Three children sitting on a sofa. The girl recounts their dreadful experiences from the war in Kosovo. A Jewish doctor takes revenge on a Nazi collaborator. A six-year-old boy equipped with a wireless captures comments from people in a park. ALLAN BERG NIELSEN highlights three documentaries from Hungary, Latvia and Poland, films that reflect our world and deal with strong themes and the memory of History.
In recent years, the documentary film has grown into great classic art in my consciousness. It deals with profound themes, profound feelings. Therefore, I must apply profound words from my European background. In my opinion, this is what we have to offer the global community alongside the many calamities. So this short essay will deal with profound words. I want to link them to three films I have seen, enjoyed and thought about.
These films were made in an era when things were really humming: political upheaval, new opening to the East, retrospective studies, the extent of the crimes and the identity of the traitors.
Children, Kosovo 2000 is the title of the film. Two years ago, a girl is making dough in a room of a rural house in Kosovo, then she puts the dough aside to rise. She walks out the door that is allowed to swing all the way open before the cut. She and her two younger brothers walk down the road through the village. In the next scene, they sit anxiously on a sofa in a damaged room. Then they tell what happened:
Interviewer (off): Do you remember that day?
Interviewer (off): Were you with your brothers?
Interviewer (off): Would you tell me about it?
Girl: If you ask me questions.
Interviewer (off): What were you doing at that time?
Girl: When we returned from the convoy we settled here, We were in this room. The Serb soldiers arrived. Dad was lying on his couch. We were outside. I was the only one who was outside, the others were in the house. Three people came and told me in Serbian to stop. Three times. I did not stop. My sister came over and warned me they might shoot. Then I went onto the porch. They ordered me to go in. I didn’t want to. Finally I did. My little brother (she looks at him) came in and told my father lying here, the militia were looking for him. Dad went out. I was watching. The Serb militiaman asked him if he was a terrorist. Dad said he wasn’t. ”Terrorists have lived here,” the Serb militiaman replied. Dad said he didn’t know them. ”Aren’t you one of them?” the Serb asked. Dad said he was no terrorist. ”Never mind,” the man said, ”Go over there and raise your hands.” We all left the house. Dad raised his hands, and the Serb shot him with his machine gun. Blood streamed down his legs but he was still standing. We ran away. My sister remained. Then the three men grabbed my sister and took her in here… When it was over they asked her what her father had done. She said he’d done nothing. She collapsed onto her father’s body, his blood was on her face, his body had been shot to pieces, his bowels were out. We covered him with a blanket, except for his face so we could see it…
The entire sequence of the three children on the sofa is unbroken. She is crying all the while she tells the story. Her oldest brother is also crying, while the youngest only feels dread. I see it in his eyes that he averts from the camera all the time. The scene continues after her testimony, and she cries for such a long time that I discover and understand its relief.
The most important aspect of documentary films is their presence. In a presence as great as this, I have brought it as close as possible to a point of pain in the history of our part of the world. A major event, though one of thousands. An event more important to remember than countless international conferences put together.
I see she is wearing fingernail polish when she hides her face in her hands. She is seventeen years old, she is washing clothes outside in the courtyard in the next scene. Sunshine and bird songs. Timor Szemzö’s music takes over. The solo rises above the orchestra. Elegiac. In his filmic work, Ferenc Moldoványi has mounted the children’s testimony as the central images in a triptych of landscapes and depictions of everyday life facing a sacred concert in a darkened church interior of our times. Just as medieval altarpieces focused the prayers about human suffering in front of a singing choir of believers. The filmic works are the altarpieces of our era in front of a modern, sceptical silence.
The camera from high above shows me Riga. The city set in its landscape. I’m drawn closer, zooming in on roofs and individual buildings. Ending with the synagogue, the one from back then. The camera dwells on the inscription on a stone tablet: ‘Forever remember our Parents, brothers, sisters and children murdered and burned by fascists in the year 5701. Let their Souls be bound securely in the Bundle of the Living. For Jews of Riga Ghetto, the Martyrs of Faith’.
In The Jewish Street Herz Frank outlines the story. The Russian occupation, then the German. The latter called a liberation by some, but disavowed by the film. It describes new suppression. The Latvian flag was removed everywhere, the picture shows the arrests being made, and the director comments in his voiceover, “Like in all times they started with temples.” The synagogues burn. The investigation concentrates on the fate of the Jews.
Above an expansive landscape of Riga’s ghetto with the Catholic Church on one side and the evangelical church on the other, the voiceover tells that over near the horizon above the neighbourhood is Rumbula, Riga’s Babyi Yar, as he puts it.
The Christian churches confine and guard the ghetto; the elements of Frank’s analysis summarizing their accusations in quiet ascertainment. No reason to shout any more; just adding these local facts to what I already know is enough. And I nod to myself in the cinema darkness, the placement of the churches, yes, the Babyi Yar massacre, yes.
The film is a description of the director’s investigation. He methodically works his way towards an appalling knowledge of what happened and towards understanding the inevitable fate of the Jewish people. I follow him from witness to witness, archive document to archive document. As the film gains insight into these shocking events, so do I.
I am witnessing the director’s personal project. I see him in the picture holding the camera on his shoulder. (A big one. This is before the compact DV’s were introduced, laying the groundwork for the video note, the cinematic outline.) He is the one looking up facts in the stacks of books in the beautiful Jewish library in Stockholm, opening the archive boxes.
On the trip through the worn streets and dilapidated buildings of the former ghetto, we enter inner courtyards and outbuildings. At one spot, a surprising artefact in the middle of this story’s monuments. A suitcase is brought out from an outbuilding. I see that the suitcase’s owner is Adele Sara Wolff, her name still clearly painted on the suitcase. What happened to her? This object from the past crystallizes the recollection of this overwhelming sequence of events into one tangible moment. ‘Museum pieces are memories,’ as Danish painter Asger Jorn once said.
One of the witnesses in Herz Frank’s investigation is novelist and physician Bernhard Press. He wrote the book Judenmord in Lettland 1941-1945 (The Murder of Jews in Latvia, 1941-1945). I meet him together with the director and his film on this guided tour through uncluttered landscapes, but at a point in time when I have become disoriented and have entrusted everything to my guide. Press talks energetically as he stands in some kind of corridor that wanders off into darkness, and I hear his story in one of the condensed sequences of this narrative dramatization. When Press was a young man, he escaped from Riga’s ghetto before the extermination, but after the Russian occupation of Latvia, and ended up in Gulag. He worked as a doctor in a Siberian prison camp where he met a man who had been put there because he was a Nazi collaborator. The man suffered from paralysis in his legs and had given up all hope. Press, however, got him going, planned a physical training program and built a special wheelchair for him. After this the man improved. Press tells that “after a month or so he started walking with a stick. When I asked him, ‘Why are you imprisoned?’ he answered, ‘Because I shot those hooked nosed.’ He meant Jews. What does a Jewish doctor do in this situation? I kept treating him. What else could I do? I couldn’t violate my Hippocratic oath, so I took revenge in a childish way. When he was released from the camp as a disabled man, he went to his relatives somewhere in the East. He asked me to give him a letter for his future doctor. I wrote something on a slip of paper and sealed it in an envelope. It said, ‘Your paralysis is God’s punishment for your sins.’ A Jew’s revenge.”
In Anything Can Happen, Marcel Lozinski takes his six-year-old son to the park and asks him to ride around on his push scooter and occasionally stop at the benches and start talking with whomever – mainly elderly persons – is sitting there. The film crew follow him around recording the interactions from a great distance without being seen. Six-year-old Tomek is equipped with a small, wireless microphone and has received general instructions as to what he should do and what he should talk with the people about. Otherwise the boy improvises the conversations.
One smiles and laughs during these all told nineteen conversations that in their childlike wisdom wonderfully cover many serious human problems. This is first time I have ever seen the hidden camera technique used for anything but making the participants look ridiculous to the audience. This film does exactly the opposite: it reconstructs personal dignity.
It starts with a refusal. The young main character – easy to spot in his red jacket – has to give up and continue riding his push scooter along the footpaths in the park. Between every bench encounter, he is accompanied by a Strauss waltz on the soundtrack as he rushes along, giving the viewer a few seconds to think about what has just been said. The first, however, is the rejected advance.
The next person in the series lets the child talk, but does not give him seriousness and truth in return. Wants to playfully tease him instead: “My name is Don Juan,” he answers when the boy asks. This arouses wonder as it sounds French to the boy, who is unfamiliar with the famous seducer. But he accepts it as a reply. “My name is Tomek Lozinski,” he doesn’t try to conceal anything by contrast. I am who I am. The son of a famous filmmaker. Currently making a scene in his next film. This is the world of candour and reality. This is how we use films here.
The introduction continues in the fourth conversation. Though Tomek doesn’t know who Don Juan is, he is quite adept at flattering a woman: “You are very elegant,” he says to an old, well-dressed lady, and she instructs him in her technique of how to match the colours of her outfits.
The ingenious dialogue – which must have been fashioned during the editing of many metres of footage from the nine days of improvised shootings – continues embroidering in its own Socratic style. There are nineteen conversations in all on being a child and an adult, on the war, on the length of life, on love, divorce, sickness, poverty, money, sorrow and death.
In the nineteenth conversation, an old man describes the sorrow he feels over the death of his wife. And about the significance of her memory. He still feels he is together with his beloved in the rooms at home, and Tomek acknowledges that his mother felt the same way when grandfather died. And the little boy quiets Death, “If someone dies, it doesn’t mean you will never see her again. Perhaps Death will stop,” – and he explains by holding up his flat hand in a stopping gesture – “and life will return. It might happen!” Anything can happen.
Ferenc Moldoványi: Deca-Fëmijët (Children, Kosovo 2000), Hungary, 2001
Herz Frank: Ebreju iela (The Jewish Street), 1993
Marcel Lozinski: Wszystko sie moze przytrafic (Anything Can Happen), 1995