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Péter Forgács’ Memory Art Brings Phantoms of Eastern Europe to Light

‘Letters to Afar’ is the latest of an emergent and haunting new form, Jewish material-memory film

J. Hoberman
November 20, 2014
Still from a Polish home movie, c. 1920s-1930s.(Photo courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.)
Still from a Polish home movie, c. 1920s-1930s.(Photo courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.)

“Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows,” reported Maxim Gorky after attending a program of “Living Photography” at the Nizhny Novgorod Fair during the summer of 1896. “The extraordinary impression it creates is so unique and complex that I doubt my ability to describe it with all its nuances.” You may feel the same way after an hour spent with the video installation Letters to Afar, currently at the Museum of the City of New York.

Created by the Hungarian media artist Péter Forgács using film material largely drawn from the 75 or so landsmenshaftn films, mainly 16mm and 8mm amateur movies of Polish Jewish communities, made between World Wars I and II and held in the YIVO archives, Letters to Afar is played out on nine intermittently reconfigured screens. Projected images are variously doubled, frozen, mirrored, slowed down, or staggered, their shadowy presence underscored by the Klezmatics’ spare, almost jazzy accompaniment and occasional bits of ambient sound. Forgács’ new work is the most epic and immersive example of what might be called the Jewish material-memory film, a form defined by the reworking of amateur movies by or about (mainly) European Jews and their New World descendants.

Letters to Afar, which was co-commissioned by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, is also, in some ways, a belated successor to the Jewish Museum’s influential 1976 exhibit “Image Before My Eyes,” a show that drew on YIVO’s vast collection of prewar Polish photographs. The effect, however, is different. A photograph is a memento mori; photographic motion pictures are something else. Life is not frozen but animated. The technique immerses viewers with a rich and paradoxical experience—a teeming emptiness, a pensive hubbub. Bombarded by light, one is surrounded by a multitude of phantoms massing in shtetl marketplaces, gathering in rural cemeteries, parading on Warsaw boulevards, peering out of Lodz slums, playing in open fields, and otherwise observing what the film-artist Ken Jacobs said of his found-footage epic, fashioned from a paper print of a 1905 nickelodeon movie, Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, the “vivacious doings of persons long dead.”

Forgács has created a space for the viewer to inhabit inside a ghost-world. Letters to Afar is best appreciated from a bench providing a vantage point to scan multiple screens. The spectator regards the exhibit and is regarded in turn. Although essentially a collective portrait, the installation is filled with individuals. Some portraits are as bluntly head-on as a Warhol screen test. Others are more spontaneous, with young women striking poses or groups of kids jostling for the camera. Unexpected celebrities materialize: Yiddish linguist Alexander Harkavy, back in Poland for a visit, smiles broadly. Yiddish poet and playwright Moshe Broderszon, a tall, handsome Sid Caesar type, cuts a few capers.

A photograph is a memento mori; photographic motion pictures are something else. Life is not frozen but animated.

Although the show is organized by location, its geography is largely mental. Projected on a scrim bisecting the gallery, images of Lodz can be seen from two sides, rendering them even more fragile and diffuse. Krakow footage appears more concentrated, smaller and brighter. Warsaw and Vilna are also shown on layered gauze curtains. Many museum installations aspire to the totality of a theme park but, true to its material, Letters to Afar has a modest, ethereal, homespun quality that makes its phantom zone all the more uncanny.


Forgács has made a number of such material-movies, mainly for television, over the years, including The Bartos Family (1988), Free Fall (1996), The Maelstrom (1997), and Miss Universe 1929 (2006), mostly drawing upon an archive he has assembled of amateur films. The antecedent for the first of these (and what he calls his “Private Hungary” series) was the 20-minute movie Private History, made in 1978 by another Hungarian, Gábor Bódy.

A protean artist who used newspaper ads to solicit amateur movies from the late 1930s and early 1940s, most of them made in 16mm (or 9.5mm or 8mm) by Budapest’s Jewish bourgeoisie, Bódy worked with documentary filmmaker Péter Timár, subjecting this found material to a full battery of optical effects, step-printing to split the screen or variously retard, freeze, and reverse motion. He further historicizes these images of family outings and celebrations with illustrations from the periodicals of the day or snatches from the soundtracks of contemporary commercial movies. Thus a buried chapter of Hungarian history is exhumed and perhaps illuminated. Private History goes abruptly public in its closing minutes, ending with stark footage of Budapest Jews being deported to Nazi death camps to the strains of a dated popular song.

Bódy, who died in 1985, provided a template that Forgács would greatly elaborate. His work, in turn, inspired that of the Czech documentary filmmaker Jan Šikl, who created an eight-part home-movie chronicle called Private Century, released in installments between 2004 and 2008. The original Jewish material-memory film was, however, Ken Jacobs’ 1975 Urban Peasants, originally subtitled An Essay in Yiddish Structuralism and exhibiting an ironic detachment worthy of its mock-anthropological title.

A central figure in American avant-garde cinema, Jacobs has drawn on Jewish material throughout his career: His first movie, Orchard Street (1956), was a programmatically modest Lower East Side city symphony; he originally described Baud’larian Capers (1963) as “a musical with Nazis and Jews”; Anne Frank, grown to adulthood, is a character, along with the Marx Brothers, in his 8mm epic The Sky Socialist (1965); The Alps and the Jews (which the artist began in 1986 but is still unfinished) uses found footage to meditate on Allied bombing strategy during World War II; New York Ghetto Fish Market 1903 (2006) returns to the subject of his first movie albeit via an ancient Edison actualité.

Jacobs was also an early advocate of home movies as “folk art.” In the early 1960s, he exhibited a found 8mm roll called Artie and Marty Rosenblatt’s Baby Pictures, accompanying it with a 78rpm record by the Yiddish stage star Jennie Goldstein. The 40 minutes of unedited 16mm rolls that Jacobs assembled to make Urban Peasants are more of a chronicle. Shot by his wife’s aunt, Stella Weiss, the films record one extended family, mostly in front of their kosher butcher shop in a bleak Brooklyn backwater during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The footage is unmanipulated and shown in silence. Unlike other avant-garde filmmakers who make use of home-movies or other found footage, Jacobs often presents his material as a form of self-explanatory evidence: “A lot of film is perfect left alone, perfectly revealing in its un- or semi-conscious form.” His only overt comment was to sepia-tint—and thus render lyrical—the sequence where the “peasants” visit Prospect Park and to frame the film with two exercises from “Instant Yiddish,” an unlikely Berlitz-style language-instruction record.

Even before the first image of Urban Peasants appears we have already had a 6-minute lesson in Diaspora history titled “Situation Three: Getting a Hotel.” A second excerpt, “Situation Eight: When You Are in Trouble,” ends the movie with a double-edged punchline: “I am an American. … Everything is all right.” Jacobs’ ploy makes it impossible to watch the homely clowning of this petit-bourgeois Jewish family without picturing the contemporaneous “situation” of their European counterparts. Indeed, that the filmmaker chose to show this film every day during the summer of 1977 in Kassel, Germany, as part of Dokumentar 6 art show, is a profoundly moving and enraged gesture.

Jacobs’ successors have largely worked from family material. The most recent example is Bill Morrison’s Back to the Soil an 18-minute movie revising his grandfather James H. Becker’s 1927 “travel diary” of the same title. The original film documents the new Jewish agricultural colonies established by the Soviets, mainly in Ukraine, with the assistance of the Joint Distribution Committee. Adding a subdued, meditative musical score by David Lang and intermittently slowing down the film, much of which seems to have been shot from a moving train, Morrison (whose MoMA mid-career retrospective closes this week) creates a meta-documentary that contemplates his grandfather’s contemplation of cheery settlers in a bleak, underpopulated landscape.

James H. Becker in a still from Bill Morrison’s film Back to the Soil (Photo credit: James H. Becker, courtesy Bill Morrison, Back to the Soil)

Morrison is unusual for his subtle manipulation of the original footage. A decade or so after Jacobs first exhibited Urban Peasants, his former student Alan Berliner closely edited found home-movie footage to make Family Album (1986); this was followed by two films drawing on personal archives, Intimate Stranger (1991), a biography of his maternal grandfather, and Nobody’s Business (1996), a portrait of his father. Other filmmakers followed Berliner’s example. The child of Holocaust survivors, Susan Korda used snapshots and 8mm home movies to document the troubled history of her family in One of Us (1999). For My Father Evgeni (2010), Andrei Zagdansky, son of the onetime head of the Soviet-era Kiev Popular Science Film Studio, fashioned a family history that mixed archival footage and home movies with clips from films made at his father’s studio.

The most elaborate of recent material-memory films, Gaston Solnicki’s Papirosen (2011), combines old home movies with a decade’s worth of observational filmmaking and oral history, creating a challenging back-and-forth structure that ranges over seven decades and several continents with the filmmaker’s parents and sister continually aging, de-aging, and re-aging while he himself remains an invisible, obsessive spectator-interviewer pondering the weight of history, specifically the Holocaust, on four generations of Polish-Argentine Jews.

Although Papirosen creates a vortex in which displacement is the natural state of affairs, Forgács is unique in his ability to shape years of home movies into narratives using only a minimal amount of explanatory material. The arc of his four Jewish material-memory films is the same. The Hungarian protagonists of The Bartos Family and Free Fall, the Dutch Jews of The Maelstrom, and the Austrian-Jewish beauty queen Lisl Goldarbeiter of Miss Universe 1929 are all shown as blissfully absorbed in their private lives up until the moment that the Nazis arrive to annihilate their world.


If the use of found film footage to reconstruct the past seems natural, it is not without controversy—particularly with regard to the Holocaust. There are moral objections to making use of movies shot by German soldiers; most famously, Claude Lanzmann rejected the use of any archival material in Shoah.

A documentary that might have taken its cue from the novelist and historian of Theresienstadt H.G. Adler’s assertion that “on time’s stage everything remains fixed in the present,” Shoah is premised on making the details of the Holocaust—including the absence of the millions who perished—present in the present. This refusal to represent the past is the seeming antithesis of the Forgács method. But the dichotomy is not that simple.

During the course of a sometimes-testy Q&A following a day of screenings devoted to his films at the Center for Jewish History earlier this month, Forgács distanced himself from filmed oral history. The implication was that film is evidence that speaks for itself. Perhaps, but in that case, what does it say? Amateur movies are hardly transparent. “If someone from another planet were to learn about life on earth solely from looking at a few rolls of old home movies, they would be led to believe that every day was a Sunday, that every month was August, that every season was summer. That life on earth was one big party—a place of leisure without struggle,” Berliner once told an audience at NYU. Forgács made the same point with regard to his archives, joking that, “I have at least 150 marriages but I don’t have one divorce.”

Home movies are self-regarding by definition—as well as signifiers of happiness and security. The amateur movies of the 1920s and ’30s were produced by a particular class, namely those with the urge to document their lives, and a 16mm (or 9.5mm or 8mm) camera with which to do so, and they tend to exhibit a certain sameness—family celebrations, people at play, children frolicking by the seashore. Forgács illustrates this with considerable force when, midway through The Maelstrom, he introduces the home movies taken by Reich “commissioner” for the Netherlands Arthur Seyss-Inquart. Nazis too made home movies; according to film historian Frances Guerin, author of Through Amateur Eyes: Film and Photography in Nazi Germany, the Hitler regime “encouraged the ownership of cameras and their use to document everyday life.”

Because of their restricted focus, however, home movies (as suggested by Jacobs’ Urban Peasants installation) can be powerful precisely for what they don’t show. The amateur films that Forgács has taken for his raw material embody a sort of petrified innocence; they are the residue an impersonal, implacable destiny. There is a dialectical relationship between the illusion of on-screen normality and our knowledge of the impending catastrophe waiting off-screen. (Although this recognition is intrinsic to the home movies produced by European Jews, it is not solely Jewish. The mainly Czech subject-creators of Šikl’s Private Century are all victims of history, displaced—whether by the Russian Revolution, World War II, or the 1948 Communist coup.)

Home movies can be powerful precisely for what they don’t show.

Their content aside, home movies might be considered a technology of nostalgia in that the technology they used is itself outmoded. The world of the Bartos, Petö, and Peereboom families is doubly lost: Their home movies are a reminder that the first half of the 20th century was recorded, and in a sense, lives on celluloid. Amateur films presage the increasingly democratized digitalized image-making that has its current apogee on Facebook and YouTube—and, as was the case with the 2009 Iranian Green Movement or the Arab Spring, is sometimes credited with the power to make history. (5 Broken Cameras, by Palestinian amateur filmmaker Emad Burnat, is a significant corollary—a man buys a camera to document the birth of a child and winds up recording the social conflict of his times.)

Still, as relatively expensive and unwieldy to produce as they were, the amateur films of 1930s are material in a way that digitally produced images are not. They are fragile and scarred by use (or abuse). Thus, the most affecting part of Letters to Afar is the 40-minute section that Forgács calls “Étude.” Despite this title, the moving images here are not so much studies or practice pieces as they are individual fragments, projected in a vertical, three-image strip to suggest a strip of motion picture film. More than the other material in Letters these traces seem to exist outside of time. They are isolated gestures like the loop of two girls beckoning to us, or anomalous street scenes having been filmed on color stock. Yet these scraps are the most marked by history—blurry, blotchy, or otherwise distressed.

The nature of these fragments, and their placement in the installation, suggest a love for the film stuff itself, although Forgács was annoyed when I suggested this tender regard. “I love my wife,” he snapped as if to dispel any notion of formalism or fetishizing. Perhaps that insistence on the human is appropriate. While you cannot spend time with Letters to Afar without being acutely conscious of disappearance and death, the most important thing about these spirits conjured from the YIVO archives is not that they died but that they lived.


To read more of J. Hoberman’s film criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.

J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.

J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.