Along the paths of time

Bernard Benoliel

At the end of 1995, Ruth Beckerman, an Austrian filmmaker, completes a very idiosyncratic film entitled EAST OF WAR. Even when each of her works – she has been shooting films since the end of the 70’s - is considered on its own, when it forges its own path which endlessly leads to a center simultaneously imposing and evasive (evoking the phrase “all roads lead to Vienna”), one must perhaps start with this documentary film – which justifiably is her most well known – to understand her approach, namely what physically sets her and her cinema in motion.

What is it about? It is about a record: a live recording of testimony from spectators present at an exposition in Vienna who witnessed one of the crimes of the Wehrmacht between 1941 and 1944. However, this summary does not render a sufficient account of the originality of the installation. First, Beckermann does not film the exhibit. We know nothing about the documents which provoke so many reactions, hardly any photos are discernable, and with good cause: they are not the subject. Second, who is there? In the film, certainly no ordinary visitors who have come as citizens to learn about a history about which they a priori know nothing. No, and therefore the discomposure, the fascination, and the anger of the film spectator in contrast to the spectacle of these strange loiterers: the spectators present at an exhibition on war crimes of unprecedented cruelty (unprecedented because of an underlying ideology of extermination (1 are also the performers of the story, bloodthirsty soldiers of the “regular” army who, as Hyde once again became Jekyll, have long since returned to civil life and become old men, fearsome living beings who have crawled out of graves of collective amnesia and returned in place of the dead.

Herein lies the power of the setting conceived by Beckermann: a stroke of genius to have known or guessed that a hidden, suppressed – thus intact – almost mummified testimony would forcefully erupt – perhaps for the last time. The filmmaker’s idea to deny herself the use of music, commentary and intervention in order to engage first with the strict automatism of the camera - this “cow’s eye” (as Cocteau called it) which sees everything, forgets nothing, and never displays emotion - and then again with the vengeful virtues of a discrete, merciless montage. From the moment the film develops in the middle of the exhibition – an installation within an installation – it becomes a projection screen: simultaneously a confessional and a chamber of horror, a soundproof room and echo chamber, an interrogation room for executioners and silent trials of the people with evidence hanging on the wall, theater of catharsis, analytical conference and the psychiatrist’s waiting room. The chamber becomes the screen, the screen the mirror, a palace of mirrors which reflects ad nauseam the shifting and unchangeable face of the banality of evil.

Most of all, the unique conjoining of setting and event permits Beckermann to draw near – even in the worst sense – to her cinematic desire, always the same, which, ever unobtainable, is always at stake: to travel through time. In EAST OF WAR, the demobilized soldiers who reappear in a way rush time forward through the camera rather than the camera stepping back in time. A nearly in vitro recreation of the story, even when the most important thing is missing: the victims. Ruth Beckermann’s cinema lives precisely there, on the threshold of this painful contradiction between reality and art that all too often comes too late and, like an archaeologist, is only able to collect the wreckage of an empire or a life, the ghost of an art which would be there at the right time and which, like an obstetrician, would collect and carry the phenomenon themselves to heaven rather than their descendants. Doubtless a reason for Beckermann’s recent endeavor in 2001 to make a film here and now, in vivo, about her street in Vienna, the Marc-Aurel-Straße, and its residents: HOMEMAD(E). A contemporary film about peaceful, urban, everyday life as well as Haider’s ascent to power, a sad figure from a sinister line of ancestors. The story does not permit itself to be easily forgotten. HOMEMAD(E), this mini cinema journey, in which the film has obliged itself not to move – for a change, it is the others who come and go. HOMEMAD(E), a film at a proximity which one feels the filmmaker has chosen in order to experience a familiar space and moment together, which this time is situated within reach. Yet it doesn’t help, even here foreignness, unease and the memory of the dead remain present.

Always caught in the forceps by both vectors of her art, Beckermann appears to have chosen “endless movement” to try to inhabit yesterday’s time, this house of sand which doesn’t exist on any map. Relocation, displacement: immense tracking which is deployed where the impressions teased through the window stand still and flash by. Hectares of space spreading in every direction in the hope of attaining an effect that hitherto was reserved only for H.G. Wells’ Machine. What else is the PAPER BRIDGE but the account of a drive across the disembodied countryside of East Europe, if not the plan for a mission which has turned out to be unrealizable? What else is the legend of Hagazussa which like a self portrait serves as a preface, this transparent figure which drags itself like a mirror from house to house in order to absorb stories, if not the arisen dream to whom all these lives will ultimately tell their story? What else is this ghost but the name of all absent, those who are not present at roll call und who never cease to allude to all of Beckermann’s films (one recalls the end of RETURN TO VIENNA), nor to evoke memories? What is the cinema if not a paper bridge?

The bridge (the film as well) is by definition a No Man’s Land in and of itself because it creates a connection “between”: between two people, between two countries, between life and death. To cross a river, an ocean, a country, means to live nowhere, to live like a seaman on the bridge. Therefore, from film to film the feeling grows that Beckermann’s wounds slowly heal and yet still she remains inconsolable, condemned – voluntarily – to wandering, to brutal and fleeting sensations, to eternal melancholy, like Elisabeth of Austria, called Sissi, the light-footed empress (A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT, 1999). Surely for the same reason TOWARDS JERUSALEM (1990) also surprises so much. What can a Jewish girl of the Diaspora, daughter of a bruised Eastern Europe, hope to gain from Israel? Also for her it can not be more than the Promised Land, the peace at the end of a journey, a place which no longer has to be traveled through. The opposite is the case: the place, as it is filmed by Beckermann, could never have seemed more desolate, more gutted, never could the animosity have emerged stronger, never could the space have appeared less united in forgetting the lost time. Hope ends at an impasse. And long after the exhibition, one remembers the old, loquacious man who, in order to survive, scavenges in ruins for pieces of copper, lead and I don’t know what else. TOWARDS JERUSALEM, images of a mirage where our completely monopolized gaze looks back down, burnt – even it is a victim of the strong solar radiation.

If one must leave (‘often, the departure is the real goal of the journey.’ PAPER BRIDGE), when the return is forced upon the traveler, the drunken feeling of the departure remains, the euphoria of the journey itself, the short lived feeling of pulling oneself away from the heaviness. Or to quote Godard, “Traveling I was again and again surprised by people to whom the length of the journey has no meaning, while to me it more closely represents the most important part.(…) Time exists only when it is solidified, when one can say, ‘either one lingers in one spot from which one must depart, or one arrives there and nothing exists in between the two’. I am of the opinion that what exists is what is in between.” (2). And because that special, nearly stolen time is a lock or Aladdin’s magic lamp, it happens, for better or for worse, that along the way Beckermann meets that which she is searching for without ever naming it, encounters the passage of recovered time and suspends for an instant her cinema of the dancing Dervishes. Exemplary sequence of the Egyptian fortune-teller (A FLEETING PASSAGE TO THE ORIENT), to whom the filmmaker presents a picture of the empress. Initially astounded by the request to read the future of a dead woman, the woman proceeds and shows without regret a startlingly accurate psychological portrait, as if it had ascended from the depths of photographic sight to the surface of the gelatin.
Sequence in a Jewish cemetery (PAPER BRIDGE), where the guide laughs out loud at having been filmed for eternity, at having been made immortal in the middle of the gravestones. But this is Beckermann’s project, simultaneously showing the positive and negative of the Bazinian idea of the cinema as the great embalmer of the living; from here on is the space of the absent particularly embalmed. And in contrast, overwhelming furor of the film when it crosses the shooting of an American television film about the Holocaust: without reverence, as if nothing had happened, the deaths recur in droves. False living beings and heavy mallets, the grotesque parade of a squalid cinema. In this case, negation of absence which annihilates facts by according them homage.

Finally, the sequence (the length of an entire film) of Franz Weintraub’s testimony, a Viennese communist who remembers the years 1924-1934 (RETURN TO VIENNA, 1983). His discrete, gentle, cultured language, the cozy atmosphere of his stories which recall an entire block of time, in other words they lift him up like a prewar transatlantic liner, supply him with fresh blood until his color is restored. Then Ruth Beckermann’s cinema begins to look for language, when it is possible; it accommodates her, like here, or it pursues her (EAST OF WAR).

Consequently, the memory of another Viennese native who in 1941 already described RETURN TO VIENNA and the original time frame of Beckermannian cinema:
“Much had to occur, countless more catastrophes and ordeals and tests than are usually allotted to a single generation, before I found the courage to begin a book in which I was the main character, or rather in which I was the focal point. Nothing is further from my intention in so doing than making myself more prominent, I am on the same level as the commentator who explains the images appearing on the screen; time provides the pictures, I speak only the words which accompany them, and it will actually not be my fate that I recount, rather the fate of an entire generation, our unique generation which was encumbered by fate in a way scarcely experienced by other generations in the course of history. Every one of us, including the smallest and the slightest has been churned up in his most inner existence by the nearly uninterrupted, volcanic agitations of or European soil; and I, in that multitude, do not know how to accord myself other preferences other than this one: as an Austrian, a Jew, a writer, a humanist and a pacifist, I always found myself standing in the place where the effects of these seismic shocks were most strongly felt.”

Stefan Zweig wrote these lines – the first of his last book. In exile in Brazil he penned his intellectual testament in remembrance of this swallowed time. And what other title, indeed, than The World of Yesterday?

Translated from French by Dune Johnson


1) Incidentally, the exact title of the exhibition is sufficiently expressive: “War of extermination: crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 -1944.”

2) Jean-Luc Godard in Cahiers du Cinéma, n°316, October 1980, repeated in Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, Band 1