Cinema's Alchemist: The Films of Péter Forgács (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler

The Bartos Family

The Bartos Family

Edited by Bill Nichols and Michael Renov. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 271 pp., illus. Hardcover: $82.50 and Paperback: $27.50.

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain posed a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

—Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

[W]hen you fall into my work (if you’re an ideal viewer!), you fall into your own imagination, dreams, feeling. You realize, all this could have happened to us. It’s not anactor who dies; it’s him and her. It’s us.
—Péter Forgács, in conversation with Scott MacDonald


The first question a book of essays about Péter Forgács raises is who Péter Forgács is. Most critics, programmers, and filmmakers to whom I’ve mentioned his work— films and videos made over a period of a quarter of a century—haven’t known it; before the group Klaxon Cultura Audiovisual’s near-complete Forgács retrospective in São Paulo this past February, I didn’t know it myself. As a Hungarian, Forgács has faced an Eastern bloc filmmaker’s uphill fight for Western recognition. He has obscured himself further by working as an experimental documentarian, a niche within niches.

Yet his obscurity to the general film public is ironic, considering that Forgács’s own work consists of unearthing the work of unknown filmmakers for a general public’s sake. He collects home movies shot by Europeans (mainly middle-class men) between the 1930s and the 1960s, or the pre-World War II period through the Communist era. The results include, but are not limited to, Forgács’s fifteen-film Private Hungary series, built from images civilians took of themselves and of each other. They range from the amateur Zoltán Bartos’s modest shots of his loved ones, many of whom were Jews extinguished by the Nazis, before and after the War in The Bartos Family (1988) to Tibor Höfler’s sweeping attempts to chronicle his kin’s entire history in I Am Von Höfler: Variation on Werther (2008). These scenes of friends and family members dressed to go out together or laughing around the dinner table, once of interest to no one but themselves, now serve as period time capsules to which Forgács, a historian, gives names and dates.

But for him, history doesn’t just belong to the past. He turns the works that people shot on 16mm into videos or even 35mm films, highlighting the marks of the original materials. He then works with a composer or composers (most often longtime collaborator Tibor Szemzö) to add a minimalist soundtrack accompanying the images. His ideal viewer sees the final result always aware that he or she is watching a version of the past. Just as Forgács’s actors acknowledge their roles in the movie by turning and smiling at the camera, his audiences acknowledge their roles outside the movie by thinking about their own friends and family relationships. He leaves you aware that you’re watching someone else’s private life, which means that he also encourages you to compare it to your own.

Though many English-language articles have been published on Forgács, both scholarly and mainstream (including my interview with him in this past summer’s Cinema Scope), Cinema’s Alchemist: The Films of Péter Forgács is the first book published on the filmmaker in English. Its editors are up to the task. Michael Renov, who initiated the project, and Bill Nichols, who oversaw much of it, are both documentary scholars who write with uncommon clarity, which fortunately runs throughout many of this anthology’s texts (most previously published, with some appearing in English for the first time). Renov’s special interest in historical representation and Nichols’s previous work with the avant-garde (he once edited an anthology on Maya Deren) help unite the seemingly disparate aspects of Forgács’s work.

Collaboration is a theme throughout. It is already implicit in the subject, as Forgács’s filmmakers and their actors collaborate with each other to shape memories and he in turn collaborates with them. But this book and its subject also collaborate. Forgács provided many of its stills, and spoke with several of its writers (who clearly read each others’ work while writing, allowing the possibility of cross-referencing each other with minimal overlap) during their research.

The reader senses some people working to preserve another’s work. Appropriately, Nichols’s introduction is followed by two Forgács interviews, one with him and another with Scott MacDonald (author of A Critical Cinema, a multivolume series of interview collections). Forgács is a helpful tone setter for his own work because, although the films present particular people and places, he prefers to speak generally about their themes and goals. In transferring the images from one context to another, he says, one of his aims is to make private history public. But he also wonders, “Do they help to understand what really happened in the past? What is the past? What is my memory? And what is collective memory? Or tribal memory? And do all these forms of memory correlate with each other?”

Ernst van Alphen discusses modern problems with memory in his essay “Toward a New Historiography”—we live in a moment where it is so easy and common to capture images that images threaten to replace the memory of their subjects. This problem is particularly relevant to the Holocaust, one of Forgács’s most frequent backdrops, the lesson of which for many people became “Never forget.” The filmmaker criticizes most art directly representing the Holocaust as exploitation, and instead offers images at an angle to it, as essays on his films The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle (1997) and Free Fall (1996) discuss. We never see the concentration camps in these films, but rather people unaware that they will someday be sent to them. As Michael S. Roth claims in his essay on The Maelstrom, it’s shocking how ordinary the people living in extraordinary times look. Forgács deepens the shock by presenting images of Jewish lives alongside Christian ones, reminding us both that the Holocaust had many non-Jewish victims and that all lives hold equal value. One of the chief goals of Nazism, to destroy the memory of its victims, fails in his hands. The result instead is the feeling of what contributor Malin Wahlberg calls “the trace,” an indelible mark running throughout the films of the past coming back to life in an open present.

Yet the Holocaust was just one of the twentieth century’s many genocides and other large-scale atrocities, all of which common people lived through. Forgács has also made films about people who happened to undergo some of them, including the Spanish Civil War and several varieties of oppressive communism. The book moves from close analysis of individual films to broader discussions of memory and of what contributor Roger Odin calls “a consciousness of history.” The film Wittgenstein Tractatus (1992), which places quotes from Wittgenstein alongside anonymous images of daily life, is the occasion for Whitney Davis’s essay on how the filmmaker has absorbed the philosopher’s idea that the world changes with each new viewing of it. The concluding discussions by Lászlo F. F. Földényi and Marsha Kinder of Forgács’s installation work take this idea even further as, free to move between multiple distinct images of the past within a museum or gallery space, visitors literally construct their own versions of the past minute to minute.

Cinema’s Alchemist is a useful introduction to Forgács’s work. But it is incomplete. By Nichols’s own admission, the book is only a midcareer summary. Forgács’s presentation of the past is still changing as he works prolifically. In recent years, he has increasingly incorporated footage of interviews with amateur filmmakers into his movies to go along with their older (or younger) images. His film Own Death (2007), addressed only briefly in the book, even immerses itself in the first-person voice of a dying man’s consciousness. Yet although his work deserves greater exposure, no piece of writing about a Forgács film can replace the experience of watching one. They hold power beyond language, in a way particular to each viewer.

Thanks to Klaxon Cultura Audiovisual and its owner, Rafael Sampaio, organizers of the film retrospective “Péter Forgács: Architect of Memory,” for providing my copy of the book.

Aaron Cutler’s film writings can be

To buy Cinema’s Alchemist click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4