How to Film Becoming Invisible
Hélène Cixous, 2006
“Do you know Hagazussa?” asks the Voice of the Voice. Hagazussa, says the film, was a witch who became invisible by dint of going from village to village – like the horse cart’s wheels we follow on the ribbon of road which vanishes into the fog at the back of the screen to the rhythm of disappearance – and all that was left of her were the traces of her invisibility, the traces and the invisibility. Only those who have the gift of invisibility are invisible. Spectral presence, spectral power. The Voice of the film is soft, enchanting, monotonous, tenderly spectral. Invisible. Present. Powerful presence of the Voice that evokes.
“Do you know Ruth Beckermann?” I (Hélène Cixous) do not know her, I say. But as soon as I take the Paper Bridge, die papierene Brücke, its paths, its voices, its mists, its rivers, its passages, I realize that I recognize her, that I have always already known her. With joy I make her acquaintance again [re-connais], and I salute her, poet in images, painter in words, Voice that listens to the voices of old, the voices of the ages, today. When everything has been erased, when everything has gone up in smoke from the concentration camp chimneys, or been buried in communal graves or cemeteries which are in turn disappearing, only the voices remain – the innumerable voices of all colors, tones, timbers, accents, which floated in the air of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where Ruth Beckermann’s family, like my family (the Kleins, the Jonases), prospered and traded, like the Kleins, the Grosses, the Jews of “Conversation in the Mountains” by Paul Celan, all these musical speakers in the German language seasoned with delicious accents, the Romanians, Ruthenians, Jews, Armenians, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, all coexisting and splashing about in the streets of Bukovina, this province sometimes Austro-Hungarian, sometimes Romanian, then Russian, like so many other countries carried off by history slipping over bridges from one bank to the other, from one nationality to the other. This is the history of Ruth Beckermann’s family. It is the history of the Klein family, which was Hungarian, German, Czechoslovak and today Slovakian – and tomorrow? They all speak a German that is either “Hoch,” beautiful, noble, pure, or an alloy colored with Yiddish or Viennese.
O the peoples of the voice, who are slipping away, becoming invisible. When they are no longer here, who will “bear witness for the witness?” Then comes the voice of Ruth Beckermann, the voice that listens, that looks, and that records. With an invisible tape recorder and camera. No, this is not a documentary, it is a living work which pushes the filmic art beyond its contiguities with poetry, narrative, introspection, by putting the most subtle resources of metaphor and metonymy to work for the desire to Safeguard. Guard what? Signs, traits, the sublimated spirit of the Lives of a certain world, of a certain culture, which is very precise and at the same time a synonym for humankind. Imagine an exemplary, loving anthropology. The marvelous representativity of an individual standing for the universe.
With metaphor and metonymy, by transport, displacement, condensation, with cart, and ferry, drifting over lands and seas, space in uninterrupted, time is uninterrupted. Today goes to visit yesterday. Ruth Beckermann, born in Vienna returns to Vienna, her voyage circular, the voyage of life passes through Israel, Palestine, Radautz, the astrakhan tailor’s boutique gives onto the shirt-seller’s boutique, Ruth Beckermann’s father’s boutique, in the background I see my great-grand-father’s sack factory, my grand-father’s jute factory, skins touch the heart, hands touch each other. We are on a voyage. Not to arrive. Not even to depart. To be at the window and to watch beings and cities happening.
The window: the first window: is it the one in the house in Vienna through which Ruth Beckermann does not look, says the voice? But then who looks? Who sees the intersection of the noble city of Vienna through the veiled window? If it is not her, Ruth Beckermann, then it is the cat. Because it is not only Jews who look in this film, not only voices. There is also: the cat. In the beginning at the window, there is the cat. At the end, there is the cat at the window.
I watch this sublime film. My cat watches the magic screen of the eternal present with me. She sits before the cat in the film.
Thus goes the film: from cat to cat. A window refers to another window. A bridge leads to another bridge. An iron bridge turns into a paper bridge. A legend tells a story. The roll of paper becomes film. The camera is rolling. The first window crystallizes the second window. The Voice is at the window. We do not see the interior this time. The gaze travels outside, the City goes by. The outside makes the inside: the invisible inside is a bus. Outside, Vienna. People come and go. On the film’s outbound voyage we travel towards the west of Vienna. On the film’s return we take the invisible Bus which looks, in the opposite direction, towards the East.
The Bus is a metaphor. Of course. Metaphor also or supplement of the camera. The Voice is in the Bus as the soul is in the camera. We take the bus in order to watch the city pass, slip by. The cart leads the gaze, which follows its back, in the fading here below.
The attic: it is up there that everything happens, in sublimation. It is “said” through images that memory is the point of view of the above, from above.
The technique: a mise en abyme, but natural, in successive depths, as in a remembered, recollected life: life is a narrative, the narrative makes life
The camera of the heart looks at each scene with intensity. I have come from afar, says she (the Voice, the Camera), to look through the lens, through the keyhole of time, slightly opening the curtains, because to see what is so resistant and so precarious, what remains, there must be a sort of little machination which makes appear, an optical charm. We recognize here the work of the Veil, of Veils, Curtains, mists, the thickness of windows. Vapors. “Vapors” on the frozen sea which with its hybrid surface, liquid, solid – comes to mix Romania with Yugoslavia.
Vapor – Veiling, unveiling. Unveiling. Un/veil [Dé-voile]. Vaporous thick un/veils of the Mikvah. Ah! The Mikvah. The Mikvah of Czernowitz is a bit misused. Now the bodies one discerns through its opaque steam are Bukovinian peasant women, who are right to use this odd disused sauna. It is no longer the bodies of Jewish women. Do you know the Mikvah?
In England, says my aunt Eri (ninety-two years old, life voyage: Osnabrück, Paris, Osnabrück, Turkey, Haïfa – Palestine, Köln, Manchester), in England all the girls, still today, 2006, if they get married they go to the Mikvah. It was, it is, the ritual purification bath for the Jewish woman. After menstruation, before marriage. Now these robust, intermingled bodies are those of peasants.
A child walks in father Beckermann’s memory, a child in the Voice, a child in the long Czernowitz street, in the film.
Who speaks? Sometimes I, sometimes you. Who looks. Like a child who looks with the most living of curiosities.
My mother Eve (ninety-five years old Strasbourg Germany Osnabrück Paris Oran Algeria Paris) Eve Klein watches Ruth Beckermann watching. Like children who watch.
I am sitting in the dining room and I am watching Paper Bridge. I am sitting with my mother Eve Klein and her sister Eri. Eve my German mother is ninety-five years old, my aunt the little one is ninety-two. We watch. On one hand I watch Ruth Beckermann watch the life of her people, her parents, the Jews, those of Vienna, those of Bucovina, of Israel, of Russia, those from everywhere called “the survivors”. I watch Ruth Beckermann outlive the survivors, follow them live them, hyper-see them.
On the other hand I watch my two old goddesses watch those other Jews, of The Paper Bridge, the same ones, not exactly the same, my two old voyaging goddesses, first Germany in the beginning Osnabrück from there to Algeria, to Palestine, Hungary, Austro-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, from there to Germany, to France, to England, to the USA, from there to Israel, to France.
According to the endless merry-go-round of these human elements whose memory is forever being relit like Hanukkah candles.
At the same time I watch myself watching on one side and on the other.
The gazes go from one bank to the other, take bridges which lead from the visible to the spectral, from the present to the past, return burdened with time, the past is still moving, hesitates to become the past past. It has the uncertain consistence of rivers.
The past walks sometimes with a child’s gait sometimes an old man’s, in the streets of Radautz, in the mud of Czernowitz. Czernowitz, city without age, as if there was only one century, very ancient, and which continues. Czernowitz, birthplace of Ruth Beckermann’s father. And of Paul Celan, the greatest German language poet of this endless century. His name is not pronounced by the Voice. I do not know why. Perhaps it is like the name of God? It is Everywhere nowhere.
Ruth Beckermann thinks about Oma Rosa, her Viennese grand-mother who survived during the war by being silent, hidden in the toilets of Vienna.Oma went from time to time into the forest to talk to her Voice with her Voice. Can one forget one’s own voice? This is a real question. It is the question of the Voice of the Film. Oma’s own voice is also the voice of Ruth Beckermann’s Voice: a voice survives if it is heard. It is also the voice of Omi Rosi, my grand-mother the mother of Eve and Eri. From voice to voice. We, the echoes. As the Voice, Ruth Beckermann, says, “everything is simple,” from a certain point of hearing. Everything is so simple in this film, so sublimely subtle and attentive, that one might not notice, everything is so delicate.
For example: the three peasants with their headscarves, embarrassed, Jewish (this cannot be seen) with the hen. The woman caresses the hen. It is her hen. Then she has its throat cut. Everything is so simple. It is a ritual cutting of the throat. I closed my eyes as soon as I saw the knife. I know. My aunt watches the plucked hens. They are being plucked. Another unveiling. “I remember when we did that,” says my aunt Eri. “My mother received the hens like that and the maid does it.” The throat-cutter. “The Schauchet,” says Eri, “that word’s a bit Yiddish. Schauchet: the one who made things kosher, and did circumcisions too.”
That Rabbi has a lot of work to do in this remainder of a country where the Jews oscillate in the impossible: they want to leave and to stay at the same time. Leavestay. “Yiddisches deutsch,” says Eri. At first, my two Germans vacillated: Viennese is not German. Then they gently slid into the film through the window.
Everything is simple and stubborn. How I know that obstinacy, that endurance. Herbert Gropper, who leads the visit of the dead, takes advantage of the endurance of the cemetery with a thousand mossy tombs: he passes into immortality, by the grace of the film Ruth Beckermann is making. His cheeky image, his cordial voice, his humor will survive. He too has a knack (knack: chic: Geschick skill, Schicksal destiny) for passing from one bank to the other. As for the cemetery, it will be encircled in order to resist time. At least two hundred years. After which we’ll see.
The endurance and obstinacy of Frau Rosenheck, who struts about: does she not have two students, doesn’t she still have two students? What do they study? Ivrit, naturally. Her students emigrate. She too will become invisible. But for the film.
The Voice listens, says nothing, lets live. Treasures, humble pearls of humanity. We are going to cry. We laugh. “I like Romania,” it says softly, “because everyone is corruptible: no system can be maintained there.” Eri says: “When the Romanian Jews came to Israel people said: we must lock the doors. They are thieves, even if they’re Jewish.” I laugh.
Who is what? A face, from a painting. Surprise: a face painted with watercolors. This is how the extraordinary Scene of Theresienstadt begins. We no longer know where we are, who we are. These Jews are imitation Jews, more Jewish than Jews. They play dead, they play survivors, they play themselves. They are going to be filmed in a reconstitution!!! What are the differences between Jews, Jews who pretend to be Jews, post-Jews, filmed Jews, Jews who film, etc. It makes you dizzy. Cruelty makes its grotesque and magnificent nest behind the scenes. Ruth Beckermann’s stroke of genius: we remain on the border. No pathos. Teresienstadt where Omi’s sisters and brother died.
Are we not actors, spectators of the theatre of the world?
This is how one saves, and is saved: atrocious reality becomes theater, narrative on condition: one’s gaze must be soft as a voice that keeps the calm of immortality. The different species of the living and the surviving are ready to quarrel, to swear at each other, each one according to its truth or special effects.
And this minimal terrifying saga ends with a veil: the white tablecloth with the overturned plastic cups. The yellow chairs are empty. We are perhaps frail sturdy cups overturned on the tablecloth of the world? The tablecloth became a frozen sea. Or else we are hard ice cubes, which can melt… Everything depends on the meditative gentleness of the being who watches.
How beautiful you are, world seen by eyes without violence, the just eyes of Ruth Beckermann.
This gaze is not innate: the Voice tells us that it arrived at this gaze, this is the only voyage, in the end, which will have arrived somewhere. At a serene reconciliation with all the cruel, wounding and shameful aspects of reality, as with the figures of love and of fidelity as well. This Gaze, Ruth Beckermann’s Gaze, must have gazed at itself: there was a time when it looked with shame at the Jewish storekeepers of Vienna, thus with a shameful Jew’s gaze. Now this Gaze has arrived at Seeing. Simply seeing: Life. Which is beautiful, and makes us laugh.
In the end, there is Silence, the suspension of torment. The silence of the Photos which let themselves be looked at and look at us. Freeze-frame of human faces.
Here is a little girl. Photos of the Voice. It is her signature: to look with the intensity and the innocence of a little girl.
Or of a cat.
In the end, at the window, there is the cat: “Am I Jewish? Or Jewess?” thinks the cat, who is perhaps a she-cat.
In the end I think of Ruth Beckermann, of the steady Voice of her Gaze. Of the grace of her attention. Passion without passion. Compassion. I think we owe her a moment of kindness.
Translated from French by Eric Prenowitz