“We wanted to do a writing of history through a sensual observance of the films. By having those details opened up, we show how the daily life was — not by explaining didactically but rather offering this inner representation.”
To evoke the dramatic sensation of experiencing Poland’s once large Jewish population in its full vitality before the Holocaust, filmmaker Péter Forgács selected expressive gestures from vintage home movies in the 2013 installation Letters to Afar. He slowed down the footage, duplicated it on multiple screens, and created 12 orchestrations.
It all started with a klezmer band in New York City. The lead singer for the Klezmatics, also the sound archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, explored the possibility of scoring music for some rare silent films in the collection: footage shot by American Jewish immigrants visiting their native Poland in the 1920s and ’30s. In need of a film artist, the band in October contacted Forgács, who often works with found footage. That’s how Forgács, who presented a video installation at the Venice Biennale in 2009, ended up staging in May 2013 what became the first exhibition of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Forgács spoke to Marjorie Backmanabout history, art, and memory.
MARJORIE BACKMAN: How did you go about doing this so visitors would feel like they’re there, feeling the presence of people from the past?
PÉTER FORGÁCS: I have done several huge installations that deal with this, let’s say, found footage embedded to a composition or orchestrations with music composed for a video installation.
Danube Exodus I created at the Getty museum from 2000 to 2002 together with the University of Southern California’s Labyrinth Project, an interactive media art lab.
That is an interactive multi-image composition, a historic travelogue of a cruise ship captain on the Danube, who took Jewish refugees from Bratislava and Budapest to the Black Sea, where they traveled to Palestine on another ship. It also traces the captain’s journey the next year, in 1940, bringing German émigré families to Nazi turf after the Soviets seized Bessarabia.
It’s not just an art installation, but it’s also a composition that allows people to understand this history through private history.
So this is not the first time you’re using art to shed light on a historic event?
No, I’ve been making these films and installations for 25 years. I exhibited Col Tempo at the Venice Biennale four years ago with the same attitude.
These are postmodern narratives with historic layers approaching a meditation and contemplation.
They are on the border. That’s why I am hired.
You chose some footage for reasons other than the identities of those filmed. Correct?
Sometimes, yes. But in this case we have to understand that this is a magic moment. Everybody is innocent. They don’t know their future.
I’m keeping this innocence of the original home movies done by these American Jewish Polish guys.
They were going back to the old homeland, witnessing the life over there, visiting their families, their villages, shtetls and towns, and their films were private cinema.
We wanted to do a writing of history through a sensual observance of the films. By having those details opened up, we show how the daily life was — not by explaining didactically but rather offering this inner representation.
So you did select some footage based on who was in it?
First of all, I really like the mistakes, the accidents, like the hand of God.
And I’m not representing, recontextualizing these films as an anthropologist, but it’s as if we were there because we are with the cinematography of the home moviemaker.
At that time the film camera was rare; the film was expensive. It means people were not used to being filmed.
Why is that significant?
They look differently into the camera. They behave differently. Their reactions are different. Different types of things are recorded. The taboos are different. People get embarrassed in different ways.
Today, with cameras built into our phones, it’s a different paradigm of looking, recording, and memory. With the instant review of the picture, the method for human self-representation is changed.
And there is this cultural dimension. For example, some footage comes from Gerold and Lillian Frank’s visit to the little village of Kamionka. You are the third American couple to set foot here in 50 years, they were told. And the grandmother showed them around.
They went from the New World to the Old Country — from the United States, a dynamic country, to a community practically living in the 19th century.
Of course, we have this position that we can look back. While we have this historical distance, we cannot interfere with the past. We cannot do anything. It’s like the Hitchcockian suspense. Museum visitors might have the same feeling: They know something will happen.
We are here in our present time, with our ghosts, with our cultural interests, with our knowledge. We see how shy people appear in front of the camera, how children happily dance, their love and their tenderness, et cetera, et cetera, and the very complexity of big cities.
What’s the geographic reach of the footage?
A few filmmakers went to the big city, Warsaw, which had 350,000 Jews, almost half the number of the whole Jewry of Germany.
Some 3 1/2 million Jews lived in Poland then, and most of them spoke Yiddish. There is Vilna on film and Łódź, the Manchester of the textile industry.
You see rumbling, hustling big cities, with trams, with cars, with people. You see the Jewish neighborhood, the Christian neighborhood. You see official events, too.
So it’s a very complex way to show social strata, human behavior, group behavior, individual faces. The face of the time is there.
And it’s not propaganda; it’s not entertainment. It’s not education but real life through art.
Do you think audiences today have become inured to straight narrative history films?
I don’t think so. I wouldn’t generalize.
I can compare my job to that of other filmmakers. Like in early Cassavetes films, there’s spontaneity in front of the camera. Or as with the New Wave in France, Godard films, Truffaut films, there is a direct behavior with the camera. And this behavior appears in the amateur films.
What I worked out with my talented editor, the Klezmatics, and curator Tamara Sztyma is a newly woven carpet, a patchwork in many dimensions, where I invite you, the viewer, to come along with me, look at what I found.
Look at these treasures, look at these faces, look into their eyes, look into their environment. Look at the village, the old ladies, the families. Look at those strong men working. Look at the little shops. Travel with us in the past, which is in the present.
You added archival footage about the Second Polish Republic and captions from period literature. But in selecting any clips, did you say, I want this specific guy because he was, say, a merchant in Warsaw?
Ah, listen: This is very complex. This work was done through long weeks, months, and it’s a step-by-step building up while editing. It’s like someone receiving a bunch of letters from the early 20th century and writing a novel.
When I make choices, it’s not a technical choice. It’s not the sociologist’s choice. I may be motivated to have this or that, but I have to go much more by people’s expressions. It’s instinctive on my part.
So you aimed for geographic variety, but otherwise you totally went for the visuals?
I deliberately selected footage from a film about Nowogródek commissioned by Alexander Harkavy.
He was a genuine man of language. He immigrated to the United States in the 1880s and wrote the Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary. He helped initiate the Nowogródek Relief Committee, so that people in America could aid their hometown and relatives.
In 1921, Harkavy brought money to the city and wrote a full report to the relief society. We have the film made 11 years later when he visited again. So that became the basis of one of my orchestrations.
Letters to Afar is on view in Warsaw through September and will travel to YIVO in New York for a special Nov. 19 benefit with a live performance by the Klezmatics.