(East of War)
Dir: Ruth Beckermann
117 min., 35mm, 1:1.66, Color
Produktion: Josef Aichholzer Filmproduktion. Konzept: Ruth Beckermann. Kamera und Mitarbeit: Peter Roehsler. Schnitt: Gertraud Luschützky. MAZ-Schnitt: Manfred Neuwirth.
Uraufführung: 20. Oktober 1996, Viennale.
Weltvertrieb: Aichholzer Filmproduktion, Mariahilfer Str. 58/3, 1070 Wien, Österreich. Tel.: (43-1) 523 40 81, Fax: (43-1) 526 34 58.
Der Film wurde hergestellt mit Unterstützung des BMWVK und des Hamburger Instituts für Sozialforschung.
Wed 19.02. 14:00 Delphi Wed 19.02. 21:00 Kino 7 im Zoo Palast Thu 20.02. 20:00 Arsenal Fri 21.02. 12:00 Akademie der Künste
White-tiled rooms, neon lighting; on the walls black and white photographs from an exhibition entitled ,Vernichtungskrieg' (War of Extermination) documenting the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Against this background, Ruth Beckermann and cameraman Peter Roehsler have filmed former soldiers talking about their experiences beyond the bounds of ,normal' warfare. With a mixture of helplessness, impotence, shame, opportunism and undiminished fanaticism, witnesses from that time tell of atrocities such as the shootings of Russian prisoners-of-war, the murder of Jews and abuse of women. The differing accounts of these events demonstrate how selective perception was even in this most inhuman and brutal of environments.
This film seeks not only to contribute to the demolition of the myth of the ,decent' Wehrmacht (as opposed to the evil SS) but also to illuminate the period in which the Second Republic was founded in Austria and to make a diagnosis of the present. It shows the fathers who worked to rebuild the country, who shaped today's society and who transmitted their ideas to their sons and daughters, and who now, more than fifty years on, at last attempt to articulate their experiences.
The images of this war that take shape in the accounts of these ,talking heads' have an immediacy and power to move rarely found in historical documents or fictional portrayals.
Constantin Wulff: Your film JENSEITS DES KRIEGES/EAST OF WAR was made during the exhibition ,War of Extermination. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 - 1944' in Vienna last autumn. What motivated you to interview the visitors to the exhibition with camera and tape recorder on location?
Ruth Beckermann: After making films about the fate of Jews or resistance fighters, I had wanted to do something about ,the other side'. In the last ten years I have often been interviewed about Jewish questions, but I always maintained that I considered it a deficiency that so little has been done about ,the other side'. That we know so little about the perpetrators or the opportunists. So I had waited for a while for an opportunity on this subject. When I heard that the exhibition would be coming to Vienna I decided spontaneously to begin filming - without money and with a Hi-8. Fortunately, cameraman Peter Roehsler agreed to work on these terms.
C.W.: You decided spontaneously to make the film - how did you prepare practically for the shooting? Did a shooting script exist?
R.B.: I assumed that former Wehrmacht soldiers would visit the exhibition. I had seen the exhibition and read numerous books about the subject. But I knew from the outset that I would never become an expert in military questions, nor did I want to become one because I really wanted to get involved in this kind of argumentation, the usual tactic of former front soldiers, where and when you could not have seen anything. I knew that the exhibition would be the ideal background for the film, a public space where photographs and other contemporary materials would document the crimes of the Wehrmacht at the Eastern Front.
As far as the preparations for interviews are concerned: It is difficult to film human beings who are not close to you but with whom one has to enter into a trusting relationship. That's the act of filming. Whether you want to or not, you enter into a close relationship with the people in front of the camera, even if it is only for a short time. Naturally, my relationship to them was very different from that to Franz West or the people I filmed in Romania. I had to ask myself: how can I film these people without denouncing them, without building up an insincere relationship with them or becoming an accomplice? These are the questions which I constantly turned over. It is no accident that I suffered the worst nightmares ever during this shoot: spending five weeks in this space, in the bare rooms, with the neon light, and the white-tiled walls, being in the midst of these photos, wasn't easy to bear.
C.W.: The film is essentially reduced to conversations and observations. How did things go on location, what were the encounters with visitors to the exhibition like?
R.B.: We conducted more than 200 interviews altogether, at the end I had 46 hours of filmed material.
(...) I intervened as little as possible when the interviewees talked. But I often had to remind them of the topic at hand, because they digressed, talked about the time as prisoners of war, of their own sacrifices, etc.
There were no preparatory conversations, I never knew from the outset where the interviewee had spent the war. We simply walked around the exhibition, looked at the age profile of the visitors, talked to them. I usually broke off the conversation when a person had not participated in the war. Later I interviewed younger people, and those who had remained at home - just to broaden the range. The longer we filmed, the more exciting it became because of the diversity of experience of those who attended the exhibition. (...)
C.W.: How would you define the main difference between the intentions of the exhibition and your film?
C.W.: Did your opinion of the participants in the war and the perpetrators of crimes at the Eastern front change during the making of the film?
R.B.: It might sound banal, but I really learned a lot about human beings. You can't tell by someone's appearance what he might be thinking. (...) There were so many different careers amongst the soldiers, most of them were opportunists. They are so pityful - receiving a blow all those years ago and still acting like the little man. While those who maintain their political stance, the real Nazis, are in some sense authentic, because they really stand for something. And then there are the few who have really reflected on the events, who haven't just suppressed it, who have dealt with it.
In the context of the Goldhagen debate and the question: ,Why the Germans? Why the Austrians?' I often reflected on the lack of empathy, the ability to think yourself into another person's situation. Very few people in the film wonder how the Poles, the Russians, the Jews felt. Very few can make the transition which Waldheim, too, never was able to make, this lack of a noble heart. (...)
C.W.: There are no central protagonists in this film. You consciously didn't emphasize a single character, you used several narrative voices. Were you aiming for a diversity in the narrative structure?
R.B.: I filmed in a public space so as to avoid making individual portraits of the interviewees. The only possible form for this film was a series, a hearing. I have always considered the film as a series of entrances and exits. A few former soldiers invited us home to talk in their apartments and show us their photo albums. I didn't accept the invitations. I wasn't interested in the single individual, instead I was interested in the structure, the mass of people with all their contradictions, who lived in an organisation and who stayed within the framework of this organisation, the Wehrmacht.
I think it is wrong to try and understand National Socialism solely in terms of the individual. It is impossible to write the history of the Germans and the Austrians during the Third Reich in terms of individual lives. You can do it with the victims, with the emigrants, the Jews who were forced to either leave the system or who died because of it. (...) It was important to me to show what was possible within the framework established by National Socialism. It would be wrong to say that everyone was the same. Everyone belonged to the system, but within the system different behaviour was possible. Otherwise the system wouldn't have functioned. (...)
(...) We hit a nerve, a social taboo. For the first time a wider public was confronted with the fact that the politics of extermination directed at the Jews, Sinti, Roma and the radical decimation of the ,Slav subhuman' were not secretly executed by ,special organizations' like the SS but that they were a general project in which all social institutions - including the Wehrmacht - participated actively. The exhibition shows that the crimes of the Wehrmacht in Eastern and Southern Eastern Europe were not single excessive deeds, but planned and systematically executed. From 1941 at the latest they were a normal part of the war, regular soldiers doing the killings, average men. After 1945, in the newly established states after the Third Reich, this fact was systematically repressed, and the legend of the ,clean' Wehrmacht was established. The disavowal was complete: no one was interested in the truth. The reactions to the exhibition in Austria correspond to this.
Ruth Beckermann and her cameraman Peter Roehsler captured a whole range of reactions in Vienna. For five weeks they went to the exhibition every day with their camera and conducted hour-long interviews with the visitors. The resulting film, physically and emotionally extremely taxing for the filmmakers, captures the diverse attitudes displayed by visitors towards the content of the exhibition: they range from aggressive disavowal of the crimes, stoic rejection, to the cathartic process of dealing with the photos and the events themselves. Beckermann's film illustrates and explains why this exhibition triggered such passionate debates: it is the past which won't go away.
(Dr. Walter Manoschek is assistant at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Vienna and director of the project ,War of Extermination. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941-1944' in Austria.)
(...) The exhibition ,War of Extermination - Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941-1944'), which was first shown in Hamburg last year, documented the trail of blood left by German troops, especially in Eastern and Southern Eastern Europe. The documentation, planned as a travelling exhibition, triggered an enormous reaction in Germany and abroad. After the premiere in Hamburg, the exhibition travelled to thirteen additional German and Austrian cities and has been seen by over one hundred thousand people. It will be shown in Linz at the Academy for Design until the end of the year. The organizing institute, the Institute for Social Research, has received numerous additional invitations for 1997. From January 10-16 it will be at the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, from January 24-April 6 at the Munich City Hall, from April 11-May 22 at the Frankfurt Paulskirche, from May 28 - July 3 at the Bremer City Hall. When the exhibition was shown in Vienna, the Austrian author and documentary filmmaker Ruth Beckermann made a film, inviting visitors, among them former soldiers, to be interviewed in front of the camera, after they had seen the exhibition. The film was awarded a prize by the Viennale; it is a sober study of the power of memory and the force of suppression. B.E., in: Die Zeit, Hamburg, 22. November 1996
Ruth Beckermann was born in Vienna. She is an author and filmmaker. Selected publications:'Die Mazzesinsel/ (1984), ,Unzugehörig' (1989), ,Ohne Untertitel. Fragmente einer Geschichte des österreichischen Kinos/Without Subtitles. Fragments of a History of Austrian Cinema.' (Ed. with Christa Blümlinger, 1996)
1984: Wien retour. 1987. Die Papierene Brücke. 1990: Nach Jerusalem (Forum 1991). 1996: JENSEITS DES KRIEGES.
© 1997 by International Forum of New Cinema. All rights reserved.