It tells the story of Lisl Goldarbeiter, a woman born in 1908 in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who became Miss Universe in 1929. Recalling her life provides Forgács with the opportunity to examine the enormous transformation in the life of the European bourgeoisie, as they moved from imperial subjects (part of Goldarbeiter’s family was in Vienna and another in the Hungarian town of Szeged), to citizens of republics (such as Austria or Hungary), to displaced exiles. The visual elements of the film tell a different story, though, as the scratchiness and variability of the home-movie and archival images (there are clearly several different formats being used here, in what are or are made to look like several different aspect ratios) illustrate how chunky and fading these memories are.
There is a quickness here, almost a jumpiness that adds to this sense of unreliability when it comes to memory. The most interesting part of this is the way that Forgács deploys contemporary video footage of Marci Tenczer, Goldarbeiter’s cousin and eventually her husband. It’s Tenczer who shot almost all of the footage in the film, using home-movie cameras that he had bought as a young man, and so it might seem that it’s his eyes we are seeing all of this through. The editing of these home movies of Tenczer’s tends to be fairly brisk; there’s not a lot of lingering on individual images, even when they are slowed down. But the images of Tenczer in the present day (shot by Forgács on video) are just as brisk; there is none of the talking-head video footage that pollutes too much contemporary documentary. Instead, this editing creates a sort of seamlessness between the present-day imagery and the older material. This is emphasised by Forgács’ occasional pans from close-ups of still images over to Tenczer himself, who is revealed to be sitting just behind the photograph in front of the camera.
Because really, we are seeing this not through Tenczer’s eyes but Forgács’. The home movie images tell part of the story but not all of it; we need Tenczer, too, to get a sense of the degree to which his sense of passion and melancholy defines this little bit of Europe every bit as centrally as Goldarbeiter’s life of aspiration and deep attachment to a complex sense of home (she loved Vienna and struggled to remain connected to it, even during the Communist period when she and Tenczer were settled in Szeged and thus more or less cut off). This is quite a complex mediation, then, on imagery and the way that we use it to tell stories, both about the ways that history shatters entire cultures but also about the way that people remember the love of their life.