Life and Death

In Hands of Hungarian Artist, Jewish Home Movies of the ’30s a Warning of Coming Holocaust

Despite the nature of his work, and the rising anti-Semitism in his homeland, Péter Forgács doesn’t consider himself a political artist.

Hannah Arendt showed us the banality of evil in the person of Adolf Eichmann, rumpled and deaf, an old man in an Israeli courtroom, awaiting his fate for being responsible for the destruction of millions of innocent people, mostly Jews. Working in a novel and ingenious medium, Hungarian artist Péter Forgács reminds us of that banality at the Museum of the City of New York with “Letters to Afar,” an exhibition composed of amateur footage shot in the 1930s. The images come from Poland; successful immigrants to America returned with 16mm cameras to film their relatives and shtetls. Old men eat, women chatter, boys run… the films are utterly banal, and not a word is mentioned about the brink of destruction this whole world was teetering on. It is very likely that most of the subjects of these films were destroyed by the Nazis within a decade of filming these home movies. Forgács demands that the viewer make this deduction, forcing an interaction with the work that is powerful and absolutely inescapable.

The medium in which Forgács works is old footage, which makes perfect sense considering that his artistic career is an evolution from his work as a filmmaker. The installation piece so lavishly presented by the Museum of New York and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research included a score provided by the Klezmatics, a New York band that has been recording Klezmer music for 28 years, starting with an album released in Berlin. Yes, Berlin. Bandleader and trumpeter Frank London told me that at the time that was where the money was, and Forgács used the same reasoning to account for the Western locations of most of his work instead of in Hungary. The cooperation with the Klezmatics was inspired, as the footage is silent. The band knows the tradition of Yiddish music well and plays instruments, including the magical klezmer, that would have been heard in the shtetls during the filming in the ’30s.

Not only does the music give the show a certain vibrancy, it also reminds the viewer that it was the Jews who won in the end, as they are still here with a living culture while the Nazis are in history books and prisons (in the case of neo-Nazi resurrectionists).

Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” showed us that evil can be committed from behind a desk without even the stench of sulphur; “Letters to Afar” demonstrates that innocence is just as commonplace in its nature. Is this a political statement as well as an artistic one? Forgács did not care to speculate, repeatedly and vehemently claiming that he is not a political artist. This I found to be disingenuous.

Although this wonderful piece has not appeared in his native land, now seems like an excellent time to remind a Hungarian audience of the innocence of the victims of the Holocaust, who were as ordinary as you and I. Hungary has recently experienced a resurgence of anti-Semitism, both in the streets and officially, care of a political entity called Jobbik, a far-right, nationalist faction that describes itself as “a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party.” It opposes global capitalism, European integration and Zionism. Jobbik has been described as fascist, neo-Nazi, homophobic, and anti-Semitic. It’s the third largest political party in Hungary and holds three seats in the European Parliament.

Hit by the global financial crisis in 2008, Hungary had a bad year then and hasn’t seen much of a rebound since. The demand of being an EU state have been onerous and living conditions have not improved. Following a pattern that was perhaps established in Germany during the humiliating Weimar period after WWI, Jobbik arose to surf the people’s discontent. It claims that it is not anti-Semitic, but its leaders have called for a list of Jews in the government, since they say Jews are likely to be untrustworthy agents of the American-Israeli conspiracy to destroy Hungary. The gypsies have not fared any better with Jobbik. The European Union has noticed, and warned the country that this cannot go on. If ever there was a time for a show like “Letters to Afar” to be shown in Budapest, it is now. But Forgács claims he only works where there are patrons to fund his art. Installations like the glorious one the Museum of New York set up for him do cost a lot of money, and that is the reason he gave for displaying all of his recent work in Western European countries, except for the one time he represented Hungary at the Venice Biennale of 2009.

It is likely that Jobbik and its constituency would prefer to burn Forgács’s footage rather than watch it, but does this represent a majority opinion? Lovasz Laszlo, one of Hungary’s top talking heads, the Magyar Jon Stewart, explained: “In my vicinity I don’t encounter any anti-Semitism but once outside of ‘safe’ circles I do experience it and other types of prejudice. The current Hungarian government assumes that our previous leaders have no responsibility in the horror of the holocaust and assumes that without the Nazis, Shoah would have never taken place in Hungary.” This version of history neatly omits the native Hungarian anti-Semitism, which once called the capital “Judapest” before the German occupation changed their minds.

“Letters to Afar” demonstrates how ordinary the victims were. It forces the viewer to experience the tragedy of what is to come; every smiling mother in the footage is another reminder of the atrocity lurking. Sounds like just the thing to address the attitude that Laszlo describes as common in his and Forgács’ homeland. Jobbik, whose paramilitary militia faction was banned in 2009, won 20 percent of the national vote in April.

If Forgács is not a political artist, then the footage he uses, with great success, might as well be that of Norwegians in the ’30s. Or Paraguayans. But instead he shows us people that will be murdered by politics shortly. It is a choice of medium pre-loaded with meaning. Not mentioning the likely fate of his subjects only conjures it in the viewer’s perception, another artistic achievement. Such a bridge between artwork and viewer could not have occurred with old footage of just any people. And considering the ugliness rising in his native land, Forgács must be seen as a political artist, whether he likes it or not.

Perhaps his reluctance stems from the fact that he has only tenuous connections to Hungary these days. Wahorn Andras, one of the elder statesman of the Hungarian art world, with an international reputation and catalogue of works spanning 40 years, explained that Forgács is hardly a Hungarian artist anymore, which is a shame considering what he could contribute to the situation. “I never hear anyone talk about him,” Andras said. “I think not too many people know what he doing here, since he mostly works abroad. Meanwhile the prime minister says that our role models are Russia and Turkey rather than the Western world, and Hungarians like to believe it.”

Forgács prefers a Western audience open to his subject matter and wealthy enough to fund it. Instead of telling me how his work would operate in the shadow of Jobbik back home, the artist preferred to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher of logic, mind and mathematics. From the philosopher’s Tractatus, Forgács reminds us that “Everything we see could be otherwise. Everything we can describe could also be otherwise.” There are many ways to understand that, but in reference to the installation, as seen with the haunting klezmer tunes emitted from high-tech sound domes installed by the Museum of the City of New York in front of every screen, I understood the thought to mean that when created, the footage had an utterly different meaning from what it has now, and that this is a reminder of the flux of life, fragility of historical record, and relativity of perception. So if the work of Forgács makes me think of Jobbik as well as the Holocaust, that is my right. As is my understanding of this work as political. Perhaps other viewers of “Letters to Afar” will feel the same; were it shown in Budapest, I imagine that few could avoid the connection.

The nobility of “Letters to Afar” lies in its resurrection of a lost world, utterly banal and innocent. The artist put it best himself. He explained that his goal is “to give back the faces, voices and existence of the murdered and lost.” Political or not, shown in New York or Budapest, it is a worthy achievement composed with taste and subtlety. Art is often said to “speak” to its viewer, but it is rare for this to happen so viscerally and clearly. As much as I like the abstractions of Jackson Pollock, I don’t quite understand what the canvases are saying except in the vaguest of terms. Standing before the carefully put together footage of the everyday life of innocents due to be murdered, with Yiddish tunes completing the effect, Forgács did it. His work spoke to me, across the centuries, past the Holocaust, through a screen and right to my soul.