Looking Back, Seeing Through By Anisoara Dumitrescu
in 6th Cluj Transsilvania International Film Festival
Beyond the words stand the images. Beyond the images stand the people with their thoughts and memories, their own way of seeing the world, of understanding what is happening, and why it’s happening to them, and preparing themselves for the other realm, whether it exists or not.
Beyond the present is the past, never the future. The past as it was preserved in the characters’ memory, their history; as it was lived, and made their own.
They are two old men chosen by director Gerald Igor Hauzenberg to tell the story of “life in a dying culture from Transylvania”, which is the subtitle of Hauzenberg’s film Beyond the Forest (Ein susse Heimat). They are among the very few Germans who remained in their old Transylvanian settlements, which now bear witness to a dramatic state of alienation. Deserted villages, where a few old people still survive – those who either had nowhere else to go, or weren’t willing to abandon their life’s accumulation. Or perhaps they simply had a strong connection to their home, even if their ancestors established that home just a few centuries ago. The opulent houses and flourishing gardens of the old times now sit in ruin or suffocated by weeds. A whole culture is in great danger of vanishing, and a part of history is going to be forgotten.
Some six or seven years ago, the Austrian director Hauzenberg came to Romania to make the feature The Eclipse, with which he much impressed the nation’s dramatically de-populated Romanian Saxon community. Among the few inhabitants, he met Hanni Schuff, whose personality fascinated him so that they’ve remained in touch ever since. With Beyond the Forest, Hauzenberg has returned to make a more detailed inquiry into what was once a prominent German enclave. Despite his lack of relatives or other roots in those communities, he assumed the role of a chronicler, trying to penetrate through the cultural membrane and get to an objective understanding of 21st-century rural life. He chooses as his “study materials” two characters: Schuff and Maria Huber, living separate lives in nearby villages. Through editing, Hauzenberg brings these people together, demonstrating how their stories cross over one another, how their travails seem to arrive at the same meaning in spite of their very different personalities. Perhaps their painful past, lonely present and absent future make them seem so alike.
The film presents two heroes – anti-heroes, to be more precise; two old, lonely, simple people, not highly educated, sometimes grumpy, and even unlikable, while presenting their rather politically incorrect opinions without comment. Hanni Schuff is proud of having fought for the Germans in the Second World War, even declaring rather haughtily at one point that his people “were more German than the Germans themselves.” He didn’t kill anyone during the war, but says he wouldn’t have hesitated to do so had the opportunity presented itself. He refuses to believe that Hitler wasted money on gas chambers, insisting the Nazis would have used cheaper methods to exterminate the Jews. An atheistic person, he yearns for a real return to nature, willing to be buried in his own garden. He is dealing as much as he is still able, with his household, together with his Gypsy neighbors, whom he perceives as „disabled” people, unable to be educated and socialised in the work spirit. He tells stories of the glamourous love affairs of his past, looking without nostalgia over old photographs.
Maria Huber, a survivor of the Soviet camps where she lived for five years after the war, worked in a canteen and is still preoccupied with her household, preparing cider and sweets, and working in her garden. She endured hunger and cold in Russia, but she happily survived and returned home. Naturally, she is not too friendly and open to others, preferring to live alone. Or perhaps this was the way it had to be, as the unwritten laws said that one should find one’s mate among the great “family”, and the men were fighting in the war or sent to the camps, with no return.
The director is very careful in his rendering of their confessions and opinions, catching from time to time a certain detail of an old picture, a certain place neighboring the house or the garden, an apparently unsignificant object, and the emotion of such private, challenging witnesses seeing past the images and finding a clear meaning beyond them. It’s a new way of seeing the world that we would do well to consider. To look beyond appearances. Just like that … out there.