Film Democracies

by Philipp Stadelmaier

Author and film critic Philipp Stadelmaier is currently writing a dissertation about Godard‘s Histoire(s) du cinema and Serge Daney. In 2017 he published “Die Mittleren Regionen”, an essay on terrorism and freedom of speech.

 

Ruth Beckermann’s The Waldheim Waltz, Marie Wilke’s Aggregate, and Kristina Konrad’s Unas preguntas (One or Two Questions) use cinematic forms to reproduce democratic processes. Independent of their different geographic and historical contexts, they each make reference to the same central problem facing today’s democracies: How can we coexist in democratic, just and peaceful fashion in face of the challenges posed by the renewed strength (or historical endurance) of anti-democratic tendencies? What does it mean to live with those from the right? This question undergoes a shift within the cinematic context: it must be formulated via sounds and images.  
The three filmmakers thus collect footage of various kinds that corresponds to a large number of political stakeholders; their films are places of assembly in both a cinematic and a democratic sense, where different types of film material and different participants in the democratic process come together and raise their voices. For The Waldheim Waltz, Beckermann dug up old video footage of hers originally shot during the 1986 Austrian presidential campaign and edited it together with television footage from the period. The result is at once a polyphonic picture of the protests against controversial candidate Kurt Waldheim – whose suppressed Nazi past came to light at the time, as did that of an entire country – and a portrait of Waldheim’s adversaries and defenders (as well as of Waldheim himself, of course). The images in Aggregate function more like a democratic agora: The camera provides a framework which allows people to speak, discuss and perform. Wilke toured present-day Germany, filming visitors in the German Bundestag, public forums and Pegida demonstrations, while the question is raised among politicians and media outlets as to how one should best deal with angry right-wing masses and xenophobic attitudes. Like Beckermann’s film, Konrad’s Unas preguntasconsists of video footage, which in this case was shot between 1987 and 1989 in Uruguay. Following the end of the military dictatorship, the filmmaker gathered an impressive collection of images and opinions on the streets of Montevideo by asking people about an upcoming referendum to abolish the law granting impunity for the military, who had abducted, tortured and murdered during the dictatorship, with referendum supporters and opponents facing off as a result.
At the same time, the image of the agora is also a place of horror here, lurking just barely beneath the surface of what’s visible. If you look at Kurt Waldheim long enough, for example, as he stands onstage at a campaign event while the camera slowly zooms out from his face to take in his hands and their long, bony fingers that seem to hover directly in front of his face, it’s hard not to identify him with a character from a horror film. Beckermann explains in voiceover that at the time it was the candidate’s hands and smile that fascinated her so much. One might add that hands and smiles are more likely to bring to mind Murnau’s Nosferatu or Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger. Many years later, sometime around 2016–2017, similar creatures appear in Aggregate. As the Pegida demonstrators march toward the camera, they do so not only under extraordinarily grey skies, but also cannot help but conjure up the image of an army of zombies emerging from the depths of traditional nationalistic nostalgia, moving towards the audience waving their German flags and decked out all the accompanying folklore paraphernalia. In Unas preguntas, the horror is ultimately more subtle, less visible. It is concealed in the voices of the people interviewed on the street, in their stories of torture, rapes and disappearances from the time of the military dictatorship that has only just ended. These images of the agora recall the horror that lies beneath them, half invisible and half still shining through, yet to vanish entirely and always ready to return.
What never actually disappeared and constantly threatens to return is the past, the product of supressed history and historical guilt. Waldheim, who until 1981 was the secretary general of the United Nations, evidently had a far more stellar Nazi career than he had ever admitted previously, and was guilty of moral complicity in war crimes and deportations at the very least. Even after the charges became public, however, he continued to deny ever having known anything. By specifically drawing on the figure of Waldheim the old Nazi, Beckermann demonstrates that Austria’s refusal to deal with its involvement in Nazism was tantamount to having preserved the purest form of anti-Semitism. Waldheim and members of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) referred to the revelations uncovered by the World Jewish Congress as a smear campaign and a foreign attempt to intervene in the election (by a “small but influential group”), while the good citizens of the Alpine country were able to scream that “Jews rule the world” on the streets of Vienna. In Konrad’s film, it is the connection between amnesia and the fact that everything swept under the carpet constantly returns which catches the eye: A campaign commercial which demands that the amnesty law remain in place celebrates a series of previous amnesties in Uruguayan history – in such a way that the original intention of the commercial becomes turned on its head, as it becomes blatantly obvious that it was precisely such repeated attempts to forget or repress the past that must have led to the conflicts recurring in the first place.
Such forms of repression do not function without demands for truth being voiced in parallel, according to which political discourse is then conducted. For Beckermann and Konrad, the right wing claims that any attempts to bring past crimes to the surface are mere lies and smear campaigns, whereas for Wilke it’s the Pegida demonstrators who feel disappointed and that they’ve been lied to by the current German government, albeit without offering  a single concrete example of why they feel this way. Taking all three films together, they paint a very topical picture of how the concept of “truth” is being hijacked in right-wing discourses in the post-factual age: one claims it and seizes it simply by accusing the others of lying. The work being carried out by the filmmakers here is by no means to conduct some sort of historical reconstruction or verification of the facts. Their interest doesn’t lie in reconstructing the truth and thus claiming it for themselves to respond to such charges of lying. And they are equally not saying that no truth exists. Their approach is far more simple and subtle: They restrict themselves to showing how truth in political discourse is created via the media and that this is what opens it up to doubt and relativisation.
Perhaps the political struggle takes place more between images than between different discourses, such as between the colours that became the logos of the rival camps in the period leading up to the referendum in Uruguay: the “Greens”, who were in favour of repealing the amnesty for the military, and the “Yellows”, who were opposed. These camps delivered a propaganda battle on television in which two political positions were advertised like just another attractive product among car tires, refrigerators and coffee (Unas preguntas shares certain similarities with Pablo Larraín’s No! here, which is about the advertising campaign for free elections that took place at around the same time, at the end of the Pinochet era in Chile). Even the advertising employed by the Greens, who want to see the military convicted, does not in any way recall the atrocities of the dictatorship; happy people, dancers and combine harvesters appear instead. By continually inserting these television clips into her collection of interviews, Konrad makes the voices gathered in the four hours of film material recognisable as never-ending variations on these two logos – as if Konrad were conducting a survey of customers to find out which product they prefer. The (advertising) image corresponds less to a concrete political message than to a pure signal, a impulse of a particular colour that lines up the people in different directions.
The filmmakers are filming these discourses more than actively conducting them. This is most obvious in the case of Wilke: The camera is set up and establishes a zone where others voices can be heard. With respect to Konrad, it should be remembered that she did not carry out the interviews herself (a Uruguayan friend did that), but was instead the woman behind the camera. Her tendency to sometimes rapidly move the camera away from her friend’s conversation partners during the interviews to take in the surroundings reveals how fascinated the Swiss woman was with a place she was only starting to get to know independent of any political discussions, having arrived in Uruguay just a short time earlier. This personal reference to the images is also obvious in Beckermann’s film, although she could not have shot all of the footage herself (as she also says in a voiceover), since she can even be recognised in some sequences as one of the activists taking part in the anti-Waldheim protests. The question for her was always whether to document or to demonstrate; the opportunity to take on a stance versus the opportunity to document this stance. In order to record a discourse on film and support it accordingly, one must always to some extent abandon it too. For Beckermann as well, it is precisely through her role as the one filming (and not her role as an activist) that requires her to distance herself from the political discourse somewhat, which then enables these images in turn to produce a different, more direct, more personal form of affect
The specific content of the political discourses tends to remain secondary in all three of these films. The truth is constructed, the dialogue does not take place, the political debate is an advertising battle. And in the same way in which truth in political discourse is personal, relative and subjective, the only possible relationship that can be developed to these images is equally a personal one. But precisely this primacy of personal affect means that the images continue to produce it, with the “truth” of this affect thus offering a counterpoint to the constant relativising of truth in the general sense; an affect that is equal parts politics and film. This affect refers in equal measure to the possibility of being touched by the injustice of history or by the images in question. It makes it possible to experience the difference between left and right as consisting of two contrary notions of history. For those on the right, history has passed, it is completed, it no longer generates affect – past atrocities should be forgotten and repressed. For the others, history never ends; they demand justice and that history be dealt with, reappraised – they demand an opportunity for it to be able to generate affect anew. In this way, images from the 1980s can be freed from the historical date of their production to which the right-wing view would like to confine them so that they can generate affect in us again. Beckermann’s Waldheim footage touches the present, not simply because Austria recently almost elected a president from the far right (and then in fact elected a right-wing conservative government), but because in more general terms, it conveys a story that continues to contain a veritable scream for justice, whose potential to generate affect is still very much intact.
This affect demonstrates just how irreconcilable the opposing notions of history put forward by the left and right actually are. But it also incorporates the image of the right wing, allocating them a position both as images and affects. What pushes its way out of the past into the present in Beckermann and Konrad’s films and what is portrayed by Wilke in the present is the persistence or return of authoritarian and anti-democratic traits in the form of what was previously repressed. It is precisely these images (of the right wing) that generate an effect. In this way, these film democracies enable us to live with right-wing horrors. One cannot coexist with those from the right. But one can with their images.