Present Histories: An Interview with Ruth Beckermann
The last two editions of One World Romania, Bucharest’s (and, arguably, the whole country’s) most important documentary film festival, have seen a somewhat stark shift in tone from its first ten outings. Previously, the festival concentrated on topical, narrative-driven films; it was a summit tailored to an audience more interested in politics, activism, and social affairs than in cinema as an art form. (In fact, the more formally challenging entries were grouped in a thematic sidebar titled “Delicatessen.”) Since last year though, the festival has shifted towards a more aesthetically-minded selection under the leadership of Andrei Rus (film critic and lecturer at Bucharest’s National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale”), championing films that extensively use found footage material and more experimental approaches to narrative, while still pertaining to the general topic of human rights.
This year, at the festival’s 12th outing, soberly titled “30” (a reference to the number of years that have passed since anti-communist revolutions swept across Central and Eastern Europe), One World Romania distilled a vision of documentary as an all-too-important tool in understanding past events that have shaped contemporary life. So it seems only natural that this edition featured a small retrospective of Ruth Beckermann’s work and included: The Paper Bridge (1987), East of War (1996), Homemad(e) (2001), and The Waldheim Waltz (2018).
Over the course of a career spanning more than 30 years, Beckermann’s unique body of work has mostly dealt with the long-lasting effects of the 20th century’s most traumatic historical experiences: mainly, the Second World War and its impact on the Jewish community in Central and Eastern Europe, with a keen focus on how Austria has negotiated its own involvement in the war. Employing a cinematic language that is oftentimes deeply personal — many of her documentaries resemble essay films and frequently have diaristic voiceovers — Beckermann’s characters, caught in the fray of history, are seen both in the present and the past. Whether regarding historical figures, like Princess Sisi, Paul Celan or Kurt Waldheim, or films that touch upon the lives of everyday people, Beckermann has a singular capacity to meld a complex view of history, politics, and cinema with a profoundly humanistic and empathetic approach.
I encountered Ruth Beckermann at the Gabroveni Inn, a 200-year-old building in the historical city center — and what better place to ask for a meeting with a filmmaker so deeply preoccupied with the histories that lie beneath the surface of the present? As we wait for the interview room to be prepared, she asks me for a cigarette and wanders for a while underneath the brick arches of the building, gazing intently at its masonry. She’s probably seen Bucharest before, at least while she was shooting The Paper Bridge, a haunting testimony of the Jewish communities living in Bukovina in the late ‘80s, who are still feeling the effects of the Holocaust and the region’s Austro-Hungarian legacy. While wandering around, Beckermann’s gaze seems curious, vivid, and spontaneous — as befits a director with such an impressive and ever-fresh outlook on life. We get ushered into the room as the adjacent hall is screening one of her most renowned films — East of War, which she is keen on rewatching bits of before she participates in a Q&A with a packed audience.
The following interview has been translated from German. Some phrases have been edited for consistency.
Your work is very personal. Your own life almost always seems to be the point of departure in your films. Is it difficult to represent your life, your way of seeing things on screen?
I think every person who creates a film, a work of art, a book… always starts out from his or her own life and feelings. But then again, the themes that interest me don’t really have much to do with my own life. However, there must be something that has an emotional attraction, or else you cannot actually create something that is truly interesting.
The point of view always strikes me as being subjective. As if it were an open invitation to see things through your own eyes.
Yes, well… I never attempt at objectivity. I don’t believe that there is such a thing as objectivity. Even when some claim it — like they do sometimes on television, that a given documentary film is being objective — that is not accurate. The point of view is the gaze of a person, and all that you do while making a film — how you cut the film, how you place the camera — is always a subjective decision.
At the same time, you almost always include scenes — like in The Paper Bridge, where the characters are wondering if you can understand what they’re talking about due to the language barrier, or sometimes even by including certain thoughts in the voiceover — that make the viewer aware of the work that is taking place behind the camera. Why do you include such Brechtian moments?
I think I enjoy making the act of filming transparent. And I also like it when the people in front react to me and react to the camera. For example, in The Paper Bridge, when, in the cemetery, this man is [not] playing for us, actually, [but] playing with us. I enjoy interaction.
The camera is never an invasive or an aggressive presence in your films. Many times, even in observational documentaries, the camera occupies a somewhat uncomfortable space. They react as if the camera is a means for them to express themselves, their own voices. How do you work with the protagonists during the shooting itself?
It’s very spontaneous, in fact. I don’t do any prep talks, so to say. Naturally, I do speak to them before we start shooting, but we talk about something else — and when the camera’s rolling, only then do we start the interview, the discussion, whatever it may be. This is probably the reason why things appear as very lively, very spontaneous. That’s the way I actually work.
What comes first? The text used in the voiceover (for the films that have it) or do you first finish shooting? And how does this influence the editing?
Well, yes, [writing the text] is a process. Of course, I begin by writing a report. I do a lot of research, read, and get ideas about what I would like to shoot, and then I try to find them. But, oftentimes, I also find other things. For example, when I was driving in northern Romania [for The Paper Bridge], I didn’t know whom exactly I would meet. Not at all. I knew to a certain degree what places I would like to drive to in this area, in Bukovina [a historical region in north-eastern Romania], which was part of the Austrian Empire a long time ago. I knew I wanted to shoot something there, during wintertime, and had thought of different reasons why I wanted to do it. Some I discovered, some not, others I found on the spot. For example, the man in the graveyard, I discovered him by coincidence, and then he led us to this place.
This is the way I work, and naturally I also take some notes beforehand, or sometimes during the shooting — but the actual text, the voiceover itself, takes shape during the editing. So, the text must be in a direct relationship with the images. It’s a complicated issue because you don’t want to describe what’s on screen, but there has to be a meeting point between the two. It’s a pretty hard process to write this text.
Regarding the films where you forfeit the usage of the voiceover, how do you arrive at this decision?
Well, for some films I simply don’t want to do voiceover. For example, East of War, the one that’s screening right now, is a pure documentary rather than an essay film. And it has to do with what is said and what is done, which then must be edited in a way that conveys meaning, which should also be interesting and lead to other things.
I found some fragments on the Internet of a journal you kept during the shooting and I thought it was very powerful. How come you decided to forego it in this specific case?
I found that the film doesn’t need a text. I had to write the diary because I was there every single day shooting at the exhibition. It was a very emotional shoot for me, with all these old men, these former soldiers… And it became necessary for me to write down my feelings. But I didn’t want this film to be too personal. Of course, it’s my film, every single decision belongs to me, essentially — but not every film needs a text. I don’t use one in American Passages (2011) either, in others a very small one… it’s not a practice that one can generalize.
With East of War, have you ever felt that the men you portray in the film relate to you in a different way because you are a woman?
In the case of this film, yes, of course. I even used that to my advantage, the fact that I am a woman. The majority of them wanted to describe the war in a very precise manner — the specific military branch in which they were conscripted and so on. I always told them that I was uninterested in that. I wanted to know what they saw, what they did. They constantly wanted to discuss different things. And I think they probably didn’t even take me seriously because I am a woman. But that was a good thing in the end because it was like they were at church confessing. Nobody even asked me why I was making this film, or for whom. So they had a desire to speak. Naturally, that was a good thing.
I would like to ask you about the overarching themes in your work. Many of your films are preoccupied with the long-term effects of World War II, about Jewish identity, Austrian identity, of how former Nazis assimilated into society after the war. How do you document these topics and how does the domestic audience react to them?
Well, I’ve been in this business for a long time and it’s different every single time. East of War was very agitating. There were many discussions in its wake, which is a good thing! Many people asked their parents afterwards where they had been during the war. Of course, my films aren’t made only for an Austrian audience, but they mostly open up debates here. After The Waldheim Waltz too, of course. Mostly positive reactions — almost nobody would still defend him, or would state that Austria was just a victim of the war. Things are no longer perceived that way. Some films generate lesser debates, depends on the topic.
But I am interested in the topic of memory — a grand topic — and how people remember their own lives.
Does it have to do with Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil?”
Hannah Arendt is an important intellectual authority for me… I think cinema has a very strong relationship to memory. But still, somehow, it always only shows the present. Even when you make a film, say, about the Middle Ages, you make it today with today’s views. Even historical films are actually about the moment in which they are made. East of War is a film about the state of these memories in 1996. These men wouldn’t have spoken ten years earlier. Ten years later, they would have been dead. So it’s actually a film about the state of self-awareness at the end of the ‘90s, and the first time when the Wehrmacht was actually discussed. Before that, they’d always claimed the Wehrmacht was OK and clean — only the SS had been evil.
This state of self-awareness is always at hand. American Passages was shot right after Obama was elected, and the global financial crisis was just starting. The U.S. was in a very delicate situation, and naturally, you can also sense it in the film.
From this point of view, how would you discuss The Waldheim Waltz? What makes this topic timely and important nowadays?
It’s a film that shows how politicians win elections, about how you construct an “enemy.” Waldheim won the elections because he appealed to a sort of patriotism that was tacitly against Americans and Jews. That’s why I believe this film is topical. Because nowadays populists win elections by positing refugees or immigrants as the Other, as enemies. They appeal to, and create, a feeling of sticking together against this perceived enemy.
I feel the characters in your films are caught between capital-H History and personal, intimate history. There is always a connection between the personal and the political. How do you integrate these very particular stories, from very different people, in a larger context?
Every single one of us has their own, little (hi)story. Yet every life is part of the bigger history at play. And its influence can be felt. I just visited Sarajevo, and everyone there has his or her own story of the Balkan Wars. It was a part of their lives. So, for me, this reveals itself on its own — the relationship to history and to politics
What would you call your hardest film? Not just production-wise, but on an emotional level as well.
Judging by the confrontations, facing the men in East of War was very hard. But the film itself wasn’t hard to make. The hardest is to have the feeling that you are lost, that you can’t find your way in the process, the concept, and the structure. You also feel alone in that place. But that’s a part of filmmaking, the moment of questioning. Some films are very strenuous, like American Passages. We were in a different place every single day, having to be on constant alert in order to find what you want to shoot. It’s very arduous, especially if you have days where you can’t find anything. Then you consider your three-to-four teammates, who are there and have to get paid for their work still, this costs a lot of money, the morale lowers… Those are hard moments, the most uncomfortable.
The 12th One World Romania festival, held between March 15 and March 24, programmed a retrospective dedicated to the work of Ruth Beckermann.