April 2018, arsenal cinema

Ruth Beckermann Retrospective

DIE GETRÄUMTEN, 2016

Ruth Beckermann has been making documentaries for 40 years. Her name stands for a political cinema that explores Austria, Judaism, questions of individual background and collective identity, as well as their fractures and ambivalences, on the basis of precise observation. The Nazi era, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and migration are subjects in all of her works. From a trilogy of films about Jewish life (WIEN RETOUR, DIE PAPIERENE BRÜCKE, NACH JERUSALEM) to her first and only feature film so far, DIE GETRÄUMTEN, and her current film WALDHEIMS WALZER, for which she has just won the Berlinale’s Documentary Award, Beckermann’s multi-layered oeuvre has been characterized by multi-faceted passages between the present and the past. Her examination of history always takes place alongside present constellations. A journey usually underlies her films, movement is their constitutive moment: the movement of a journey, quest, thought process. Beckermann does not seek to find a closed narrative form, but is consistently open to various approaches, with her film practice becoming freer and more essayistic over the years. She transmits her always personal perspective as an off-screen narrator and commentator; her documentary work is distinguished by the presence of her unmistakeable voice with its tinge of Viennese.
Arsenal is presenting a program of the 11 feature-length documentaries made by Ruth Beckermann between 1983 and 2018. We are very pleased to welcome the filmmaker for a series of Q&As from 19th to 21st April thanks to the support of the Austrian Cultural Forum. A book about Beckermann’s oeuvre published in 2016 (by Alexander Horwath and Michael Omasta) will be on sale at the box office.

WALDHEIMS WALZER (The Waldheim Waltz, Austria 2018, 19.4., in the presence of Ruth Beckermann) The former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s campaign for the Austrian presidency in 1986 set the affair about his denied Nazi past in motion. In the film, the positions of the various stakeholders – illustrated by excerpts from the press conferences of the World Jewish Congress, debates in the UN General Assembly, hearings in the US Congress as well as statements by the Austrian People’s Party and its candidate – are complemented by Ruth Beckermann’s subjective, analytical commentary in voiceover. She’s also there in the video footage she shot herself, documents of an oppositional movement that show anti-Waldheim events and verbal disputes with resentful and anti-Semitic passersby. Rabble-rousing, slander, media-bashing and populism all broke new ground here. A lot of time has passed, but it’s not over yet.

DIE PAPIERENE BRÜCKE (Paper Bridge,Austria 1987, 20.4., in the presence of Ruth Beckermann & 28.4.) A rabbi slaughtering cocks, a furrier with his pelts, women farmers in a steamroom, a Hebrew teacher, a Jewish cemetery, a Hannukah celebration - the vestiges of a Jewish community that once flourished in eastern Europe. On trips to Bukovina and northern Romania, to Tel Aviv and on a TV set in Yugoslavia, where she listens to extras in a reconstruction of the ghetto of Theresienstadt, Ruth Beckermann asks the question: Who are we, the children of the survivors? Starting out from the traces of her own family history and in Vienna, where her grandmother survived the war by pretending to be mute and going into hiding, to which her mother returned from Israel and where her father got a foothold in the textile district after the war, Beckermann also returns - to 1986 Vienna where sympathizers of Kurt Waldheim display anti-Semitism and fascism at work.

THOSE WHO GO THOSE WHO STAY (Austria 2013, 20.4., in the presence of Ruth Beckermann & 23.4.) Football-crazy Nigerian asylum seekers in southern Italy, emigrants in Paris, girls playing mini-golf, a suitcase with old dolls, a queue of people on a mountain path, discussions about the principle of fate and Satan, a passage with Mister Zwilling, the Jewish teacher from Czernowitz, the aged mother’s memories of fleeing Austria in 1938 - taking on a radical personal form, this sketch-like film tells the story of being on a journey, in Europe, around the Mediterranean and in one’s own life. It creates a chain of associations about escape, exile, migration with many loose ends, integrating footage and motifs from Beckermann’s archive or earlier works and is the expression of a thought process between self-identity and its historical and social references.

DIE GETRÄUMTEN (The Dreamed Ones, Austria 2016, 21.4., in the presence of Ruth Beckermann & 28.4.) A young woman (Anja Plaschg) and a young man (Laurence Rupp) read in a Vienna Broadcasting House studio from the almost 20-year correspondence of the lovers Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, important German-language poets after 1945. Longing, reproaches, doubts, closeness, alienation, separation and long periods of silence can be heard. The struggle to find words can be felt. And what the words inspire can be seen on the faces of those reading. Not only the text but its impact too is performed - and sometimes discussed. The intensity of the relationship between the Austrian woman and the Jewish man from Czernowitz is highlighted by the fascinating language, the presence of the actors and the camera and montage, which disperse the dialogue with different perspectives and shot sizes. Talks during breaks, while smoking, in the staircase or in the canteen point to the present. History, which turned out to be stronger than the love, is never out of sight.

JENSEITS DES KRIEGES (East of War, Austria 1996, 22.4., Introduction: Bert Rebhandl & 26.4.) Fifty years after the end of the Second World War, the itinerant “The war of extermination: the crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944” exhibition curated by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research was displayed in Vienna. Without leaving the exhibition space and without showing any of its pictures, Ruth Beckermann observes and interrogates visitors, but only those who might have been eyewitnesses, veterans from the eastern front, i.e. former Wehrmacht soldiers. Their comments that she arranges in a serial montage range from excuses, justifications, opportunism, incomprehension to downright denial. Shame and regret are also expressed occasionally. The discussion about knowledge or not, memory and forgetting, perpetrators and victims, guilt and responsibility takes stock of a whole generation.

NACH JERUSALEM (Towards Jerusalem, Austria 1991, 23.4.) A mosaic of impressions, encounters and discussions on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem: an Arab engineer who can only work as a gas station attendant in Israel, dough-making in an Orthodox bakery, construction workers from Gaza, a sewing course in a religious school, a toy seller who lost his family in Auschwitz, Russian jews who have just moved to Israel and Ethiopians who do not speak Hebrew, mosques without electricity. Shots and radio news bulletins report on the Intifada off-screen. What happened to the dream of a Jewish homeland? The old longing for which there is no real place shines through the snapshots which are punctuated by the recurring motif of Tchaikovsky’s “Sérénade mélancolique”: At the end of this documentary road movie is a gas station with Elvis memorabilia - and not Jerusalem.

AMERICAN PASSAGES (Austria 2011, 24. & 29.4.) A journey across the US. It begins in New York the day of Barack Obama’s election and ends at a roulette table in Las Vegas. Two years lie in between and a collection of countless encounters and observations in 11 states: disillusioned Iraq War veterans, gay adoptive fathers, black female judges, white party animals, children at school, a wedding, a gathering of evangelicals, female convicts on an anti-drug program, charity ladies, houses at risk of foreclosure, universities, supermarkets, memorials, diners, gas stations, highways. An epic panorama from the perspective of a European - and a multi-voiced portrait of a country which has safeguarded the pursuit for happiness in its constitution.

WIEN RETOUR (Return to Vienna, Ruth Beckermann & Josef Aichholzer, Austria 1983, 25.4.) The Jewish socialist Franz West (1909–85) used to be called Weintraub before emigrating. He recalls his youth in Vienna from 1924 to 1934, talking about the multi-faceted Jewish community of the “Mazzesinsel”, his enthusiasm for football, his participation in Red Vienna’s worker’s movement, the rise of Austrian fascism and National Socialism and his escape into exile. West’s carefully balanced formulations and his memorable voice are supplemented with historical documents, in the form of photos and film that were unknown at the time, to create a big tale between subjectivity and precise reflection. As West says himself, this story about the fate of an individual, where the private and the political were linked inextricably, could have been told by thousands of others. A journey into Austria’s inter-war period.

EIN FLÜCHTIGER ZUG NACH DEM ORIENT (A Fleeting Passage to the Orient, Austria 1999, 25.4.) Images of Egypt: prolonged tracking shots through the streets of Cairo, cafes, bazars, hotels and gardens, footage of the desert and the sea. Ruth Beckermann is on the trail of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (“Sissi”), who travelled the world restlessly and was in Egypt incognito one hundred years earlier. Since Elisabeth refused to be photographed after the age of 31, she inspires projections and fantasies. In this essay film based on extracts from letters written by the empress, her consort and her reader, as well as the filmmaker’s off-screen commentary, the 19th and 20th centuries are juxtaposed, as are subjective confrontation with the other - of the empress as well as of the country - and the attempt to reflect an orientalist gaze. “Sometimes all layers of time are visible in the space of a few kilometers.”

HOMEMAD(E) (Austria 2001, 27.4.) Between summer 1999 and spring 2000, Ruth Beckermann went on excursions on her own doorstep, exploring her immediate neighborhood - the Marc-Aurel-Straße in Vienna’s first district - with her camera. There’s Café Salzgries and its regulars. There’s Adi Doft, the last Jewish wholesaler in the former textile district and there’s the Iranian hotelier. It’s like a village, everyone knows everyone. In chance encounters, people talk about daily life on the street - but the past and contemporary politics also find their way into the film: The fact that the country has just voted in a “black-blue” government that includes the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria also casts a shadow over the cafe.

ZORROS BAR MIZWA (Austria 2006, 27.4.) A bar mitzvah marks the entry into adulthood. Whether this ritual of initiation takes place at the Wailing Wall or on a stage with footlights, in a Zorro costume or designer clothing, it can be staged in very different ways, as illustrated by four 12-year-olds from Vienna who all have very different family backgrounds, from strictly orthodox to completely assimilated. Apart from the chief rabbi and the cantor, the person who films a bar mitzvah also plays a very important role, documenting the celebration and shooting clips in which the teenagers stage-manage themselves. Ruth Beckermann casts an ironic eye on Jewish tradition and its interpretations; she is is more interested in questions of (self)-representation than religion and shows Viennese Judaism in its religious and ethnic multi-facetedness. (bik)

In cooperation with the Austrian Cultural Forum in Berlin.

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