as part of the new attempts (in Austria and Germany) to deal with the recent past by historians and film-makers. RETURN TO VIENNA is the portrait of an emigrant who became a victim of racist Nazi violence long before the Anschluss, and who had been profoundly disappointed by the weakness of the Social Democrats in the struggle against Christian-Socialist Austrofascism. 'Red Vienna', today like the Freud museum in the Berggasse a compulsory part of every progressive tourist's programme, was just being rediscovered while this film was being made. The cinematic material incorporated in the film came from various party branch offices in Vienna, not from a central archive. Copiously quoted in the film, these 'found objects' are quite obviously recent discoveries, and yet the film does not pretend to 'unveil' a truth, or something that was previously unknown: the propaganda images do not serve as an illustration, nor are they present in RETURN TO VIENNA as historical traces or intended to constitute memory, but rather to evoke the process of remembering. In a series of informal, sensitively conducted interviews, the young film-maker asks about various aspects of West's life, exploring his cultural origins, his identity as a Jew, his political career, emigration and eventual return. What is important here is not the question of an individual's adaptation to a political culture, or its dogmas or potential for denial but what Franz West has retained for himself of this culture over the years. His unspeakably traumatic loss does not ultimately emerge as direct speech, as part of the dialogue, in front of the camera. Franz West lists the members of his family who were murdered, trying to remember, trying to create a memorial with names. This he can only do alone, with the aid of a small audio recorder, which later, in the presence of the film-maker, enables him to provide an account of them. It is surely no coincidence that this form of memory resembles the lonely monologue of the young Marceline Loridan in Jean Rouch's Chronique d'un été (1960).

In TOWARDS JERUSALEM as well, an historical trace is also presented by means of a technical device but here it represents a parallel present (of the shooting of the film): in this 'road movie' which takes the film-maker from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in order to record the different layers of this country like a geologist, the 'other' side makes its presence felt through the radio, which constantly relays reports on the Intifada. This doubling of the sound track breaks up the affective quality inherent in the film and creates the possibility of distance from the image. For the continuous, overpowering presence of the image prohibits the intersection of past and present, thus inhibiting the critical effort that is the precondition for a historical discourse. PAPER BRIDGE, the second film in the trilogy that also includes RETURN TO VIENNA and TOWARDS JERUSALEM, also attempts to wrest from the power of the image the possibility of using the places of remembrance as a starting point for developing the process of remembering. Ruth Beckermann travels with her camera woman, Nurith Aviv, to the Bukovina, a region where her father was once happy. However, the film crew will not arrive at their destination, which was still on Soviet territory at the time the film was made, there will be no images of Czernovitz, the city so beloved of her father. Instead the film revolves around this culture which has now vanished in Central Europe, visits small Rumanian villages, travelling through foggy landscapes crossed by horse-drawn carts that evoke a time long past. At a Jewish cemetery a man who is a sort of 'walking repository of living memory' recounts stories of people from a time in which collective identity was still transmitted orally. In Ruth Beckerman's film this man is more than just a transmitter of tradition or last surviving witness; he does not represent 'death at work': this man lives in the present, he flirts with the women who are filming him, cracks jokes about himself "being in the picture" for once in his life.

In PAPER BRIDGE Beckermann gives to her first person narration the form of a soliloquy - interrupted by the encounters of the film - read as a voice over searching for the traces of the absent or survivors. The film is constructed like a mozaic - it does not aim to establish a one dimensional identity, but to transcribe in film a feeling of non-belonging. The filmmaker drives through the city of Vienna where she grew up, looking through a veil that allows her to discover the city in a fresh light. For example those places where her grandmother ran, hiding from the Nazis in her own town. She drives not only towards the vestiges of the Jewish culture of the Bukovina which once belonged to the old Austrian Empire, but crosses also Yugoslavia, when the country still existed, just as a fiction film on the Theresienstadt concentration camp is being shot, and she interviews a Viennese writer friend hired as an extra in this American film whose role was to play a 'typical' victim. The shooting of this film took place precisely as the future Federal President Kurt Waldheim was campaigning across the country, covering the same ground as Beckermann through Vienna and as the public debate between citizens and politicians was reaching a climax in a sort of late and begrudging examination of the past. Retrospectively, it can be noted that the director had already drawn a lucid portrait of the Austrian syndrome that she revealed with so much subtlety in her recent film around the 'astonished' visitors at the exhibition on the German Wehrmacht. As a documentarist, Ruth Beckermann has an extraordinary gift for making the past present, for catching the significant moments of her country's political culture.

"Often, leaving is the very goal of a journey" as someone says in PAPER BRIDGE. The following film TOWARDS JERUSALEM translates this idea in the very structure of the film. It is a film born on the road along the road, more precisely, which leads from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and along which History can be read, the stories and the strata of this country – Israel - which is both very young and very old. Through chance encounters, among emblematic names and places, archeological digs and construction sites, TOWARDS JERUSALEM lays bare the different phases and contradictions of a project which has considerably evolved over fifty years.
The indivisibility of memory and this difference in the formation of the collective memory also underlie the seemingly random structure of TOWARDS JERUSALEM: the people the film-maker meets along a few dozen kilometres of a road in Israel tell of the past but also about the different ways the present is viewed. "Not everybody has the same eyes; everybody sees with his own eyes", says a Palestinian as he changes a tyre. The people we meet in the film interpret the history of the country according to their origins and occupation. An elderly coin collector in the middle of a rubbish tip picks up something which he proudly identifies as a centuries-old Turkish coin. He makes a living by selling scrap and reclaimed timber to the Palestinians. These coins seem to have become an obsession with him, as guarantors of the historicity of this bleak wrecking yard. Towards Jerusalem is not about a chronological recording of history or a clear-cut evaluation of the short and conflict-laden history of Israel; it is a snapshot, an instantaneous portrait which seems to set itself the Marker principle as a leitmotif: "One never knows what one is filming". Thus no stone-throwers appear in the film, but again and again one hears shots or planes flying overhead.
On the way towards Jerusalem it is not only the many different landscapes, secular and religious buildings which in this country are often invested with several different mythological meanings, that reveal themselves, but also very different cultures: proud Ethiopian women sitting in stoical calm, their lack of Hebrew or other foreign languages causing irritation on the part of their new compatriots; newly-arrived Russian Jewish women who talk about Israel's strength in tones of conviction. Their faces reveal the dream they have taken with them from Eastern Europe, evoked as a repeated leitmotif by the strains of Tchaikovsky's Serenade mélancholique. The film ends, as it has to, before the journey ends, because the object of desire can never coincide with the real Jerusalem. The motor of the film TOWARDS JERUSALEM becomes the memento mori of photography, as Susan Sontag has described it: the participation in the mortality, vulnerability and mutability of other people (or things). Decades later, the consciousness of transience in this fragmentary travel essay preserves it from seeming outdated.

Ruth Beckermann's trilogy - three films which explore different aspects of Jewish identity and which all in one form or deal with the (painful) constitution of memory - was followed by a film about the Wehrmacht which deals with the aspect of forgetting. The forgetting of the perpetrators and the perception of those who belong to this society of perpetrators, who grew up alongside them. Those who don't remember, whose sole wish is to stay put in their hereditary place without being disturbed, have amputated their memory, as Klaus Theleweit so appositely puts it when writing about Nazi war criminals. They don't want to be disturbed by those they drove into exile or murdered. And yet they have come to this exhibition which informs the public about the killings, and in which they were involved in some form or other - as eye witnesses, those who knew about it, those who were ignorant of it and even as participators. EAST OF WAR was not made with the intention of sounding out individual visitors to an exhibition about the crimes of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front. On the contrary - their wholly natural appearances in front of the camera unfold like a therapeutic ritual and even occasionally even surprise the viewer: a Loden hat or a wooden leg is not necessarily an indication of dyed-in-the-wool recidivist or reactionary sentiments. There are the exceptions, there are those who were there and didn't want to participate, there are even a very few who were shocked by events, then as now, and who refused within the bounds of possibility to serve in this army.

The exhibition itself, its objects and photographs which were used by historians as the source material and proof of crimes which were not just committed by the SS but also by ordinary members of the Wehrmacht, hardly features in the film. "The opportunity offered by the documentary", Ruth Beckermann writes in the diary she kept during the making of the film , "is the dispassionate gaze, observation, analysis". The strength of this film lies in the variation in the reactions, in the doubt that obtrudes when the defensive utterances start coming, or in the third-hand accounts that sound like authentic personal experiences. The return of past experience inscribes itself in a person's habit of mind, whether in the form of conscious realisation or in the form of unconscious resistance. That, in the best case, is what a film can show.

The collaboration between Ruth Beckermann and Nurith Aviv over four films shows how much the creative documentary genre depends on constant communication between spontaneous mise en scène and intuitive camerawork. This complicity allows a complex montage of image and language. Nurith Aviv manages to capture the dramatisation within even the tiniest events and frames with such precision that the framing itself concentrates multilayered meaning. Whether it be cutting down trees in the Romanian countryside evoking the period of early industrialisation (PAPER BRIDGE) or the ritual of a young Egyptian bride putting the final touches on her dress as she gets ready for the photographer (A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT), a social situation is expressed through figurative framing. In A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT, Nurith Aviv perfects her art of the camera which bears a distant, yet nevertheless insistent point of view, expressed through framing but also changes of focal length, tracking shots or other camera movements. The form of this way of looking creates a truly fictional originality, an imaginary terrain favourable to the digressions of the narration evoking Egypt as a European projection. Ruth Beckermann confronts in her film the point of view of a modern casual visitor and the orientalism and fragmentary perceptions which might be those of a 19th century traveller. She takes the risk of 'lateral montage'. This formula, used by André Bazin to describe Chris Marker's method of building a link of intelligent connivance between sound and image, is absolutely appropriate here. The essential link between the speakable and the visible is here the subtle mix of sound and music, which creates the space necessary for the imaginary, for representing Elizabeth's obsessions, which in the play of indirect relations between narration and filmed image, are set in the mind of the spectator.

To a certain extent, A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT shifts the special worlds of PAPER BRIDGE and TOWARDS JERUSALEM, which were placed in the realm of memory and narration, to situate them entirely in the imaginary construction of a place of desire. The director's travels first of all concerned a region which was in the past Austrian, at a period when the Empress liked nothing better than to take the train in such an unheard of way that others of her time could hardly fail to take notice. The director then travels around the Promised Land whose oldest city, entirely inhabited by myths, is incapable of offering a real haven to a woman born of the Diaspora. Finally with A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT, this being in movement no longer places herself on the side of loss but on the side of the pleasure of a (feminine) way of looking, conscious of the power of fascination in its movement.

It seems only logical that Beckermann's most recent film, ZORRO'S BAR MITZVA (2006), ties into this desire to look and heralds through its montage a new form in her work which hints at the imaginery path towards fictional works from the immediate filming of current mise-en-scenes.