This post was written by Laurel Ahnert, a Moving Images Studies doctoral student.
What is the relationship between history, memory and the visual record? This is the question posed by the films of Péter Forgács, the Hungarian filmmaker who recently visited Georgia State University with documentary scholars Bill Nichols and Michael Renov. Screenings of The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle (1997) and Free Fall (1998) were followed by lengthy discussions with our three guests.
The Maelstrom and Free Fall are very similar stylistically. Forgács weaves together home movies, an evocative soundtrack, and written text to depict the everyday experiences of Scandinavian and Eastern European Jews during the slow, but inevitable escalation of German occupation leading up to the Final Solution. His films are not dramatizations, nor are they sterilized historical records of the Second World War; rather they use a mixture of avant-garde and documentary techniques to evoke the impressions of traumatic, irretrievable loss.
Through written text we learn the names of the individuals on screen and their relationships—marriages, secret affairs, business partners. The amateur footage is combined with passionless voiceover recitations of the laws imposed by the Third Reich. By interweaving these audiovisual layers, Forgács blends micro and macrohistories, the personal and the national, private leisure and the bureaucratic. The people depicted in these films perform for the camera, knowingly embodying the iconicity of the happy bourgeois family even as Europe at large faces political and historical rupture.
After screening these films I thought about Michelle Citron’s argument that home movies are fictions that we perform in order to make manifest for ourselves heteronormative and class-based ideological expectations of family life. With this in mind I wonder about the narrative that these home movies aspire to tell in relation to the dominant narrative being told by state and military powers in the 1930s. But I also think about the intimate depiction of women in The Maelstrom and Free Fall; that is, the banality of women’s lives while they cook and sew on screen, but also women laughing as they parade in front of the camera while on vacation, or the woman disrobing and bathing in front of the camera, presumably for her husband off-screen. I wonder about Citron’s assertion that mothers and children perform not just for the camera, but for the father who wields it, conforming to his patriarchal vision of the family. This creates uncomfortable parallels between performance and conformity, between everyday experience and political force, between the Father and the Führer. We must ask about what narratives are being subsumed under both the dominant and the amateur visual records – those feminine narratives that are hinted at only through written text printed ‘on’ the images in Forgács films, but that are not present ‘in’ the images themselves.