The Land of Nothing

The Land of Nothing (1996 Hungary 62 mins)

Dir, Ed, Research: Péter Forgács Phot: László Rátz, and other sources Mus: Tibor Szemzõ

The events recorded by the private cinematographer behave like a paradoxical mirror. One moment is captured in its randomness. And then another and yet another is captured, subsequently fixing those moments into an ordering of facts. The film memory from that point on presents a moment as the only way it could have been. (1)

The Land of Nothing is the ninth entry in Péter Forgács’ landmark series Private Hungary, a collection of connected but independent works made over almost a 20-year-period that draw upon the “private” filmic and photographic artefacts of “ordinary” Hungarian citizens across the middle part of the 20th Century (predominantly documenting the everyday impact of fascism and communism). Forgács has worked closely with the Private Photo and Film Archive to expose and explore a realm of cinematic practice that is often neglected – the home movie – and that can provide important insights into historical events and daily life; not so much as counter-history but as a discrete series of connected but parallel events, records and observations.

In a country such as Hungary, which has undergone numerous revolutions and significant changes in social and political ideology in the last 100 years, these materials can also provide significant insights into aspects and parts of society that have almost disappeared (or in the case of Jewish life before the war, been obliterated) or whose surviving record has been actively neglected or destroyed. Forgács’ approach to this rich archive of material is extraordinarily open, understandably privileging Jewish experience, but nevertheless willing to encompass a range of material and perspectives from across the political, social and ideological spectrum (in some films, such as The Maelstrom [1997], two sets of experiences or home movies are pointedly contrasted).

The Land of Nothing provides a remarkable but unforced insight into both private life and home moviemaking in fascist-era Hungary. The footage compiled covers the years between 1937 and Christmas 1942, and insists upon and utilises the gaps, fragmentations and surprising details that mark non-professional film practice. Although we see glimpses of goose-stepping soldiers, a swastika or two, and images that could be read in terms of Aryan ideology (particularly the somewhat anthropological and pitiless images of Ukrainian peasants shown later in the film), the most disturbing aspect of the footage is, in fact, its ordinariness. Thus, although the footage we see emanates from a particular place and time – and Forgács is nothing if not fastidious in documenting the sources and subjects of these images – it often seems eerily familiar, less an emanation from a lost, dark time and foreign place than a set of observations and “facts” that draw very close to our own experience. Forgács has called himself both a “participant-observer” and a “coroner” (2), a filmmaker who combines an interactive and implicated mode of documentary practice with the forensic and analytical qualities of the autopsy (who registers death while intermittently reanimating the body). His work can seemingly grant us “direct” access to the past while also feeling like it is showing us the scene of a crime (which at some level it often is).

Although Forgács’ work with what is often called found footage has been quite widely discussed, the Private Hungary series has been somewhat neglected, partly because its points of cultural and historical reference are not always easily accessible to non-Hungarian viewers. But this is also part of its fascination and importance. Unlike many found footage filmmakers, Forgács is deeply concerned with the origins of the footage he re-uses, as well as the events and figures it re-presents. Many filmmakers working within this mode rely heavily on the generic, nostalgic and often banal characteristics of the home movie footage they have gathered; using it as a raw material to signify either broader cultural and historical movements or ideas, or as a kind of “pure” sign of a particular object, event or more abstract pattern. Forgács’ truly archival and archaeological oeuvre works to counter such uses of historical footage, home movies in particular.

At various points in his work Forgács identifies the figures we see on screen – ranging from persons who have a significant place in recorded history (Prime Ministers, royalty, military commanders, etc) to the more domestic and historically anonymous subjects of the home movie. Forgács’ found footage practice involves significant investigative work to find and identify the creators and subjects of the films he re-animates and partly re-contextualises. For example, in The Land of Nothing we hear the voice of the original filmmaker on the soundtrack, have various family members – and possibly arcane historical personalities – identified for us on screen, and are given snippets of contextual information which help us place a particular moment in time and place. In a profound sense, Forgács’ films are commonly collaborations with a particular cinematographer or their family. Although he does also introduce images and sounds from other sources, his films in this historical-domestic mode are more concerned with re-presenting the footage of a particular, often neglected source (and identifying that source and, in some cases, its fate) and examining and probing – through a variety of techniques – the historical and poetic insights it has to offer. His work constitutes a fascinating exploration of the relationships between history and memory.

The Land of Nothing provides a rare glimpse of everyday life on the Soviet front in the second half of 1942. I’d like to say that the view it presents is extraordinary, but such a claim would run counter to the intentions of both Forgács’ film and that of the original cinematographer, László Rátz. The footage that has been stitched together by Forgács was mainly shot by Rátz over a five-year period. The most obvious application of Forgács’ approach is to provide a view of historical events, or even just a period, that is more personal, unfiltered, and ideologically loaded than official documentary and fiction film. This kind of counter or parallel approach to history is of course part of contemporary historiography, a practice that often attempts to provide a richer and more nuanced view of the past by looking at everyday life and the impact of larger social events on daily existence. Film provides a very important resource for such approaches, the less regimented and state-sanctioned practice of home moviemaking in particular.

In The Land of Nothing, Forgács highlights the peculiar qualities and insights of home movie/amateur film practice by intermittently contrasting newsreel footage with that taken by Rátz. This comparison is most directly achieved by superimposing the former over sections of the latter (normally as an inset image), providing a fascinating illustration of the connections and differences between these two historical artefacts. In many ways, Rátz’s footage mimes that of the official film record – and this needs to be recognised, as he is not outside of the society he emanates from – but it also focuses upon unexpected details and brings a more varied and domestic view to events. But this uncommon focus or perspective also comes to the fore in moments where there is no other record presented. For example, Rátz’s footage of celebrations marking the departure of his unit for the front is remarkable for the ways in which it mixes together elements we might expect in an official documentary with the more intimate realm of the home movie. Thus, we do see the parade of troops, speeches, and a singer’s farewell, but Rátz’s camera also focuses on more domestic elements of this event such as the children of the unit’s commander. As in other parts of the film, these everyday actions are linked to broader political and historical movements by the use of radio broadcasts by figures in authority appealing to the population’s patriotic nationalism. But these images in themselves also reinforce and highlight these connections.

The footage gathered and manipulated in The Land of Nothing is particularly significant when considered within the realm of home movie practice. Although Forgács shapes this footage in significant ways, and often aims to find historical and associational connections between shots, he nevertheless retains utmost respect and even fidelity for and to the footage shot by Rátz. Most of the material shot in Hungary is relatively conventional, taking in a series of public events (like parades which nevertheless partly document the rise of fascism) and private/family milestones (like family gatherings, engagements, birthdays and the arrival of children). But once the film moves into Rátz’s military experiences it presents an unusual perspective on home movie form. Thus, although much of the footage we see is focused on individual soldiers – including Rátz – moments of celebration and camaraderie, it also takes on a rather uncommon perspective (though still observational, predominantly mundane, and chosen by Forgács). Many of Rátz’s images of the Ukrainian landscape – which his unit marches through to reach the Soviet front – emphasise its foreignness and barrenness (almost as an illustration of the film’s title, a quote actually taken from a speech by the Hungarian Prime Minister in which he describes the true threat of Soviet communism). But more remarkable are the glimpses we see of Ukrainian life – such as a funeral ceremony, families, and malnourished children – and the interactions between Hungarian soldiers and their foes, the Soviets and Ukrainian partisans. The matter-of-fact way in which Rátz shows the interrogation of the enemy (an act which is in itself uneventful in his footage), the effects of total war on the local inhabitants, or a conversation with a Soviet soldier who has deserted his comrades, provides a disturbing jolt to our common ideas about the function and overriding banality of the home movie. This is particularly true because Rátz’s style of filming really doesn’t change with his subject, and although one can sense – and at times see in the scattered bodies and tombstones – desperation and catastrophe, the footage equally registers as something close to a nightmarish but still rather mundane tourist’s home movie.

The Land of Nothing provides an interesting comparison to other Forgács films that focus on and more explicitly resurrect Jewish experience (Forgács is himself from a Jewish background). It provides a glimpse of everyday life under fascism. Although the film does create a sense of dread and looming catastrophe – which is also characteristic of such films as Meanwhile Somewhere 1940-43… (1994) and Free Fall (1996) – this is predominantly an outcome of the historical information we are given (and may well already know). Thus, an opening title-card appears over footage of what one assumes are Hungarian soldiers freezing on the Soviet front. Information is also provided about the source of the footage we are about to see and the reasons why it did not perish after the Soviet attack that decimated the 2nd Hungarian Army in mid-January 1943. In fact, the film is full of such contextualising information that draws parallels between everyday actions and the larger occurrences that we often call history. The most moving instance of this occurs towards the end of the film when Forgács edits between footage of soldiers celebrating Christmas on the Soviet front with similar – though much more cosy – celebrations back in Budapest. Despite Hungary’s significant complicity in European fascism – supportive of Nazi policies in the 1930s before officially signing an alignment treaty towards the end of 1940 – Forgács provides a sympathetic if somewhat distanced reconfiguration of Rátz’s footage. Unlike several of Forgács’ other films, which poetically and devastatingly document the fate of the Jewish population throughout Europe, The Land of Nothing is more concerned with the looming catastrophe facing the Hungarian Army in its battle with the Soviets. Forgács’ view of this conflict is probably also tempered by subsequent knowledge and experience of the Soviet occupation and its dominance of Hungary in the post-war period (this era is the other chief concern of his found footage cinema). There is a mournful ambivalence to the film that attempts to find moments of respite – and a still insistent humanism – within the broader sweep of history.

Ultimately, The Land of Nothing is as much a poetic as it is an analytical exercise. Forgács draws together official and unofficial documentary images, home movies, maps, snatches of official speeches and radio broadcasts, contemporary recollections by Rátz, spoken poetry by Jáno Pilinszky, and an array of cinematic/videographic techniques including superimposition, frames within frames, tinting (though it is uncertain whether this is already present in the footage), freeze frames and an array of different sources of texts on-screen, over and under images. A key dimension of this mixed approach is that it acts to mitigate against us regarding what we are seeing as a privileged or singular history. Forgács’ techniques draw his work much closer to memory and its accepted fragmentations, gaps and subjectivities. Like most found footage films, The Land of Nothing also weaves a complex pattern of associations between different kinds and sources of historical information. Nevertheless, Forgács’ film is ultimately most remarkable for the ways in which it presents an intimate and fragmented perspective on cataclysmic events. It enriches, starts to map out and begins to create an idea of the past and individual experience that moves beyond thinking of history as a “land of nothing”, an endlessly catastrophic ruin that defines Europe in the 20th century.

When you fall into my work (if you’re an ideal viewer!), at the same time you fall into your own imagination, dreams, feelings; you realize, all this could have happened to us. It’s not an actor who dies; it’s him and her. It’s us.

In dramatic narrative film, the actor never dies, only the role. But here it’s the opposite; the real people die, but their roles as people doing mundane things continue in our lives. (3)

Endnotes

  1. Péter Forgács, “Wittgenstein Tractatus: Personal Reflections on Home Movies”, Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories, ed. Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2008, p. 50-1.
  2. Bill Nichols, “The Memory of Loss: Péter Forgács’s Saga of Family Life and Social Hell”, Film Quarterly vol. 56, no. 4, Winter 2003, pp. 4 and 5.
  3. From an interview with Forgács in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 4: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2005, p. 315.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).