Respite (Harun Farocki)
Harun Farocki’s contribution to the 2007 Jeonju International Film Festival Digital Project, Respite, channels the spirit of his magnum opus, Images of the World and the Inscription of War to create a potent and provocative film essay on production, warfare, historical reconstruction, and the role of image-making. A prefacing text on the source of the found film provides the sobering context to the seemingly mundane scene of weary, confused passengers deboarding a train at a desolate station in wartime Europe. Filmed from the German transit camp in occupied Westerbork in the Netherlands, the assorted 16mm footage of “everyday life” at the camp was photographed in 1944 by an inmate, Rudolf Breslauer (who was subsequently deported and killed), under orders from the SS commander, Albert Gemmeker, who, in turn, commissioned the film in order to showcase the productivity of the transit camp (Gemmeker would subsequently testify that he had envisioned the project as a film for tourists) and, implicitly, its integral role in the German war machine as both a raw materials recycling facility and a deportation hub for trains leaving, every Tuesday morning, for the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Sobibor. Composed as a silent essay film, Farocki’s use of repeating images that are further emphasized by the spareness of intertitles reflects his expositions on the role of filmmaking as the creation of afterimages. In essence, by working with the artifacts of Breslauer’s found film, Farocki’s role becomes one, not of image production, but rather, a kind of image archaeology, where reality is sought in the critical observation, juxtaposition, correlation, and interpretation of (absolute) images. In one repeated sequence from Breslauer’s sole shot footage of a departing train, a brief close-up of a gaunt and visibly frightened girl is framed, initially within the context of the Germans’ penchant for precision and accuracy (in meticulously posting a correction to the accounting of people who had been loaded into a boxcar), then subsequently, in her identification as a ten-year-old Sinti girl named Settela Steinbach that leads to Farocki’s theory on Breslauer’s apparent rejection of close-ups in subsequent footage. Similarly, the footage of inmates extracting copper wires and fibers from electrical conduit is also repeated in the film, as both a demonstration of worker efficiency, and an allusion to the figurative recycling of human bodies (particularly, in the extraction of “Auschwitz gold” from the teeth of the dead). Alternately exposing inherent half truths (shots of smiling inmates at work and at their leisure omit the underlying reality that their expression is one of relief for their temporary reprieve from the weekly deportation train), unintentional humor (in the Germans’ repackaging of the camp as a corporate venture with its own company logo and productivity charts), and overt propaganda (in the repeated, often slow-motion demonstrations of efficient manual labor and the deliberate low profile of Nazis around the camp that provide a false impression of the inmates’ relative freedom), the idiosyncratic repetition of images serves, not only to reinforce the afterimage, but also to reframe the image through its differing contexts – through its permutations of assigned meaning.
The Rabbit Hunters (Pedro Costa)
Pedro Costa’s entry, The Rabbit Hunters is a graceful modulation of his short film Tarrafal from the The State of the World omnibus, a series of elliptical encounters shot from the perspective of displaced Fonthainas elder villagers, Ventura, the paternal, old soul drifting through the vestiges of his dying neighborhood in Colossal Youth, and his unemployed and homeless friend, Alfredo (rather than José Alberto’s perspective in Tarrafal). At one point in the film, a cook, having offered free meals of leftover soup to Ventura and Alfredo in the back kitchen, proceeds to brush off the dirt and grime from Ventura’s clothing to make him look more presentable, and gives him a filial admonition for his careworn, disheveled appearance. “I’m haunted by lots of ghosts”, explains Ventura. Similar to Costa’s seminal film Casa de Lava, the characters’ existential limbo is also a spiritual desolation borne of a haunted, implacable landscape. In The Rabbit Hunters, the repressed environmental memory has been formed by Tarrafal’s unspoken history as a concentration camp site once dubbed the “camp of slow death” during the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, where political dissidents and anti-colonialists were imprisoned and tortured. In a sense, the prison camp has become the embodiment of a corrosive, suppressed memory that has metastasized and leeched into the landscape, contaminating everyone who has lived on – and off – the land (in one episode, Alfredo recounts having trapped nothing but diseased animals to take home and cook for his meals). Like the long-forgotten prisoners before them, the villagers, too, exist in a state of slow death, discarded by the living and haunted by unreconciled ghosts – an ambiguity that is reflected in Ventura and Alfredo’s odd conversations over each other’s death experiences. Concluding with a shot of José Alberto’s deportation letter that has been affixed to a wall by a pocket knife, the film comes to a metaphoric full circle – illustrating the connection between the trauma of dislocation and institutionalized marginalization.
Correspondences (Eugène Green)
On the surface, the stark brightness inherent in digital film would seem an unusual medium for the tonally incandescent, classical palette of Eugène Green’s baroque films. Nevertheless, in hindsight, the union of old and new media (and technology) proves conducive to Green’s creative ideology of redefining baroque as a (still) relevant, versatile, timeless, and contemporary art form. In Correspondences, Green returns to his familiar themes of interconnectedness, communion, and transcendent love (most recently illustrated in Green’s sublime feature Le Pont des arts) to create a tale of young love in the digital age. Presented as a series of emails read offscreen that are juxtaposed against isolated frontal shots of the anonymous lovers and the (interior) spaces they inhabit, the film also subtly evokes Alain Resnais’s baroque, nouveau roman puzzle film Last Year at Marienbad in its interplay of memory and seduction (or more appropriately, memory as seduction). At the heart of the film is the young hero, Virgile’s (François Rivière) quest to win the love of Blanche (Delphine Hecquet), a young woman whom he has only seen (and danced with) once at a nightclub. For Virgile, their fates are intertwined, and he must convince her of their shared destiny; for Blanche, there is only the blankness of an unregistered memory, and the guilt of a young man’s suicide (in an apparent homage to Jean Eustache). Similar to the Virgil of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Virgile is the enlightened guide who will lead Blanche through the realm of lost souls and, with the realization of true love, break the bounds of impossibility. From this perspective, Virgile’s quest also articulates Green’s aesthetic vision in an age of new media – a desire to create texture from the intangible, a contour from the binary.
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