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.
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