La vie privée de l’Histoire / The private Life of History: Entretien avec Péter Forgács / Interview with Péter Forgács
Dans le cadre des 9e Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal, Péter Forgács était de passage à Montréal. Une fort judicieuse sélection de ses films ainsi qu’une classe de maître ont permis au public de se familiariser avec ce personnage-clé du cinéma contemporain, à mi-chemin entre le documentaire et le cinéma expérimental. La revue électronique Hors champ, qui s’intéresse depuis longtemps à la question des archives, du recyclage et de l’Histoire, a décidé de le rencontrer. L’entretien a été réalisé par André Habib le 15 novembre 2006 à la Cinémathèque québécoise.
In the beginning…
HC: You’ve been working with amateur films for more than 20 years now. You have a background as a visual artist, and also in music. I was wondering how that background informs or eventually changed the way you view, use and approach this material?
Péter Forgács: I really didn’t have any alternative. It’s not as if I had a vision of amateur films, and that it was changed. I actually came to this material via fluxus art and conceptual art. This, inevitably, differs from an anthropologist’s, or a sociologist’s, or a documentary filmmaker’s view. For me, it all begins with the question: What is an “objet trouvé”? What is finding an object, and placing it in a different space or time, or exposing it to the viewer in its non-original, non-conventional, non-accepted, not useful, not practical, not functional, not familiar environment. Therefore there is no fundamental change in my work, this is it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have family photographs myself, or whatever. But using photographs, in my graphic works, inevitably meant drawing this space into another. After many years of experimenting, and just observing and absorbing, I acquired different territories, like music and storytelling, which became tied with my special interest in history. In fact, collecting photographs and making collages from them is a normal practice since the early avant-garde, the Dadaists. We can easily look up the history of Dadaism, Surrealism, or the Russian avant-garde, where they and photographers around Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy and all those people who where around the Bauhaus, for whom recycling was a normal use, a normal use of “images”. So to me, the banal home movies are another form of “objet trouvé”. The kind of re- contextualizing I’m interested in is specifically connected to the place and the era, certain historical conditions, and my specific interest in psychology and psychoanalysis, the idea of “forbidden past,” Orwellian history writing in Hungary, the state of avant-garde film and avant-garde underground photography movements, avant-garde music movements, etc. So briefly, home movie didn’t exist for me as something interesting to work with. At first, it was just collecting them.
Three influences… Four actually
Hors champ: Could you talk about your influences, and how in fact you did begin usingamateur material in order to create your own films?
Péter Forgács: There were three important influences on me. Actually, there were four. There was an avant-garde film movement in Hungary, associated with the Béla Bálazs film studio. That was a studio, and certainly the only studio in the East European Soviet Bloc which was an independent studio, which was run on State money, with a board of freshly graduated filmmakers from the film academy who didn’t have the time and place and authority to obtain funds from the Hungarian cultural government to make fiction films, which is what they wanted to do. So it was a kind of playground, with a very important framework. It was an avant-garde film studio, which was nowhere to be found in Eastern Europe. It is important to know that this was under Soviet rule, where each nation had a different slavery or pseudo-freedom. This studio, in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, was the only studio where these films — low budget films — were actually censored after they had been made. All the other studios of the Soviet bloc and in Hungary had to send in the script to the film censor office. It’s a real good communist method to control the idea. And that meant that the Hungarian film industry, whatever one may think about it, people like Jancso or Mister Szabo, worked within a censored art film production studio. The filmmaker wrote the script, censored himself; then the Studio Dramaturgical Committee said this and that, which could be dramaturgical or political, and then the film censor and the Film Cultural Ministry can say this and that, this can go, this can’t go, etc. And even then after it was made, it was censored. Now the Béla Balázs studio had little money. On paper, they had one fiction film budget for the whole studio. But the scripts were not pre-censored by the authorities. Simply, when the films were ready, then they were categorized: either banned, or limited to a close-circuit or destroyed. This meant that there was a film studio where very interesting exciting contemporary avant-garde films were created in the very same period when Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and these fantastic guys were working in the United States, doing films from their own pocket. Apart from very conventional documentary films and fiction films, there was the K-Three group, which was an experimental film group, that worked in this studio. The guy who created it was named Gabor Bódy. You write his name like “body” with the accent on the ‘o’. Gabor Bódy was an extremely talented filmmaker, with a philosophical-linguistic background. He was a theoretician and a filmmaker. He later committed suicide, in 1985. It turned out many many years later that he was also spying for the secret police. He thought he was clever enough. It’s one of many historical paradoxes. And I think that his suicide was due to this. The police couldn’t really use him after 1983, so he was released from his function, but he couldn’t go through it because he had made these secret reports on his friends and colleagues. This is on the one hand. But on the other hand, he made avant-garde films, he organized events, he invited musicians and writers to the Béla Bálazs Studio to make experimental films, like those of Brakhage, at exactly the same time. Works of poets, avant-garde poets, which was a forbidden land. This is a very important background for me. Another reason why I went into all these details concerning this Gabor Bódy character, is that in 1978, together with another filmmaker, Péter Timár, he made a film called “Private History,” which was made using found footage. He had placed an add in the newspapers and collected films, which he then blew up to 35mm. “Private History” was a thirty some minute long film which showed a unique and new way to look at these films, how to use them. Bódy was a kind of high mountain gazelle, who jumped from one theme and one territory to another. This was one of the different genres he experimented with. That is the first influence. Secondly, there is a snap shot photographic collection that was put together by a very good director of photography, Sándor Kardos, and a small team of assistants. The name of that private archive is called Horus, like the Egyptian god, the sign of the eye, Horus. Kardos collected bad pictures, mistaken photographs, where the head is cut off, jumping figures, etc. He collected thousands and thousands of photographs because he said that “the mistake is the finger of God”. The mistake is the moment when it’s not the photographer, but God who is pushing the button. Usually, all these photographs are thrown away. So the Horus archive and the film “Private History”, gave me the idea to collect home movies. Therefore the attitude towards it was not anthropological or linked to some family historiography, nor was I driven, at first, by the idea of making an archive. There was something behind it, simply the idea that there is something there, that it is exciting to look at these films. And the third and fourth reason was psychology, which was very suppressed in the history of Hungary, in an Orwellian time when the past was controlled by the official existing socialisms, cultural police and cultural officials.
HC: Psychoanalysis was also banned as a bourgeois science, wasn’t it?
PF: Psychoanalysis was also banned. It is very important to say that the past was under control. Those people with their cameras, the bourgeoisie, the whole middle class of the 30’s and early 40’s, was severely punished after the Second World War. They were sacked, pushed out, their properties were confiscated. In a way, the past had to become interpreted through the Communist ideology. So to see the “citoyen,” the citizen, self- portrayed in these films, showed the other Hungary, the forbidden Hungary, the private Hungary. So I took the title from “Private History.” But while I was collecting films, I didn’t know how I would use them. So I thought to establish an archive to collect this forbidden past, making interviews with the families, collecting photographs, etc. I had a part-time job at the time, with a three month contract, which was extended for 12 years, for every three months. The reason why this happened was that my boss, the director of the Culture Research Institute, knew that I was an interesting figure, but to cover himself against the officials, he couldn’t give me a permanent job. This way, he could always tell the secret police that I was just there for three months. That was a great opportunity, because I had the minimum money for living and I also had the free time to make this archive collecting home movies.
HC: Your first use of these amateur films was during musical performances, where you would project images during the concert. I know you were also tied to an avant-garde music group, 180. Were these film performances linked to this group?
PF: The projections were not directly connected with the performances of 180, which was a minimal music ensemble, although it is indirectly connected. Tibor Szemz_ was one of the musicians of 180. He created this wonderful group, which played Riley, Cage, Glass and Hungarian minimal music, from 1978 onwards. I met Tibor and we became very friends, and we started to work together in 1984, making performances aside from the group. These were fluxus performances, where I read texts, or performed dance, or painted. And these films were running on screens while, for instance, I would read from the Thesaurus, creating associations. It was the accidental meeting of the umbrella and the boot on the dining table. Or was it on an operating table? (laughs) These performances were in clubs and in the underground scene. In 1985, when finally I could get a passport that differentiated Hungary from Albania, and Russia and all the Communist Fascisms — Hungary was a pink Communism — we could go out and give these performances in Germany, Austria and Holland, in small alternative places. And for four years we worked and gave different kinds of performances. These performances, now that I look back, were a kind of lab: a laboratory work, using music, image and text. Mixing public works with the flow of minimal music and the found footage material which was pre-edited or edited, gave me or rather gave us a clear road of how these things could mean in a different way. It was a real unconventional rebellion against the conventional meaning, or the conventional frames of meaning. So the connection between narrative texts, narrative edited images and the accidental flow of the music, somehow created a texture which became very obviously a language. And when I received a grant from the Cultural Ministry, in 1988… That was also, as many things, a strange accident. I met a guy on the street whom I knew and we talked. He asked “What are you doing?” And I said “I am collecting home movies and they are very striking and interesting.” And he said “Oh yes? I am working in the film department, at the Film Censorship Office in the Culture Ministry.” This was in 1988, and it was already the melting of the Soviet rule. It was exactly the year when things started. You could feel it in the air, that it wouldn’t last too long. And he said, “Why don’t you apply to me for a grant?” It was very interesting that a guy in his early 30’s, with his special taste, was already working in a department that normally took stinking bureaucrats heads, you know. You can’t usually negotiate with these idiots court artists. He said: “Write down a project”. I wrote a page, I gave it to him and he said: “I’ll have this money transferred to the Béla Bálazs studio”. So it was really a miracle. It was a possibility to do something that was not an open-ended performance, with singing and reading and improvisation, etc. This forced me to search for a form. But there was a form in a way. The music, as a performing time based art, has a beginning and an end. So then it brought up the big question: “What should be in the focus?” Should I work with a flow of images, or should I keep one? Would it be possible to select family collections, and create separate stories, etc. I had some favorite collections already, which I thought were very good, and having done these interviews already, having permission from the families, having an editor, a professional editor, it all seemed possible. I had never really made too many films before that. At that point, I had only done four short films in the Béla Bálazs studio. That was also the extremely interesting fact about the Béla Bálazs studio, that people not coming from the film university could also make films. It was a place where people like myself, who couldn’t go to the film academy, could work. You could walk in with a project, and if they liked it, you could make a film. There was also a collective board that was renewed every second year; so one could be a member, be part of it. It was an extremely interesting amalgam. Musicians, writers, real avant-garde people, some of them who were over 60, could work there. So it was a crazy good place. And of course the Communist State could control it in a way, because the films were not released to a larger public: Who would look at silly avant-garde music films, repetitive music, looking at people coming out from a railway station for a half an hour, like in Empire? We were aware of what was happening in Germany, in France, in New York, because there were always contacts, also with Poland, which was very strong in avant-garde and experimental film because it was not forbidden there. So, briefly, I worked with a professional editor for this film, Màrta Révesz. She was a documentary film editor for the Hungarian State television. The film ended up as a co-production with the television. With the ministerial money for the Béla Bálazs studio, we made a contract with them; they gave us an editor and a studio. At first I pre-edited the VHS time-coded copies of the transferred film. She was sitting there every morning at 9 o’clock, which was a disturbing element because, of course, I can wake up at 6 o’clock, at 7 o’clock, but the brain doesn’t work the proper way… So when she said, “Ok, when is the next cut?”, it forced me to make decisions. So it was a very very good school.
HC: So this is how you made the first “Private Hungary.” PF: Yes…
On the re-use of early cinema and amateur footage today
Hors champ: You’ve been talking about the synchronicity of the Béla Balázs studio with other underground filmmaking in Europe and in New York, in the 70’s and 80’s. There is another synchronicity I would like you to discuss. I’m very interested in this contemporary use of image recycling. A lot of filmmakers have been since the late 80’s and 90’s using found footage material, amateur films, decayed nitrate films, etc. There are people like Bill Morrison, Angela Ricci-Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Gustav Deutsch, and many others. There seems to be a regained interest for archive material, from people who are not documentary filmmakers, anthropologists or historians. Most of these people are visual artists, people who have worked for the stage, and who are reappropriating themselves this material in their own specific ways, opening up something which is not simply illustrative documentary. It’s this mix between something aesthetic, a modernist form of recycling, and also something that has to do with the history of movie making, recapturing a hidden past, and reexposing it in different ways. I’m sort of interested in knowing how you perceive this phenomenon as a general cultural phenomena. As a side-note, a friend who just came back from Budapest told me that there is a cable channel in Hungary that only runs home movies… Which is also part of this phenomenon I’m interested in…
Péter Forgács: Well that channel is called “Film Museum.” And they really pump in from the tube, like tooth paste. Anything goes. They put entertaining music, using these films to fill up the gaps between old films they are buying. The idea was sold to them by a friend who had been restoring films for me, for many years. When I left for a year at the Getty Museum, I couldn’t give him work, and he asked me to use the equipment, and I said “yes”.
HC: You mean the material?
PF: No, not the material, just the equipment. That channel got enough money to advertise and to collect home movies. It is a very good example of a complete lack on insight and imagination. You can see people doing this and that, playing tennis, going to Italy, sometimes there are black and white nice shots, but it’s done in a cheap way, you know. Take this cup, put another cup beside it, and push it through. And these same people are also making kitchen channels, and how to make your table, and how to make your flat. So besides that, they are very nice people, but with very very light taste and…
HC: Do your films get shown on this channel?
PF: No. They asked me once and I told them it would cost them money. Since they can have all this stuff for free, they didn’t bother… So on the one hand it is inspiring, since these home movies of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s are being preserved. But most of them are boring traveling films. Two hours in Bulgaria, on the sea-side. Johnny and Niki are swimming, or Janos and Melinda… But it is interesting to see how the influence I got from Gabor Bódy, has now turned around. It’s gone a little bit commercial, they’re touching the surface, they’re scratching the thing, but they’re not making anything of it. You can’t look at it more than 5 minutes, you turn it off. So it’s a midnight boredom show, and if they could put really good music, they could turn it into a good disco. Nevertheless, it exists, so it is true. But what was your real question?
HC: It concerned the larger context of found footage filmmaking…
PF: Yes, Morrison and the others. As the Dada found old photographs and re- conceptualized them, Morrison, Gianikian, and Gustav Deustch and all these guys, are doing the same with moving images… So there is, on the one side, the documentary film, where they take this footage to illustrate something, whether a sentence or a personal biography, or the ideology, or just to have an image to put on their bla bla bla. The other edge is this avant-garde practice, completely taking it out from its social, cultural and psychological context, and using it for their own expression. And I think I am the third way. So it’s a triangle. I don’t want to illustrate with these things anything. But for me the avant-garde practice is not enough. I really like the Gianikian films, but after a while I find them empty. Completely empty. Because they leave me alone. It’s like just an exhibition. I realize that I’ve become completely corrupted and degenerated now. If I go into a contemporary art museum, there are only one or two things that I can look at. I don’t understand how I could have liked certain works earlier. They’ve become completely empty. And only very very few things still represent a carrier to me. This morning I saw on TV that Andy Warhol’s Mao Zsetung, was sold for 17 million dollars, and his Marilyn Monroe was sold for 15 million dollars… and then I thought, yes, they are completely empty. But that doesn’t mean that what these avant-garde guys do is wrong, it is just another way of using these images. Like there is a poet who writes poems about trees, and another poet writes about grass and that’s it. But for me, to go behind means to have this Lacanian and Foucauldian attitude towards the source material. It means you have to look beyond the surface. For me it’s not just a toy, a gadget, where you add the slow-motion things, to exhibit it. It’s not just a museum. I see the Gianikian work as a museum, a musical avant-garde museum of the past. For me there is something before and after. There is one thing that differentiates my work from theirs, it is the forbidden and prohibited past. Which means that the suppressed ego, the suppressed feelings of the person are expressed in spontaneous diaries, in a country where the past was suppressed. So it is a double supression from the conscious to the unconscious. The meanings are hidden and the quest for meaning means that you open up the trauma. This is not just a classical trauma, that somebody was raped or not raped, beaten or not beaten, a trauma linked to an authoritarian Kafkaesque father, or an Oedipus lover/mother complex. But this immense banal happiness that flows from these images, this boredom of pastime, this discovery of lost moments, tells me more than just to exhibit them as pictures on a wall. This is a good example, it is funny and nice. And empty. [He points to a picture on a wall] And for me, this emptiness should be created in the film, because that emptiness is the place of the crime. Here I don’t see the place of the crime or the event, because everything is fine. In the Gianikian’s, the emptiness is empty, it becomes a thing for itself, an artistic thing, an artistic gesture.
HC: I don’t necessary agree with you on this point, but that’s okay. In Dal polo all’equatore, they are using the footage shot by Luca Comerio, which powerfully documents colonialism, and recontextualizing this material via these avant-garde techniques of slowing down, adding a soundtrack, places these images outside of cliché discourses on colonialism. They are very powerful ideological unveiling.
PF: Listen, I love to look at that, because for me it is a gift. But for me, the films of Abigail Child, Future is Behind You, or Jay Rosenblatt’s The Smell of Burning Ants or Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business, or the films of Peter Delpeut, the Dutch filmmaker… These filmmakers are placing it somewhere where there is more than just the thing itself. The Gianikians and Morrison believe that in itself, in its clear puritanism, it tells you enough. So you are there with your contemplation, in the Zen nothingness. The Gianikians presume that you know who made those films. That is their political correctness. You know and then you can place it ideologically. I don’t mean that I don’t trust the viewers’ mind and knowledge, but for me, it’s really important to tell a story. Let’s say, a fiction story.
Structures and constraints
Hors champ: From the films I’ve seen, it seems that you play on two types of structures: a vertical and a horizontal structure. A film like Bourgeois Dictionary has more of a Thesaurus free association structure. It’s not chronological. Other films like Perro Negro, Angelo’s Film, Danube Exodus, etc. basically carry you from the 30’s and the 40’s into this tragedy which we know we will enter. There is a narrative drive that carries these images. At which point do you decide, on this and that subject, how you organize the material? Do you work differently whether you are working within one or the other modes of structure? Do you see similarities…
Péter Forgács: First of all it is necessary to state that sometimes I work with a free-hand, and sometimes there is a commission linked to the work. When Angelo’s Film was commissioned to me by the Dutch cultural channel, of course I have to sell them a story. Which means I am completely independent as to how I form it, but yet I must deliver them an interesting story, that happened somewhere, which shows something. This doesn’t mean I am serving the television’s need, but simply that the film is regulated. It must be of a certain length and it should tell a story. The Wittgenstein piece [Wittgenstein Tractatus], for instance, was commissioned by Hungarian television, in a certain glorified period, just after communism, just before the parties started to fight for the television as a means of propaganda, whether nationalists conservatives or post-socialists or whatever. There is a cultural war in Hungary, and in all Eastern European countries. And we can’t avoid it. The media is under tremendous pressure from political parties. Like in France in ’68, when De Gaulle sacked the people in the French television, or the way Berlusconi did the same in Italy. There is a constant fight in Europe and in East Europe in the new democracies that are there. But it is a very good observation of yours, that I am experimenting with this language. When I have a free-hand, I always want to go to the edge of this terrain. And the Wittgenstein film is definitely one of the good examples, as well as the Bourgeois Dictionary, which sometimes I call Citizen Dictionary, because bourgeois has a very negative notion of course. I mean, in your country, if you say bourgeois it doesn’t mean something positive. It means something negative. I can be a petty bourgeois, from a sociological point of view, but as an avant-garde artist, I am independent, so I am a “citoyen”. Getting back to your question, it is true that these two aspects come up from time to time, like the Bibó Reader, based on the writings of the philosopher István Bibó, and it is also this kind of vertical structure, like the Wittgenstein or Citizen’s Dictionary. It is important for me to do something, not to repeat the same thing again. I don’t want to make it as a kind of industry, putting it on the work- line and building these entertaining family stories. But I really want to find the libido of certain subjects, and in this narrow game-field where I am trying to play around with found footage, I try different things. It is a limited language, because I am not really using interviews in the film, so it’s not a normal film about home movies, the type that you find in normal documentary films. “Mister Smith, tell me what we see in the pictures?” And Mister Smith says: “Oh that’s me. I was 5 years old and my father just loved me when I was falling down into the pool. And that’s my mother who has her new bracelet.” This is a tautological filmmaking and it is not interesting for me. What is interesting for me is to find different frameworks to these different subjects. But it is not, it is not a blank paper. I don’t work in vacuum. For the first 8 episodes of Private Hungary, it was easy because I had a free-hand, nobody was asking me what I was doing. After the 8th episode, I lost the support of the studio and the television. So I was on my own. Then I had to learn how to apply for money, how to find co-production, and a lot of things. Until then I was just a director, since then I am an independent director, who has to find money, and producers and co-producers, which is a different game. Therefore, it is not just a playground where I can do whatever I want as birthday cake. I am an artist who doesn’t depend on these strict games and rules. But within this framework of the ever- changing conditions—financing, applying, fund raising, co-production, television, exhibition—these conditions are heavily influencing what I am able to produce or create. Because I spent from 3 to 6 months in an editing room, and somebody else gave me money for bread and butter, and also for the editing room and also for the editor. Therefore, this family story is a better subject for television, and I still can play around with my little hobby-horse.
Surprise and Suspense or “pastime is death”
Hors-champ: On this issue of narrative and suspense, Hitchcock had a famous statement in which he distinguished suspense from surprise. Two people sitting at a table; there is a bomb hidden under the table. If the bomb explodes without the audience knowing that there was a bomb hidden under the table, we have a surprise. Now, if the audience knows there is a bomb, but the people don’t know, then we have suspense. And in many ways your films have this “bomb under the table” dimension. If you take The Maelstrom for example, we know the people are Jewish, living in Holland. We know that they potentially could be caught, and sent to a camp. This thing is impending. In August 1939, they are in Paris. We know that September 1st is coming… This feeling of suspense I find extremely interesting. It gives these images a depth, preciousness, even in its banality. Everything takes on new meanings, preciously because you know that while this is going on, something else is going on. I would like to hear you on this issue of suspense and how you play with this. You will add, often very laconically, a phrase like “September 1st, Germany enters Poland”. It creates a tension within the image. Do you see it in this way?
Péter Forgács: I talk today of this suspense effect of Hitchcock, which was not my observation of my films, but what a French critic wrote after looking at the Wittgenstein, in 1992. The problem is, I really hate pastime. I could never really have good holidays. I mean, people are working and then they go to Havana, or they go to the Bahamas, or they go fishing, or whatever holiday in the park, I can’t do that. I mean pastime is really death for me.
HC: Although you spend so much time looking at and working with images of leisure…
PF: To be frank, I just hate when they go to Paris and photograph themselves in front of the Eiffel Tour. I think it is disgusting. It is terrible but that is why I am working with it. It is disgusting, everything is a quotation mark. It’s interesting to see how people waste their time, because for me the only way to use my time is to create. Art and sex and good food, and maybe talk with friends, these are the four things that are interesting, everything else is just a waste of time. Because life is very very short. It’s over very quickly. I am sure that I won’t live as much as I lived. Now I’m 56, so I am beyond 50% of my life. So it is just a waste of time to walk and play tennis. But for some people I am just an idiot, who can’t relax and always thinks of things in terms of duties. When I look at other people do banal things, the fluxus artist in me says, of course, I don’t say they are idiots. When I look at these images in the editing table, I say: “What a peace at such a time, and they are laughing… Oh my god.” So there is this paradox. I can’t really do these things, these happy holidays. I’d go mad if I can’t do things. I can’t go to the sea- side. But looking at them as they waste their time, you can’t help but think that they don’t know that they will die tomorrow (together with me of course). The programme is quite easy then. Look at these two films where the Second World War, the big history which, like a fast train, or a tank, crushes the private history. It floats through these banalities, happy moments, marriages, good food, dancing, giving the baby a bath, baby-walks, all these normal things, suddenly have a different reflection, different lighting, different flash. You, the viewer, 50, 80 years later, you know their future. One, they are dead, because of their age. They died of sickness or, secondly, they were killed. Third, they may be divorced, they did everything that is in fact missing from the home-movies. The taboo, in the film, is the bad thing, is the negative thing, is the divorce. You see marriage, marriage, marriage, marriage, you don’t see one divorce in home-movies. Show me one divorce. A funeral, maybe. Yes but funeral is not the same as filming the mother dying. Ok, Bill Viola did it. When I brought in my camera to make a photograph of my mother when she was dead, I couldn’t shoot it. None of my brothers or sisters had the courage to go in and look. And I went in and I had the camera with me, and I didn’t have… there was something taboo for me and I really praise Bill Viola for that piece which I think is a wonderful piece. I think it’s his best. The others are decadent Baroque, fire and water, desert, it’s like Greenaway gone mad. It’s not even Baroque, it’s Rococo. But that piece is a courageous work. I feel I am lucky to see that. Going back to this banality, this quest for eternal happiness. The human being is fighting — I am talking about Western civilization, Judeo-Christian culture, where our relation to death is completely different than in Buddhism, or Hinduism. It is different than the Muslims, or Voodoo, or even of this Mexican catholicism, where they have a different relation to the other world, the world of ghosts and death. We are suppressing everyday and every moment. The culture is more and more built up to completely forget that we are vulnerable, not endless but limited beings. The whole cult around beauty, youth, consuming, sport, body, but also religion, the Catholics, Protestants, Jews, suppress this moment of recognition that life is short. These images are a way to suppress the trauma, to suppress the bad things. Of course we see funerals but that is a ritualized way of dealing with death. It is not a deep, consequent way of looking at death. Family paintings, photographs and home-movie, are evidently a documentation to prove to ourselves that we are alive, that we are eternal. But whenever we look at our grandparents photo albums, we are in fact looking at a cemetery.
HC: Don’t you also think that filming your baby, in the midst of this historical turmoil, is a way of affirming life, beauty? Hitler has just entered Poland, and you’re filming your baby peeing in the street. And there is something in that which almost seems like an act of resistance in the face of horror and atrocity.
PF: It is not resistance. It works as a counter-point in the film, but it is not resistance…
HC: But for the people who are making these images?
PF: No. These are not conscious diaries. If they knew what was awaiting them, they wouldn’t film this. They wouldn’t film, they would escape, they would hide. What is necessary is to emphasize, in this part, is the logic and dramaturgical construction of our own life which is always in the past. We look back at our past, and we suddenly see a logic in it. Well, not suddenly, but always. When we put together these photographs, it becomes logical that Jack should meet Jill, because it was written in the big book, or whatever. But it was just an accident. So not only do we, humans, avoid, suppress the traumas of our life and the notion of death, but also we construct a logic of the past and we project it to our future. Ok, we have plans for today and next week, and next year, and we have a pension, etc. But we also have the ticket, when we will go out from life. It is written. So looking at a home-movie collection, you see a kind of logic, but it is a backward perspective, it is a backward dramaturgical narrative construction. It is a novel. And even if the filmmaker, in our case, had a plan: I want to take my favorite images. I like Susan, I love to be here, this is my hobby, Johnny one year old has begun walking, let’s film it. It’s only later that everything becomes logical, like a novel, like a written book. But when you start filming, you don’t see the future. Wittgenstein says: “If you can’t build clouds, therefore the future dreams don’t come true.” It’s like a lottery. The hidden secret of your future seems logical if you look at your past. However, this is a false conclusion. But it is also a part of our game to avoid death, to suppress bad things. Now, before going back to this specific film, The Maelstrom, I want to say that I did several films that were not connected with the Second World War, like Kadar’s Kiss. I did a lot of films, or I created films which are not connected with the Second World War, for several reasons: Because it is not interesting in that part, in that story, like the Wittgenstein or Kadar’s Kiss, etc. This suspense and naiveté, as they make kids, and have a nice time in the summer of 1939, it is our suspended knowledge — the bomb under the table — which says: “Go, go! You don’t hear, you don’t see.” Do we see what will happen with me, or you, tomorrow? Of course you have more of a chance to live another 30 years than me, because you are younger than me. But still, it is not known. This kind of dramaturgy, projected narrative of a past, allows people to imagine a future. On the other hand, we are wise, because we have a historical knowledge, and when we see these people, we want to tell them: “Escape, hide!”. You are in his projected time, but his projected future is different than what he had projected. Though the image that they were taking at that moment had a kind of projected future viewing position, where they want to look at themselves in a nice way. So I put up my collar, this is my best view, my face is constructed, my best representation. And of course, behind the camera you see my weakness, my vulnerable ego, my naiveté, the fact that I want to live forever. This is the Western civilization’s deadly death. Suppression. Compare it to the Japanese, the Chinese or India. This is something that has changed a lot since the 19th century, when in the poor strata of the society, out of 10 children only 2 survived his or her second year. The relation to death was very very different. Like it is now in India, this is how it was in Europe. Death was so ordinary that a mother delivered 11 kids and only three survived their fifth year. And that is a key problem, and we are talking of course about death, but it is not an accident. But if you look at Morrison or Gianikian films, it’s all playing around with the ghosts. The difference between this and that is that I really want to “exploit” film language, I want to really drive you down with your own fears, with your own fantasies, to create the empty space for the committed crime. If we are detectives, looking at spilled out blood, we see the contour of the murdered person with chalk, and we try to re- construct what could have happened. We call in the witnesses: One says John took the axe; the other witness says John was innocent, that he didn’t have the axe. But in this case we are the victims, because we empathize with the heroes; we are also the judges, we are the lawyers, we are the butchers, we are the relatives, etc. For me, of course, this is the skeleton behind the film, because this narrative is not necessarily telling you what to think. This is a floating contemplative work that allows us to relieve our demons, and reveal our own fantasies, and join in on this journey. The special thing here, is that naiveté of the banal filmmaker, who had a good camera eye, but couldn’t plan his life.
Video and the (lost) aura of film
Hors champ: You have these films in different formats and in different degrees of quality. The elements have decayed. Is this something that interests you, this auratic quality of the decayed material, which is optical and analogical? On the other hand, you work with video, and video tools and techniques, such as wipes, titles, slowing down, reframing, which makes the films very contemporary because of these video elements you are adding. Are these things that you think about when you’re working, that these two temporalities are inscribed in the language and in the elements that you use? And also, this idea of the auratic, of the old film, is it something that is important for you?
Péter Forgács: If I had enough money, and if I wasn’t forced to make low budget films — otherwise I would never make a film — I would never use video. I would use these original footages, blow them up, slow them down, etc. So there is one strict rule of my game: I want to tell these stories, I want to make the contemplative feel for looking at the object, so I must work with electronic devices, electro-magnetic or digital devices. That is crucial. I really miss the smell of the film, the editing table, physically as it exists… to manipulate it, to touch it, to cut it, to smell it, to put it in the normal way. I don’t say I am forced, because this has been my choice in the last 15, 18 years. I’ve made 30 films or videos, video-films, including installations and short or longer pieces. Without making these low low budget films… I would be happy if Rothschild or
HC: Bill Gates…
PF: Never heard of him.
HC: No? The Microsoft guy. He’s the richest bastard in the world…
PF: Rich and bastard? No, that’s impossible… Please erase this. He is the most wonderful guy. He is bigger than Leonardo and Galileo together. It was not me, Bill. I hope you forgive him. Him, not me, it was him. (pause) So the problem with 35mm film is that the lab is expensive, the material is expensive and if you want to slow down to double each frame, etc. While with video I can just punch into the computer ‘35% slow- mo’ and it is 35% slow-mo. And it is there. In this way, I can edit my films for 8 months, or 2 months. I did my films from almost nonsense low budgets. You can’t imagine. Sometimes it is very expensive, not because it’s a film, but because the research is tremendously expensive, and the license fee, the copyright for archive films, German archives, whatever, they ask gold price. So, it is very important to see the decay of the film which is a part of this syntax, the mystical touch of the film, the mystical material, the grain, the scratch. So it is not only that what you see on the film happened long ago, but the fact that the film itself carries the wounds of time. And there’s also one thing that is extremely important: Normally filmmakers are taught to make nice pictures, to compose them, etc. This comes from the Renaissance. Sometimes they allow themselves a certain false sloppiness, like on MTV, when they try and copy the avant-garde art, giving it this rapid moving camera look, etc. They can afford it, why not. But evidently, there is a certain aim for composed perfection. Most Hollywood productions and television series today are made in a lower level than Méliès, Edison and Lumière. They are kindergarten compositions, kindergarten sequences, they are for babies. “John, do you have the gun?” “Yes Bill, I have it” “Ok, sneak in.” You can see the way they cut it. This is comic strip entertainment. It’s funny, it’s good to feed the masses, so they push them this trash… coca-cola, whatever. Imperfection is perfection. Perfection is imperfection. Aiming to be clear, clean, beautifully composed, is pre-Cézanne, pre-Dadaism, pre-20th Century art. And in film, it’s evident. I really appreciate a filmmaker like Jim Jarmusch. He’s always making all these little mistakes. Like in Coffee and Cigarettes, which is not his best, there is this scene with Tom Waits, sitting there too long. You feel it’s too long. I think he is sitting with Iggy Pop. And the whole thing is so disturbing, because he is not caring for the rules. Lars von Trier is a Kitsch-maker in comparison with Jarmusch. I appreciate his hospital film [The Kingdom], but Dancer in the Dark is really just a bad melodrama. It is maybe not necessary to quote, but these invisible films of John Mekas are miraculous. The whole mistake in it is miraculous. Or when Morrissey walked into Andy Warhol’s factory. And that is evidently the big tradition where I can connect myself. These banal source material, and the scratches, and the old film and all these mistakes, and de-focus and decompose, and telling me something that is a big mystical trip, beyond perfection. I think that when these bad pictures were made, god was pushing the button on the camera. Normally, in the old days, when there was no digital photography but film… you don’t remember because you are too young.
HC: I remember…
PF: No, you don’t, nobody remembers when there was film and you could smell it. And you went to the lab and they said: “Do you want only the good ones?” You know, you shot 36 frames and got back 20 of printed material. What is on those discarded pictures that was missing? That is what is interesting. What is the limit, the rule, the code, when somebody looks at your picture, and decides to throws it out. Maybe that picture would have been the most interesting for you. But we’re in new times. Digital photography gives you the opportunity to have all the bad pictures and keep them, if you want. But in fact, they throw them out, because imperfection reminds you of death. It’s a wound, it’s a scar, you are dead. For me, it’s a mystical procedure… And on this point I am in the same boat with the Gianikian. You look at a picture which is completely whitening out, with a big scratch in it, and a shade goes in, and a face comes in almost invisible, and you go: Wow! But the Gianikians, fanatically, work on celluloid. This is why they make few films.
HC: They built their own system of developing, refilming, reprinting, etc.
PF: Yes, because they are the great ancient filmmakers. They are priests, monks, saints of film.
Cinema and the XXth Century
Hors champ: This distinction between amateur films and home movies is important. Very often, they often do try and stage these little films. They take this filmmaking very seriously.Péter Forgács: This is the time when cinema started to dominate, and rule human culture. In the first third or first quarter of the 20th century, most of the people couldn’t afford to go to the theatre, but cheap cinema, nickelodeon, offered something which was never seen before in human history. So it’s evident that our heroes or my heroes, are influenced by these schemes, clichés, set-ups. Of course, this is part of the new discourse with the image. You can do it. You can hide behind the bushes, and then jump out, grab the lovers, and splash them, etc. The burlesque, Chaplin and Howard Lloyd, all these great artists opened up a new paradigm. It’s hard to imagine that Sarah Bernhardt when she was over 60 played Hamlet. Would it be possible today? No. Because that’s a different time, that’s a different context. This is how we look at amateur films or moving images today. Let’s put it that way, people in the 30’s looked back at Sarah Bernhardt and it seemed old fashioned or marvelous to them. It’s always this change of paradigm, of the totality culture which changed after the First World War. It also changed after the Soviet Revolution, after the Russian avant-garde movement, after Hitler and the National Socialism, and the war, and after the war. I mean, who thought about human rights when they were hunting down the Indians, in the gold rush? The good Indian was the dead Indian. And now they are talking about human rights. The view on things, objects, movements, taste, women, style, fashion, food, family, father, authority, women, feminine, penis, cunt, people, was completely changed. If you look at literature, you don’t hear names of writers who were extremely famous in their times. You hear about people, like Baudelaire, who were almost unknown in their time. Cézanne was nowhere, while there were extremely famous historical painters in their times, that were extremely rich, and today we don’t talk about them. So when we look today at a film of 1920, we have our ‘today’s eyes’. This is a post-modern gesture. This washed away, bad composition can, may send us, or at least to me, a message. A message that is un- decoded, uncovered, mystical, an almost religious fainting, disappearing poem. This is not how it appeared, of course, to those who made it, because for them it was just playing with the snowballs, skating, etc. “Oh, look how Jack skates beautifully, he was always clever at skating.” But for us, it becomes a movement, a face, a shape. It’s funny to see the skates, how she is binding them to her shoes. We find it funny that they don’t have a mobile phone, funny that they didn’t know somebody would walk on the moon, funny that they didn’t know that in Auschwitz they won’t work, but they will be gazed and burned, and their golden teeth will be torn out. And they had to bring their keys to give it to the Jewish council, which gave it to the Dutch and German authorities. Funny funny funny, or sad, sad, sad? Art is something that begins when you see something. You didn’t even do anything with it, but you saw it as a different thing. As Matisse who looked at a girl. One wind of the brush, and they are dancing. And it is different. Of course you have to ask yourself whether he was right when the Germans were in France, and he was still painting and he refused to help refugees. There was a nice film about it. But that’s reality.
History, Cinema, Testimony
Hors champ: There are two issues that I want to get to. One is the issue of testimony, the other is the issue of editing, which is very important in your films. I’ll do a short preamble. In Angelo’s Film, you mention that his images were used during the Nuremburg trials to document the Nazi atrocities. Godard, in his Histoire(s) du cinema, says something like: If we had filmed and shown the gazing of the Jews, if cinema had been there, since cinema’s role is to be a witness to history — we could have stopped it before it took on the proportions we know. On the other hand, Lanzmann, who refuses to show archive material, has said that if he would find a film on the gazing of the Jews, he would probably destroy the film. My question would be: How do you think these images work as testimony for you, and, hypothetically, if you were to find this film showing the gazing of Jews, would you use it?
Péter Forgács: Godard is a politically correct utopist who thinks that art can change life. They knew what was happening in Auschwitz, but they didn’t bomb the railways. What would have changed, in the military thinking and planning, if this film had been shot and shown? Zero. Nothing. The Soviet army stopped at the river Vistula, and watched for a month, until the Nazis had killed every Polish resistance fighter in the Warsaw uprising. Godard is an utopist. Lanzmann is a great documentary filmmaker. Godard made beautiful, strong and influential films, but in this case he is wrong because he is a great artist who thinks that art has an overwhelming power. Lanzmann, I think, was correct when he stated he would destroy the film — which is a philosophical statement. Because then you’re jumping over the problem. The problem is not ‘how did it happen’, but rather ‘how could it happen’. If you asked yourself this question, you are blocked completely. It seems beyond imagination. What can drive certain people, normal bureaucrats, normal fathers, Christians, to become such Barbarians? So Lanzmann was right. Intentionally, in my films, you never see the Shoah. What is interesting — in Free Fall for example — is rather what was the road which led there, from inside the victim’s life, the would-be victim’s life. How we suppress the threat that is coming, which is the most dangerous and sensitive point. It is very hard to grab it, and to represent it. We saw extremely poisonous films, like the Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo’s film, Sunshine, which is a big lie, and the same with Schindler’s List. “Schwindler,” is the German word which means “cheater.” For me, it’s not Schindler’s List but “Schwindler list”… These are fairy tales. These are ugly, disgusting, stinking fairy tales. And I completely agree with Claude Lanzmann, who says: “The scene of the crime is enough proof.” And if you want to prove more, you are wrong. If you make a fairy tale like Szabo and Spielberg, then you place it outside of history. You can only understand these Nazi or Soviet or Cambodian criminals who led these massacres, if you look at them as human beings who are capable to do that. As normal people, not as criminals, but as normal everyday people. Otherwise you would never understand the Apartheid, you would never understand what happens in these countries. But in The Maelstrom and in Free Fall, what the viewer can experience is how people still have the possibility to suppress their fear, their future, and how we blind ourselves. It’s like you’re living in a bad marriage, and everyday you lie to yourself, “Yes, Mary, she doesn’t hate me. I don’t really like Juliette, I love to fuck with her but Mary is the real one.” These are common everyday lies of today, but when your life is in danger that’s very interesting. Of course many people couldn’t hide, many people had limited possibilities, but still this is the most interesting question: How you are manipulated, how you manipulate yourself, and how you suppress these things. And it’s very hard to put it in a fiction film, because the most genius actor is always just an actor. When he dies in the film, just the role dies, and he walks out after shooting. But this is not the most important thing. This is one aspect. I really do not like to be stamped as a filmmaker who is always focusing on the Second World War. I am just telling you, this is a statement for the camera, I am not a Holocaust filmmaker. Statement two: I am interested in human stories, by accident I am living in this period in time, by accident I find interesting films and by accident my heroes were talented filmmakers who recorded their own lives, so I tell stories. And one thing I find extremely important, and what we didn’t touch on, is the texture of the films which is music, image and editing, but maybe you are at the point?
Montage and the texture of film
…It’s not editing, but rather composing with these different channels…
Hors champ: The editing in your films does not only concern the images. It is this complex web of image, text, voice, sound, music which works as an opera. Editing has to do with counter-point, between image, text, music. This counter-point works to create something that seems poignant, at times almost ironic, at times the montage becomes ironic, and we’re often caught with this impression: How are we supposed to read this cut? In Meanwhile Somewhere, there is a cut between someone slicing a pig, and then you cut to Nazi soldiers strolling in a park, in 1941 or 1942.
Péter Forgács: It won’t really lead us to an answer, if you just mention two pictures, because before that there was another picture, before there was another picture, and after that there is another, another, another. There is an orchestration of a line, orchestration and variations, of a chamber music, or a smaller chamber choir. The pig is not only connected to the Nazis, but also to another picture: a fat person in the third image, and starving Greeks two minutes before in the film, etc. So it’s a time based art where you are having images one after the other, different scenes and some repeated scenes. We’re like in a concert. You still have the melody which was before and you feel that it resonates and also forecasts the next chapter in a way. These instruments are talking to each other. So it’s more a kind of orchestration. It’s not editing, but rather composing with these different channels like the film itself. Within the film language and the syntax, you have the slow motion, which emphasizes something, the cut, the freeze frame, tinting, text on the page, here and there, and the voice and the sound effect, and of course everything is floating with the music or the silence. It’s hard to separate it technically and methodologically. I do it when I’m editing. I’m adding and taking away, then extending this, or cutting it or fading it out, but it’s really a complex orchestration with no pre- conceived scenario. There is a kind of organic trial and error, building it up, as feeding the beast. And the beast is the problem. Whether the viewer — and we’re thinking of individual and collective viewers at the same time — may find this magical space, to give or add his or her associations. So these are images that call for another image that is stored in the viewers’ mind. That’s the reason why I don’t show skeletons, gas chambers, because we know everything. The film is not the physical thing that I have on the tape; the film is what the viewer sees. Funny enough, or interestingly enough, it’s much more than the film itself, because they associate. This is the tradition, this is a great tradition that, of course, is on the fringe of filmmaking. And evidently we know why because these films are — I’m not just talking about mine — but, as I said, Jay Rosenblatt, or Jim Jarmusch, there’s a big school, Maya Deren, that you have to work with it. It’s not obvious what’s on the picture, it’s not clear, it’s not explained. It’s not logically built up but it’s built up illogically, not just with free association that you can fantasize here or there, but with a very very intense composition in the background and in the depth of the material.
On music and collaboration
Hors champ: I would like to talk a little about the music in your films. You’ve been working with Tibor Szemz_ for a number of years now, and I was curious about how, very concretely, you work together to find the music for your films.
Péter Forgács: From case to case, and from film to film, it’s different. First of all, I always edit on music. I put a soundtrack, which could be one of Tibor’s earlier compositions, or minimal music from Arvo Pärt, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Bach or whatever matches the rhythmic need of the film. But it’s mostly his earlier music which plays good because it pushes over the big question: What is the rhythm, what comes here and there? Second, in the middle of the editing, he comes in. Except for the Bartos Family, where he composed a large set of music and I used it here and there. With Dusi & Jenõ, the second installation of Private Hungary, I edited the whole film on a part of Philip Glass’ Glasswork, except for one part of it, and then took out the sound, and gave him the film.
HC: Did he know that you had worked with Glasswork?
PF: Yes, and he hated me for that. Because he thinks that it’s kitsch. It’s my favorite anyhow. I don’t think that Glass made better music than Glasswork, for me. There’s something in it that I can’t explain, I can cry every time I listen to it. There’s a certain point that breaks me, destroys me. And there are other stories, like for Angelo’s Film, where he composed three different musics. Each time, I said it didn’t work. In 1996, he started to compose rock music, and he brought in electric guitars and it killed the image. I said, “Sorry, it doesn’t work” and he said, “This is a bad film”. And I said, “Ok, it may be a bad film, but this doesn’t work with this image.” In other cases, he really added something to it. Like in Kádár’s Kiss [Private Hungary #12, 1997]. Kádár was the Hungarian communist leader from 1956 till 1989. I made a film about that dark, interesting, depressive and funny period in Hungarian history when avant-garde art was ghettoized, and most of the society made a big compromise of not talking about the taboos, in order to dwell in a pseudo-consuming society financed by western bank loans. And evidently, when I started to edit that film which was showing the pornography of politics and the pornography of this Eastern European country, I was using pornographic photographs, and quoting this Hungarian dictator’s speeches, where he was making lapsus, Freudian slips, and grammar errors. He could not speak good Hungarian, the nouns and adjectives were never in the right place. I mean it’s crazy, this guy could never finish his sentence. But he was a mild, nice dictator. At the end of his dictatorship, the majority of the Hungarian people accepted him, and even loved him. And when Tibor came in with the music, he used a Hungarian philosopher’s text to give him motivation. He started working on that text and then we integrated it into the film. So it is a difficult give and take relationship, which has its mutual influences. He started to make films, he bought a film camera, a 8mm camera. He shot 3 or 4 films. He filmed in Japan, in Cuba.
He made very interesting experimental films, based on his own found footage. Definitely, his music scores, which were composed directly to each film – therefore they’re different though they have similarities – it is the most creative collaboration I encountered. And his music can give voice to the unconscious level of the film. Sometimes to the main actor, sometimes to the event behind, and sometimes it just alienates us from the event and makes a kind of contemplative distance, sometimes it pulls us in, sometimes it shows what will come. So the sensuality, the eroticism, the deep under current, is figured in this orchestration in a specific way. That’s why we don’t need dialogues for example, because you read the picture and the music. You read it or understand it in a very complex way. Without his music, the whole thing wouldn’t be what it is. Easy to say.
Difference and repetition
Hors champ: Often, in your films, in Danube Exodus, Meanwhile Somewhere, Bourgeois Dictionary, etc., you have the same images redistributed differently. In Meanwhile Somewhere, you have a very short fragment of a captain on a boat, which will later be expanded into the whole narrative of Danube Exodus. You also have this very stunning and beautiful scene which appears for the first time in Bourgeois Dictionary, where you see this woman taking her bath, drinking liquor and so on. And you only understand who they are in Free Fall, where you can put them in the family, in a story. Part of the pleasure of seeing your films, is seeing this image again. As a viewer, you develop a tenderness towards these images and these people, and seeing this images under a different light, where you get to know a little more or a little less of their story, it’s very interesting.
Péter Forgács: When Andy Warhol made 17 different prints of Marilyn Monroe, pink, green, blue, the meaning of Marilyn changed. If you take this re-contextualizing of this photograph, which was not made by Andy Warhol, why is this picture the same and not the same? This is the usual avant-garde gesture. We know from Wittgenstein that what is beautiful is a consensus through language game, as to what is bad and what is wrong, we have a consensus. And what is nice today, tomorrow is not nice. And what’s nice for me, in Peru is ugly. What is true about the example you just mentioned, is that it shows that the intention behind the original footage is not interesting. What is interesting is to place it now has in this context or in that context. In one context, it’s an anonymous woman having a shower; in this other, she is the mistress of Mr. Petr, and in the third film it will just be a nice breast, giving the message of sex. So this is the best example that it is not the amateur filmmaker that is ruling the game, but the game is in my hand. And if I like this one film reflecting to the other, it’s a kind of network or this is a larger, or quite large, or let’s say fresco.
The function of art in the face of History, or trying to make a point
Hors champ: Have historians been interested in your films? And do you, more generally, think historians are visually illiterate and can’t read these images in an interesting fashion? Second, do you think or do you hope the films you make, in Hungary, or in Spain if you take Perro Negro, have helped the people who have seen them to better understand their history, or changed the perspectives on their history?
Péter Forgács: I don’t know who are the historians, I know some historians who appreciate my work. But I wouldn’t generalize about historians, on whether they appreciate or not this kind of information. This is micro-history anyhow, private history of certain worlds, linked to specific interpretations. Certainly, there are historians, very few, who think these are good representations of the complexities of Central Europe in a way. But for me, it is more important that this is art, that my work is perceived as an orchestra. And I am happy that psychologists interpret their own way, historians their own way, filmmakers their own way, etc. There is no influence of this kind of contemplative works in anyway into Hungarian thinking of their past and History. Acquiring and ruling the past means that you rule and acquire the History. That’s the Goebbelsian way. And I think contemplation is really a dangerous thing against normal politicians, who like to interpret the past. Especially Hungary, as an East European country, part of the East European bloc, where acquiring the past is very important, there is, in the deepest sense, millions of miles away of influencing the Hungarians who look back at history. I am happy about it because only good propaganda films can influence. Even if nobody knew who Kennedy was, they would at least remember his phrase: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” And that is enough. But my films are more problematic. They need effort. They have to think about them. This is what the National conservatives, an almost fascist right wing party, did for the 50th anniversary of 1956. They want to colonize our past. They were basically saying that communism was the same in 1956 as in 1989. That is the biggest lie. And me, who was suppressed, oppressed and outcast, I could tell you, that it was not the case. I am a witness of a big historical lie. And the way that I look at my country’s past, with this micro-historic poetry, is as influential as a Cézanne painting.
HC: On the other hand, if you look at the way Cézanne eventually changed the way we see and perceive the world…
PF: We? Who is we? Ask a thousand people on the street and they won’t even know who Cézanne is. Don’t ask university pupils, don’t ask intellectuals. Because you fell into the trap, when you said “Hungarians”, that’s 10 million people. And from that 10 million, there are 7 million grown-ups. And of the 7 million, there is only a maximum of 120 thousand who know who Cézanne is, but who never thought of the real meaning of that apple. So let’s put it that way: I’m a poet and I am very happy to work with this special medium. If my films are broadcasted in a good time slot — not at the cemetery after 11 o’clock in the evening but 6 o’clock in the afternoon — then 200 thousand will look at it. That means 2.1% of the grown-up population sees my film. That’s very very nice, it’s a bigger influence than the best poet of Hungary would have. I am happy about that. But it is the nature of the medium not the nature or quality of the work. And of course I am in a deep discourse with historians, with writers, people stop me in the street and say “I love your film, it is beautiful,” etc. But changing a country’s history is impossible. Lanzmann didn’t change anything in France.
HC: That’s maybe a wrong example, because if you take Lanzmann — although he is part of a larger context — his film and reflections helped to change the way we think of the genocide. His film brought in another term to define the Holocaust. We talk of the Shoah now. That was not the case before the film. Let’s say 200,000 people in Hungary see your film, let’s say Bourgeois Dictionary, and a young person, who has a very vague idea of history, sees the film, don’t you think he will receive an epiphany and say: “My God, nobody had showed me what a 1930 Hungarian bourgeois was like”. This thing must happen…
PF: It happens, even the cleaning woman in my studio… She talked with my editor, and she asked him “What are you doing?” She’s an old lady, and my editor said “Well, last year we did this Miss Universe film.” And she said “I saw it, it was wonderful.” I mean, this was a great surprise. And she liked it. But I’m making films for my reference group. I’m in a lucky position not to be part and member of this industrial television system. I’m an independent filmmaker and I see colleagues like Berliner or Jay Rosenblatt, who are working hard to finance their own films. I am happy that I can work. This is exceptional that somebody discovers my film and invites me here or invites me to Sweden. It’s a really wonderful and exceptional situation, a gift of life, that I can still support myself as an independent filmmaker. And it can be finished in any second. But it wouldn’t change anything if nobody would see it. Marcel Duchamp said in an interview: “Imagine that in Africa there is the best painter of all times and he paints as well as Velasquez, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and everyday he paints 5 canvasses but nobody heard of him. Is he the best painter in the world? No.” So I am lucky that my films went out of the country. I was surprised that in Holland, France, Germany, in the United States, and in Italy so many people started to understand it, or resonate to it. And that is the more important thing. Not what the 200,000 Hungarians are saying. Punto.