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In the Face of History — Visions of the 20 Century

“My Age, my beast, who will be fit
To look into your eyes
As his blood binds
The vertebrae of two centuries?”

Ossip Mandelstam, The Age, 1923
Translated by Deborah Marshall and Douglas Penick

The programme Our 20th Century – History facing Cinema was outlined close to these verses that imply some of the most critical issues to understanding our time. It is also important to remind that it was based on this poem that Giorgio Agamben wrote one of the most fertile texts to think about the time we live in – What is the Contemporary?.
If Mandelstam wrote in the context of the transition from the 19th century to the 20th century, when this last one had just begun, it is also true that Mandelstam had already been marked by what would be the most decisive experience of our 20th century, the one that belongs to us all, even to those who hadn’t been born yet: a complete disarticulation between living and thinking, a challenge to our ability to relate experience and representation.
These verses expose several questions of principle this programme tries to articulate. First of all, the notion of intimacy – a time that is intimately ours, comprising both individual and collective memories as a heritage each of us will receive. Secondly, the idea of confronting with the look, the gaze – a view that becomes involved in what it sees, dealing even with that aspect of the image that wouldn’t be within the scope of the visible or of the presence. In third place, the idea of connecting what has been violently disconnected, disarticulated, broken – the relation between a time and another, or the relation of the present with itself as a time that contains a fault that continually brings it out of step.
This programme also implies taking a stand on the possibility and legitimacy of representing terror. As Jean-Luc Nancy puts it in Forbidden Representation, it is not only possible and legitimate, but also necessary and urgent, as long as one uses the word representation in its more precise sense. The aim is therefore to think about the relation between film and this necessary, urgent task based on this rigour challenge concerning what the word representation implies.
If film was the art of the 20th century, that was probably due to three reasons: that was the century when it turned into a mass medium, not only with the big studios in Hollywood, but also in III Reich Germany; it was the time when – given a kind of original commitment towards reality – it was confronted with the task of finding its forms in the context of the great turmoil experienced especially in Europe; it was a period when, for the reasons mentioned above, film had to work itself out as representation of the world, but also as criticism of its own limits and dead-ends.
Sosialismi, by Peter von Bagh, portrays precisely the dominance potency film has, inseparable from a clear liberating potency, aware of its effects and of its limits.
Thus, the reasons leading us to present this programme are not only of an ephemeris nature (the hundredth anniversary of World War I, the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 40 years of the Carnation Revolution). Within the scope of Doclisboa this is a proposition on the role of film when reflecting upon our time in its relation with history.
To invoke the last century through different moments when film faced the task of dealing with radical events in history is therefore to think about the way the cinematic image was forced to face that absence implied in the notion of unrepresentability. To bring that along for a reflection on the very notion of representability. Jean-Luc Nancy reminds us that: “Representation is not simulacrum; it is not the replacement of the original thing – in fact, it has nothing to do with one thing. It is the presentation of what does not amount to a presence, given and complete (or given complete), or it is the bringing to presence of an intelligible reality (or form) resorting to the formal mediation of a sensory reality.” The pact between film and reality thus lies in the field of testimony – the testimonial strength of Nuit et Brouillard, by Alain Resnais, can be found precisely here.
So that may be the sense of representation involved in this task: to think about image not as a totalizer, univocal element, but rather as an articulating work between a device and reality, so that practice itself matches the events and criticises itself, first and foremost producing traces of absences that run through it.
Après les Combats de Bois-le-Prêtre (Gilles Ladevèze), shot in the French front in 1915 at the beginning of World War I, is therefore the first documentary effort in this context. A testimonial device, but also an informative one and maybe even a tool to provide individual life experiences realness, handing such experiences back to the domain of the communal, of the shared, of the history of men.
The films in this programme position themselves exactly at this troublesome crossing: between the task of informing, the urgency of testimony and the effort to provide reality with the qualities that will allow us to recognise it as a common ground and language with its original strength. Such is the thinking of Marcel Ophuls in Veillée d’Armes (1994), during the Bosnian War, or of André Singer in Night will Fall (2014), a film about the coming to light of that terrible and truly troublesome document – because of its testimonial and therefore also critical strength, when it comes to the place of film before barbarity – German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (1945/2014).
One should also mention Falkenau, Vision de l’Impossible (2005), by Emil Weiss, that brings us the images that Samuel Fuller shot as a soldier, during the liberation of Falkenau in 1945, presented by Fuller himself.
Instead of being reproductions of the facts from which they stem, these films are truly critical productions of images that bring to presence history as a dynamic, ghostly and self-contradictory reality, allowing us to think about our present based on its ontological essence. Facing the Judgment of History (1965), by Fridrikh Ermler, is both an enquiry into history and a true ghosts film, where memory and testimony bring us history as an aporia.
From wars to revolutions, dictatorships to totalitarianisms, utopias to barbarity: we are all contemporary with a past in the moment when we are able to see its sparkle as an intimate memory that crosses us and displaces us, that makes us think.
But such contemporaneity therefore brings us the task of giving back to that past its living strength, of preventing it from stabilising, that is, of searching in it for an eloquence beyond its discursive quality, allowing it to become present to itself and to ourselves. Respite (2007), by Harun Farocki, really works in this regard, and so does Prigionieri della Guerra (1995), by Yervant Gianikian e Angela Ricci Lucchi.
Albeit differently this is also the effort undertaken by Lettere di Condannati a Morte della Resistenza (1953), by Fausto Fornari, that retrieves the last words of the Italian partisans sentenced to the death penalty and ascribes those men the strength of the present that enable ages to be linked: they’re dead and they’re going to die, like Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida. Their time is our time; we also anticipated their deaths.
This way of being contemporary presents us this century through different points of entry that open to the foundations and paradoxes of today’s Europe in different ways. This operation on the filmic present, on the historic periods, on our own present before history allows us to be side by side with the events in their untimeliness. The revolutions carried with them said strength, exposing other methods of articulating intimate lives and collective paths. The end of the USSR (Out of the Present, Andrei Ujică, 1995), the fall of the Berlin Wall (Die Mauer, Jürgen Böttcher, 1990) and the Carnation Revolution (Mitt Andra Land, Solveig Nordlund, 2014) were events in which film and history confronted each other, once again looking for their measure in the life of men.

Cíntia Gil