Szabolcs KissPál – Maria Marcos:
As If Nothing Happened
Accusations, Versions, Relations
Tranzit presented Hajnal Németh’s video False Testimony on 18 May 2012 in the frame of a one-night screening. The 20-minute video art piece is classified as performance-video. Its subtitle, “A Version of Version”, refers to Miklós Erdély’s film Version made in 1981 in BBS, not simply on account of the thematic concordance (the Tiszaeszlár trial), but also because it is based on a more or less verbatim adaptation of the dialogue of the most important scene in the experimental film – this gave the text of the libretto, to which German composer Reinhard Hoffmann was invited by Németh to compose an opera. The musical piece for a choir and two soloists had already premiered as a live performance this February at NGBK Berlin, to be followed by a video version which was completed in late March.
This was not the first time Hajnal Németh worked with sound and music; a number of her recent works, including her project Crash presented at the Venice Biennale, were based on the trinity of music/image/situation. False Testimony creates an intriguingly hybrid format of opera, performance and video, with the contribution of great artists and performers: the composer of the excellent music that is founded on Middle-Eastern tunes; the perfect performance technique of JazzChor Berlin Vokal, whose stage presence, based on Hajnal Németh’s instructions, despite its simplicity, forms a revealing backdrop in terms of image, sound and meaning to the century-old topic of blood libel and anti-Semitism, ever so current today throughout Europe.
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The 1883 Tiszaeszlár trial, complex and abundant in dramatic turns, was the first blood libel to be conducted within a modern legal framework. Its crown witness – the protagonist of Erdély’s film and Hajnal Németh’s video – was Móric Scharf, son of the local synagogue’s shammes. It was on the basis of his testimony that some of the Jews in Tiszaeszlár were accused of the murder of the missing Eszter Solymosi. At the end of the trial all of them were acquitted in want of solid evidence. In the hysteria following the judgement – which was preceded and fuelled by the social tension and radicalising parliamentary debate entailing the immigration of Jews fleeing from the Russian pogroms – serious anti-Semitic riots broke out in several cities, and soon the Hungarian Anti-Semitic Party was established. (1)
The trial severely agitated Hungarian and international public opinion, every layer and political institution of Hungarian society as well as the entire contemporary Hungarian press. A number of accounts have been published about its course and background; one of the most significant among them is the retrospection of politician, lawyer and publicist Károly Eötvös, main defence lawyer of the culprits, published twenty years later. (2) There is another detailed account: the book written by the judge who conducted the proceedings, József Bary (3), based on his notes from the time. It is telling, that although it had been written earlier, it was published by his heirs in 1933, the year of Hitler’s ascension to power. The general aim of this volume was to refute Eötvös’s defensive arguments and discredit his account. Owing to its anti-Semitic tone and the conspiracy theories it voices (4), it is often cited by the Hungarian extreme right.
The fundamental contrast between the two voluminous accounts lies in the question of whether the trial was the result or the cause of the evolution of modern Hungarian anti-Semitism: Eötvös recounts the story from the former perspective, while Bary from the latter. As blood libels and anti-Jewish pogroms had been occurring in Hungary since as early as the 15th century, and from 1875 openly anti-Jewish speeches were delivered in the Parliament, Bary’s version is contradictory. (5) Nevertheless, the above-mentioned opposition had a considerable impact on the reception of the topic and its still active afterlife, the latest sad chapter of which was a recent shameful representative’s address in the Hungarian Parliament, commemorating the 130th anniversary of the girl’s disappearance with cryptically yet perceivably anti-Semitic undertones. (6)
Among the pivotal studies providing a historical treatment of the trial, it is worth to mention Géza Komoróczy’s brief summary, János Pelle’s essay and book, analysing the trial in the broader context of Hungarian blood libels, and György Kövér’s academic dissertation, according to whom the two aforementioned texts (Eötvös/Bary) “set the frontlines regarding the ‘case’ in concrete.” As a result, the topic had become a taboo for a long time, so much so, that for instance Gyula Krúdy’s novel Eszter Solymosi of Tiszaeszlár could not be published in the form of a book faithful to the manuscript for more than 70 years after its writing.
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Erdély’s film is not a legal-investigative endeavour; it is predominantly based on Krúdy’s novel, which, in his own words, is replete with “incessant venomous provocation against all layers, Jews, anti-Semites, humanists and everyone else, in order to bring things to the surface, to confess.” (7) The skeleton of the film is comprised by the gendarme officer’s indoctrination of Móric Scharf with the false testimony whose text is identical to the one delivered at the trial. The slowly and ominously developing dramatic tension of the scene, which is fragmented by jumping back several times, climaxes at the point where the text touches upon the motif of blood. (8) This is the word that is eventually never spoken by Móric in the film (as opposed to Németh’s video); in the jump-back breaking off the scene, the boy turning away from the keyhole of the synagogue keeps staring into the camera for long seconds with an inscrutable gaze before turning and leaving. This is the only scene in the film when a character looks into the camera, except for the long end title, which is almost a separate section of the film, featuring all of the characters looking into the camera, now out of character, “as civilians”.
Németh’s video differs from Erdély’s film in many respects despite being closely related to it. The difference is primarily that of genre: one is an experimental film taking place in an environment corresponding to the original scene, while the other is an opera-video taking place in a contemporary environment, a public space in a certain sense. As opposed to Version, whose essential structural, narrative and interpretative components are constituted by the variegated devices of film as a medium, False Testimony uses no film language devices whatsoever: the performance is taking place in a stage-like interior space, in front of a fixed camera.
The monochrome, symmetric and static space (9) of the perfectly chosen spacious, modernistic office is divided into three sections: the gendarme and Móric stay in the foreground the whole time, the middle ground is occupied by the choir appearing as a group of office clerks, and in the background, the surface of an enormous dark window pane partly reflects the stage-like space. Arising due to the choice of location (contemporary, office-like workplace) and genre (opera sung from sheets), the alienating effect – which, on account of the recontextualising power of reenactment, is the greatest strength of the piece – counterbalances the fact that the protagonist always sings frontally, straight into the camera, while everyone else’s behaviour is controlled by the paradigm of the three walls.
Thus, the fourth wall (10) is broken open in both pieces, even thematised explicitly in the parallel scene where the indoctrination of the incriminating part of the testimony begins. In the corresponding part of Version (11) the gendarme makes Móric stand with his face close to the wall, indicating his vulnerability, the impossibility of escaping the subduing coercion. In Németh’s dramaturgy, the protagonist needs to stand facing the fourth wall which is the actual image plane, and which, at an exhibition – as the other side of the projected image - coincides with the actual wall the image is projected on.
During the scene, all members of the choir in the background – who, despite taking active part in the musical dialogue, act as if nothing happened – hold their music sheets (the text of the false testimony) closely in front of their faces. The only unobstructed gaze inside this scene is that of the gendarme, who continues the indoctrination of the boy stood against the wall while staring at him, while outside, in the audience’s space, that of the viewers, who observe the scene “as civilians”, as silent witnesses.
This part of the piece is the moment of making the viewers conscious of their role, which, as opposed to Version, is not the apprehension and assessment of the position and possible motivations of the intimidated crown witness (12) or the elements and consequences of the story of the time, but the undertaking of the position of present-day witness in the process of reexamination. The significance of Németh’s video therefore lies in the fact that by reenacting the story, she directs attention at the present. She realises a version whose framework is no more the late 19th century Hungary, but a present-day workplace, an office where everyone is working as if nothing happened.
The last part of the testimony – which, in Version, is read by Móric on his own – is not accompanied by an image. Throughout the parlando recited by the protagonist along with the choir, we can read the text appearing sentence after sentence in white on black background, the image only returning while Móric utters his last sentence:
„Then my mother forbade that I talk to anyone about this.”
In Version, a Kaddish is heard from this point; in the video this is replaced by the absolute silence of a confusingly long motionless scene, which is yet to be broken in an age and situation where glances keep being obstructed by ever so false narrations and texts, as “the great trial (…) has been going on for a thousand years and still is not over.” (13)
Translated by Daniel Sipos
(4) Bary became Member of Parliament two years later, in 1894, for the Hungarian Anti-Semitic Party.
(8)From 37:20 in Version, on Youtube
(9) David Chipperfield Architects Studio, Berlin
(10) The ‘fourth wall’ is an imaginary invisible wall that separates the audience from the traditional theatre stage bounded by three walls. In a broader context, it is an imaginary surface defining the participation or distance of the audience relative to the fiction. It has special significance in the reception theories of performing arts and film.
(11) 28:00 in Version on Youtube
(12) Erdély himself speaks about this, as he was very interested in the person of Móric Scharf, which is why he had his grandson speak up in the beginning of the film, and why he told István Antal in a conversation in 1984: “Somehow this entire issue has been suppressed, at least culturally; what manifested in this Tiszaeszlár trial was the primary, or innocent form of anti-Semitism on the one hand, and the opportunism or assimilating behaviour of Jews manifested in the person of Móric Scharf on the other hand, and we have seen several versions of his descendants.” Although the “version” in the title bears a number of references, among others it distinctly refers to the erotic trait in the story as a possible motivation for Móric. Cf. the conversation containing the above excerpt: http://www.artpool.hu/Erdely/Verzio.html
(13) Title and subtitle of Károly Eötvös’s book.