Poland, 2011, 57 min. | Poland, Germany, 2012, 29 min,
Tonia and Her Children is a film about the consequences of the ideological choices of parents and the impact of them on their children. A story of siblings, Werka and Marcel Lechtman, who were sent to an orphanage when their pre-war communist mother was sent to prison, accused of being an American spy. The protagonists recollect the past and try to understand their mother’s choices.
Two women, one house. A story about a Pole and a German on enemy sides and their parallel lives that are accidentally brought together. The film confronts the similarities shared by different experiences. The visual narration is guided by memories and archives. Here traditional documentation confronts the experimental use of archival footage giving a cinematic impression.
In Tonia and Her Children the arrest-ridden life of Tonia Lechtman is reconstructed by her two children and filmmaker Marcel Lozinski. The other film, My House Without Me, reconstructs the parallel experiences of a German and a Polish woman during and after the Second World War.
Both films rely on the memories of their protagonists. It is commonly understood that human memory is notoriously fallible. These two films do not present memories as completed, recountable histories but as products of mental work, constructed and reworked in dialogues with others and with artefacts.
Tonia Lechtman was Jewish, Polish, and a communist. Not a very fortunate combination in her time, it turns out. The film starts quite conventionally: through photos we are introduced to Tonia and her daughter and son, Werka and Marcel. The film continues with the children’s (they are now past middle-age) recollections from the early fifties, when Tonia had to leave them in a children’s home because she had to face charges of bourgeois sympathies and collaboration with the enemy.
The aesthetics of Tonia And Her Children seem pretty straightforward: Werka and Marcel sit at a table with filmmaker Marcel Lozinski and reconstruct their mother’s life story with the help of documents, letters, photo’s, film, their own, and each others’ memories. Shot in black and white, and consisting mainly of close-ups and medium close-ups, brother and sister remember, talk, read letters and reports, discuss pictures, and comment. Lozinski listens, nods, asks a question or two, and shows footage of Tonia, shot for an unfinished film decades ago, when he was still in film school.
The aesthetics of My House Without Me are more complex: interview shots and direct observation combined with archive footage and photographs, images including time codes projected on wooden panels and walls, layered images, and voice are used to construct the narrative. The various images suggest a unity between the women, the places, and the events portrayed in them, something that becomes apparent at the end: the women lived in the same house, albeit consecutively. The sources are as diverse as can be and are not united in time and space, as is the case in Tonia And Her Children, so it’s up to the viewer to make the connections.
Rather than memory as a story stemming from an individual human source, both films present memory as a narrative dialogue between one’s own ideas about a past event and other elements. Recounting in Tonia and Her Children their shared history of living in a children’s home, Werka and Marcel at times complement each other – like when Marcel recounts how there used to be an assembly in the mornings at the children’s home and Werka adds that it started with the raising of the flag. At other times they contradict each other, like when Werka recounts how often Marcel cried and was bullied and how she would come to his rescue and get bruises. Marcel responds: “That’s all not true.” Lozinski leaves it an open question, thereby accepting the differences between the siblings. Through such dialogues the films addresses the fallibility of memory as well as the way it is recounted in dialogue with others.
Reading his mother’s statement, in which she admits to bourgeois sympathies, causes Marcel distress: “These can’t be my mother’s words.” Lozinski then shows footage from the unfinished film in which Tonia talks about how she admitted to these allegations. Having watched this on film, Marcel can’t deny it any longer. Here, the dialogue through which memory is constructed is between Marcel and an artefact, the old film material and Tonia’s statement in it. The film further adds to his knowledge about his mother and his memory of her: she becomes someone who did indeed sign a statement and his memory of her will change. Memory therefore is also fluid.
In My House Without Me, two unnamed women, one speaking Polish and one speaking German, recount stories about the war; mini-histories of their experiences, about loss, death, labour, and food. About the dog that was run over by a Russian soldier; about a brother dying of pneumonia; about wolves eating one of the oxen that pulled a cart to transport vegetables; about the horrible food; about a sister getting drunk when the war ended. These stories, anecdotes if they weren’t so tragic, present memory as fragmented; like everyday memories, they just seem to start somewhere, to just pop up.
Archive footage accompanies the events recounted. Some of this however is so generic that it has become part of our collective memory: soldiers raising one arm, refugees walking the streets, cities in ruins. The singular memories of the two women contextualized by archive footage that represents a collective memory together tell a larger story: the story of war, of occupation and eviction, of home and displacement. My House Without Me simultaneously dissects memories into separate stories of everyday events and unites these memories to tell the larger story. The two women once lived in the same house. At the end of the war, one had to leave and the other came to live there.
At several instances both films show self-reflexivity. In the beginning of Tonia And Her Children, the three at the table discuss their positioning with reference to filming. They look at a monitor, Lozinki asks whether the angle is right, and Werka needs to move. Later, Marcel, reading one of Tonia’s letters, in which she addresses him as “my beloved bunny”, asks: “Mother wrote that?” and thus comments on the narrative under construction. In My House Without Me videoimages including time codes are projected on various surfaces. At one point, the Polish lady states she is not going to cry as she has cried enough in her life – thereby commenting on perceived expectation about her emotional involvement. Both films also contain jump cuts. All these elements draw attention to the films’ own construction, to their nature as constructed artefacts. This way, the construction of memory through dialogue is reflected in the films’ reflexivity: the films are artefacts constructed in dialogue with the participants, archive material, and technology. This makes these films meta-narratives about the construction of stories, be they histories, memories, or films.