Cinema’s Alchemist: The Films of Péter Forgács

Bill Nichols & Michael Renov (eds.),
Cinema’s Alchemist: The Films of Péter Forgács
Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011
ISBN: 0816648751
$US27.00 (pb)
320 pp
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press) ‘From the Ruins of a Filmic Memory’

In this rich and detailed book about screen-artist Péter Forgács, various contributors call him by different names: artist-archivist, scribe, witness, poet, cinema alchemist. His body of work is so extensive, innovating across a diversity of mediums and forms, that the term filmmaker only partly suits him. Given the unstable and rapidly changing landscape of digital-documentary filmmaking, this latest Visible Evidence Series (#25) on Forgács and his work is very timely.

‘Documentary’ is at a crossroads – and locally, too. There is much discussion in the documentary community about the demise of the television pre-sale for creatively authored documentaries, with documentary series, reality TV and ‘info-tainment’ the order of the day. Meanwhile, alongside the flood of free documentaries via online ‘VOD’, ‘video artists’ increasingly sell ‘video-art’ to galleries as one-off art objects for high prices. Forgács, in conversation with screen studies scholar Bill Nichols (in Chapter 2 “The Memory of Loss”), is crystal clear where he positions his work “…the didactic documentary…is mostly part of the educational, entertainment wave, planning for infantile expectations. The general landscape of docs is awful, as it was always. Of course the commissioners and programmers are in the pincers of the media. With few exceptions I can’t stand docs. I prefer Kienholz, Duchamp, alchemy and psycho-archaelogy” (45).

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Forgács’ films are so little known in Australia. Yet here is an oeuvre of over forty distinctive films with an impressive international pedigree and critical reputation. Apart from an installation in ACMI’s 2003 exhibition Remembrance and the Moving Image[1] , and a Melbourne Cinematheque screening (2007), there have been no local TV broadcasts; and although there are clips from Forgács’ films on Youtube and Vimeo, these are fragments only. In fact, when I read the essays and interviews in Cinema’s Alchemist, a feeling of loss arises – why is Forgács’ work not more part of our screen culture? Perhaps, then, the publication and wide circulation of this book will develop awareness of his work – its inclusion in screen studies courses and perhaps a major retrospective of his work, including his current installations and ‘database documentaries’.

The book is carefully structured. Part 1 – “Setting the Scene” contains interviews with Forgács by Scott MacDonald and Bill Nichols; these first chapters about the artist-filmmaker’s praxis lay the ground work for the subsequent parts: Part 11 “The Holocaust Films”, and Part 111 which looks at “Other Films/Other Contexts”. Each chapter prepares the reader for another perspective on Forgács’ oeuvre. It’s the interviews and the three closing chapters that closely analyse Forgács’ unique working method, while the central chapters delve more deeply into significant philosophical and historical issues provoked by his films and installations.

Forgács’ method of creating compilation-archival films from hundreds of hours of home movie footage he has collected from across Europe, filmed mostly by Jewish families around the turning point of the tragedy of the Shoah, gives his films an intimacy absent in ‘official’ film footage. Michael Renov’s chapter “Historical Discourses of the Unimaginable” explores Forgács’ distinctive practice in the context of the wider problematic of the “Holocaust as documentary genre” and the profound ethical issues in representing the past (86). He lucidly argues that Forgács’ films do not fall into the trap of aestheticizing the impending horror, or narrativising and displacing trauma elsewhere to avoid the work of mourning. His “collaborative poetic practice”, Renov suggests, grows from his “dual allegiance to historical accountability (his function as witness-scribe) and to the poetic” (93). Forgács’ archive of lovingly collected home movies offers something from a deep space within these families. Bill Nichols in dialogue with Forgács puts it like this: “I experience your films as a gift, an unexpected act of generosity or love, that establishes a relationship beyond obligation or duty” (41).

Kaja Silverman’s chapter, “Waiting, Hoping, among the Ruins and all the Rest”, is an analytic and also poetic exploration of many Forgács films. Taking a broad sweep through his oeuvre she nevertheless focuses close in to discuss specific themes in detail, such as the nature of time, home movies as dreams, and the relationship between public and private. Silverman suggests that exposing such intimate home movies “to the eyes of strangers…is not merely ethically justifiable but ethically imperative” (102). It is in me, the viewer, that the memories of those filmed become alive; I am “this somebody” who the witnesses address (110). Silverman calls this aesthetic strategy “depersonalising affect”; she refers to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “intercorporiety” to suggest viewer, filmmaker and person filmed, are all interconnecting, fleshy bodies; and this becomes potent resistance to the tyrannical, deathly goals of Nazism (102). Silverman also refers to her own process in returning to Forgács’ films “at a later moment in time after reading Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo” (106). In her self-reflexive writing she observes her language slipping from the past tense to the present tense – and in so doing she lovingly brings to the present ‘the real’ fleshy people – lovers, mothers, fathers, babies who inhabit the home movies that Forgács breathes into new life.

Both Michael Renov and Michael Roth discuss The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle (1997) in depth. Renov, in earlier critical essays on documentary, has discussed the historical divide in documentary filmmaking between representing ‘the real’ and a more poetic and imaginative expression.[2] He finds in Forgács’ The Maelstrom a film that transcends this dualism: “Forgács’ films emerge as more meditative vehicles than authoritative documents of a past time” (90). Renov then links to Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukács’ notion of “spontaneous integrity” (91) and the way this is realized in The Maelstrom.

It is in Catherine Portuges’ chapter “Found Images as Witness to Central European History”, that we get a clear sense of the continuity and sweep of Forgács work. Portuges’ study of A Bibo Reader (2001), a film about Hungarian scholar István Bibó, shows the connection between Forgács earlier Holocaust films and “Hungary’s reluctance to confront its responsibility for the persecution and deportation of the Jews and the sequelae of the revolution of 1956” (p.165). Portuges analyses how the film is structured to offer viewers both a study of István Bibó, the humanist scholar, and an essay on the vicissitudes of Hungarian and modern European history. Furthermore she analyses how Forgács achieves this as “a visual and aural poem” (167).

Chapter 12 by Tamás Korányi, “Taking the Part for the Whole”, explores Tibor Szemző’s work as Forgács’ composer. Korányi’s insights reveal how intricate textual strategies – combinations of image and sound – are woven together to create works of “astonishing power” (224). Discussing Free Fall (1996) Korányi suggests that Szemző’s score creates an effect like a liturgy. In a detailed analysis he reveals how Forgács’ achieves such subtle emotional layering in his films –  the way he creates spaces that move fluidly between social documentation and his own subjective interpretation of the found footage. Szemző’s music, Korányi suggests, whether film sound track, installation or live music-film performance, is not merely illustrative – it is “a creative contribution and intervention that changes the meaning of the images and contributes content of its own…some kind of dream, a dream that follows a sort of meditative process…whether a peaceful memory, or something quite abhorrent” (228).

The final two chapters consider Forgács’ more recent installation work by offering a very contemporary discussion on the nature of both analytic and immersive spectatorship in the digital video-art installation space. László F. Földényi’s “Analytical Spaces” is insightful in his discussion on “reality and the simulacrum” and his own personal experience as a viewer-participant: “As I watch them, it is not only a lost world that I see; I also penetrate my personal layers I had thought lost. I continue a dialogue with myself…” (231-232).

Marsha Kinder, in the final chapter “Reorchestrating History”, offers a detailed account of her collaboration with Forgács in transforming his sixty-minute, single channel film and TV video Danube Exodus (1998) “into a large scale, multi-screen immersive installation” for a museum (p235). Kinder’s discussion also functions as a kind of meditation on documentary and changing media forms. There is a new media poetics at play here – and what we call it perhaps doesn’t matter; it’s possible this “data-base documentary-making” encompasses all the aesthetic and practice-based strategies of techne, poesis, poetics and ultimately praxis; and no doubt it is a form that is transforming documentary. Kinder brings a wealth of experience from her work with the Labryinth Project[3] to write a deeply thoughtful essay on memory, history, subjectivity and representation in the digital age. It is an apt and elegant conclusion to this book on Péter Forgács who is truly cinema’s 21st century alchemist.

Once again the prodigious Visible Evidence series[4] provides scholars and screen professionals with a book that considers both the oeuvre of a major documentary screen artist and at the same time extends our thinking around significant questions facing visual, cultural and historical representation in the 21st century.


[1] ACMI, 2003, Péter Forgács’ Bourgeois Dictionaries and Meanwhile Somewhere 1940–1943, (video based archival film displayed as 2 DVD projections), http://www.acmi.net.au/remembrance/flash.html, accessed 8th October 2012.

[2] Michael Renov, ’Charged Vision The Place of Desire in Documentary Film Theory’,The Subject of Documentary, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2004, 93-103.

[3] The Labyrinth Project: research initiative, interactive narrative, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, director M. Kinder: http://dornsife.usc.edu/labyrinth/about.html accessed 8th October 2012.

[4] Visible Evidence, Series Eds. J.M. Gaines & M. Renov: http://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/series/visible-evidence accessed 8th October 2012.

About the Author


Jeni Thornley

Jeni Thornley is a documentary filmmaker and lecturer. Her distinctive poetic essay films, Maidens, To the Other Shore and collectively produced documentary For Love or Money have screened widely both in Australia and internationally. Her most recent documentary, Island Home Country (produced as a DCA at UTS) screened nationally on ABC TV. Jeni teaches at UTS (p/t) focusing on the history of documentary, changing forms and ethics. She also works as a writer, director, script editor, and as a consultant film and video valuer.