Ruth Beckermann –

The Poetry of the Ephemeral

Essay by Matthias Dell

In her works, the journalist, essayist and filmmaker Ruth Beckermann captures the ephemeral nature of time, memory and identity, orbits around her characters and themes, lets herself be guided by intuition and association, and loves to be surprised. Far beyond Austria, her name stands for a reality-facing, politically sensitive cinema, which seeks to engage with history. Be it in her preoccupation with Austria, Jewry, and questions of personal and collective identity or their fissures. In 2016, Ruth Beckermann won the Bildrausch Ring of Film Art for her film The Dreamed Ones about the correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. Bildrausch is this year presenting The Paper Bridge (1987), American Passages (2011) and The Waldheim Waltz (2018), and invites you to engage with Ruth Beckermann in the newly established Thinking/Space.


Ruth Beckermann is the most important Austrian Jewish filmmaker. This sentence reveals the foundation of her opus in all its ambivalence – an opus that spans 40 years of cinematographic activity. Of course, we like to think of history as a sequence of episodes, where each new episode builds upon the previous one, and where that which was once experienced is automatically known and comprehended. But history does not work that way, and therefore Beckermann’s work consists entirely of circular movements around the “eternal topic”, as she has called it, movements that must always return to the things that shape us but which we could not choose ourselves.


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How can one live where one does not always feel at home? The ambivalence that motivates her essayistic activity is familiar to Beckermann herself. She was “miraculously” born in Vienna in 1952, as the daughter of a father who survived the Holocaust in Bukowina and harboured hopes for a better life in Vienna, and a mother who lost all hope in 1938 when she fled from Vienna to Israel, returned after the war for what was meant to be a short visit, but stayed for good. Ruth Beckermann sought her own exiles early on, living in Tel Aviv and studying in Paris and New York.


In 1976, she returned to Vienna, and in the leftwing, progressive video group Arena she found a circle she could identify with: “For me, Arena, was the entry point into Austrian society.” Nonetheless, Vienna remained an ambivalent experience, as it contained remnants of both poles of her heritage: that of the Jewish life around the Marc-Aurel-Strasse, which she portrayed in homemad(e) in 2001, and that of Austro-fascist anti-Semitism, described at the end of The Paper Bridge (1987) in video footage from the streets, in which people express shameless antagonism.
The footage was shot the year before, in the spring of 1986, when Kurt Waldheim – who began his career in National Socialism and excluded this detail from his biography – was running for President of Austria. At the time, Beckermann and her parents belonged to the protesters who didn’t want a “lapse of memory” as their head of state. Even though Waldheim ended up getting elected, the uproar over his candidacy marked an important turning point in the Austrian “lie” of being the “first victim” of the German Nazis – and not having participated in the war, for example by helping to organise the Holocaust.


For this reason, the conclusion at the end of The Waldheim Waltz (2018), which re- traces the Waldheim affair with self-made footage and mass-media imagery, is quite positive: “The disgust was mixed with a sense of relief. We stood up, spoke up, refused to remain silent.” This quote also lets us see how far the need reaches to constantly re-negotiate history. As so often in Beckermann’s films, The Paper Bridge starts with the off-screen voice of her grandmother Rosa, who survived the Nazi years in Vienna because she remained mute, and made herself invisible: “Can you forget your own voice?”


The Paper Bridge starts as a journey into her father’s past, to the relics and communities of Jewish life in Romania and Yugoslavia. An expedition into history, where the causes of adversity still linger to this day, as the government participation of the extreme-right FPÖ demonstrates. But there are also moments in Beckermann’s work where the repeated attention to the “eternal topic” seems to have come to an end: in East of War (1996) she focused on the perpetrators, documented their stories during the Nazi era and registered their refusal to accept their own, more pleasing truth as part of the big lie. Or with The Dreamed Ones (2016), an experimental appropriation of the correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, which Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp try to understand while reading the letters in the setting of the Wiener Funkhaus, which was built between 1935 and 1938, and during cigarette breaks.


An old photograph appears in the film, as a marker of the past. Photographs as documentary objects also keep appearing in her writings (Beckermann has published several books). But they contain more than just a private significance, as they allow us to remember something that has been destroyed. In this sense, one can also understand Beckermann’s cinematic approaches. The journey is a recurring motif of her opus: through Israel in Toward Jerusalem (1990) and through the United States in American Passages (2011); constantly tracing the contradictions of unreconciled societies. The cinematic form is always open to experiences that no concept can anticipate, to associations that bring together seemingly remote places, to an essayism that is not only interested in prominent speakers and experts. Beckermann’s films exist for us to know and understand what history doesn’t automatically reveal. 


In the newly created debate forum Thinking/Space, Jean Perret (director of the film department at HEAD in Geneva) will focus on the opus of Ruth Beckermann. Thinking/Space will take place on 2 June at 10:00 hrs at Stadtkino Basel.


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