Interview with Bernhard Hetzenauer: Like film, memory is always a construction

by Dagmar Weidinger, ICARUS

Bernhard Hetzenauer. © Viktoria Milovanovic  Nothing but an ordinary office job … for his work Bernhard Hetzenauer travels across Southern America. Most of his films are set in Ecuador and Mexico.

In his 90-minute documentary film, Bernhard Hetzenauer has captured the life of Vera Kohn, a Jewish woman who emigrated from Prague to Quito. The work on the oral history portrait of the 98-year old psychotherapist and zen master took four years. In its course, he also collected archival material in Ecuador and the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In an interview with “insights”, Hetzenauer talks about how the filmmaker’s perspective can complement that of the historian.


Your research for the film “Und in der Mitte der Erde war Feuer” took you to several countries. What kind of archival material did you use to “document” the almost 100 years of Vera Kohn’s life?

I viewed quite a lot of material for the film. In the end I decided that I would only use the material Vera Kohn filmed herself in the 1930s and 1940s on 16mm and Super 8, as well as some private photographs. My research took me to the Czech Film Archive, the Rolf Blomberg Archive in Quito and the Ecuadorian Film Library. I also got in touch with many foundations and institutions in search of archival photographs for Prague in the 1910s, among them Yad Vashem and Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. That was a lot of work. When I had finished the film, I also went to the Federal Archives in Berlin where I actually found a file on my grandfather…

One of the characteristics of the film certainly is the fact that you have included Vera Kohn’s own archival material. What kind of material did you use in particular?

I need to do a little explaining to answer this question. Vera Kohn was born in Prague in 1912. Being Jewish, she emigrated to Ecuador in 1939 together with her husband. She soon found herself to be the family “photographer”. Her interest was not limited to personal motives, she also covered anthropological themes such as the life of the indigenous population of the time. In 1939 she started to shoot several 16mm colour film rolls. In those days they had to be sent to Rochester, New York for development. I do not exaggerate in saying that this material is indeed unique. I was told that it was the first material in colour to be shot in Ecuador. It was quite by chance that I found the film rolls. Vera and I had been opening a suitcase full of old photographs, programmes from her days as an actress, and the said films. At first it was not easy at all to view the films. Fortunately, the Film Library in Quito had a 16mm projector. There I filmed the material with my HDV video camera as they didn’t have any professional digitisation equipment in 2010. Meanwhile this has changed. The Consejo Nacional de Cinematografía recently offered the Film Library a film scanner that can be used to digitise analogous material in up to 4k-capable resolution.

Together, you and Vera Kohn also worked through a part of her history. How important was it for you to hold material from the past in your hands? You also told me that you have been to Berlin in your research of your family’s history.

Bernhard Hetzenauer. © Ana Serrano                                Vera Kohn is not the first woman to be portrayed by Hetzenauer. In 2007 he shot one of his first documentaries on his grandmother. (“Wann habe ich aufgehört, Dir meine Träume zu erzählen?”)

Yes, I went to the Federal Archives for the file on my grandfather who was a soldier of the Waffen-SS. It was very important for me to learn what he had done during World War II. I wanted to know where he had been deployed to, what rank or functions he had had, etc. When I found out that he had never been substantially promoted after his conscription I was somehow relieved. But there was also a letter of petition written by his father on 25 June 1940 in which he asked that his 17-year old son be accepted into the SS Totenkopfstandarte, as this was the wish of his son. The file also held several handwritten CVs of my grandfather. The way they were written shattered me – the choice of words, the mistakes. All of a sudden I got to know this young man and his parents who lived under simple conditions in Niederranna in Upper Austria. They seemed to come to life as I saw their handwritten documents in front of me. In one of his CVs, my 16-year old grandfather wrote: “Took part in two summer camps of the Hitler Youth in 1938. The first one was in Ramsau am Dachstein, the second one in Haslach im Mühlkreis. Went to the Parteitag at Nuremberg. Was the most important event so far for me. Could see the Führer from very close. Not all of my colleagues were that lucky. (…) Was called up for a trainer course for shooting and field training from December 1-17, 1939. Applied to be accepted into the SS Totenkopfstandarte as a volunteer when I got back, am now waiting for my conscription.” Details like these make history tangible. Dealing with such material makes these things much more real. It is also possible to take a position when you are dealing with something concrete.

In your film you also use photographs from Vera Kohn’s collection, and you have shot in front of her Prague apartment. You present them in the form of a loose historical chronology. How do you position yourself as a documentary filmmaker as compared to a historian or archivist?

Historians and archivists will always try to reconstruct events in an objective and chronological sequence. I think that the task of a documentary filmmaker is wider than that. It can get really exciting once you start to interpret archival material in a new way instead of only depicting it according to the plain facts. With regard to cutting documentary films it is for example standard practice to take pictures out of their strict – historical – context and place them in another position within the narrative. This is done to put the focus on the actual “narrative truth”. Of course, this is always an ethical balancing act, or a question of position. Interesting film work can also be the result of finding a playful manner in dealing with historical found footage material, such as taking material out of its context and mounting scenes in a new order. I was able to experience this during my film studies at the HFBK Hamburg, when fellow students took a seminar with Prof. Robert Bramkamp. They were able to freely use the archived film material of the housing company “Neue Heimat”, to mount the material and in this way create our own films with completely new levels of meaning. This resulted in very exciting formal experiments with their own – partly poetic – visual vocabulary. The visual poem “Cronología” of the young Mexican filmmaker Rosana Cuellar is using a dense, surreal atmosphere to illustrate fragments of bullfights, space, the oppressive meeting between woman and man, and little Simon who is hiding in a box. In the end, this wonderful short film only has little to do with the context of the material that was used. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Historians will now probably cry out loud and immediately doubt the accuracy of the results…

That’s true, of course. But film is not science but a language, and a different language than science is. Film is always a construction. Strictly speaking, a documentary film would be a film that is shot in a single take, without any cuts. But even then the starting point, the composition, the mis-en-scène, etc. play a decisive role for the so-called “reality”. A film usually also aims at carving out emotional and dramatical meanings. Ideally this brings viewers ‘closer’ to the essence of an event or a history. Therefore the “result” is not wrong, it simply works on a different level. André Sieger’s film “Souvenir” is a very good example. The director is using the private archive of former SPD politician Dr. Alfred Diebold as the basis for a portrait on him, and the material is partly very intimate. The film presents a fictional story, a metaphoric interpretation of the documentary material. In the course of the film, the protagonist falls deeper and deeper into loneliness until he finally “vanishes into ice”. This way of presentation gets much closer to showing the emotional situation of the protagonist than pure documentary material ever could. In the end, memory is also construction!

Speaking of private archives: In one of your earlier films, “Wann habe ich aufgehört, Dir meine Träume zu erzählen” (“When did I stop telling you my dreams?”) from the years 2000-2007, you also used your private photo archive. How did this very personal project come about?

It is a kind of found footage film from my own archive. In the year 2000 I visited my grandmother at a nursing home in Linz and took pictures of her all day long. A few years later, I decided to make a film about her to help me deal with her death. I mounted the pictures I had taken at the nursing home in the form of a staged “slide show” to make a filmed essay which is accompanied in terms of sound by the text of a very personal farewell letter. This film is a good example to show how material from a private archive, taken at an earlier point of time, can result in a film years later. Some filmmakers such as the great Jonas Mekas always work like this.



Bernhard Hetzenauer. © Fharyde Saaib                       Digging into the past is Hetzenauer’s passion. The filmmaker, who has also written the book “Das Innen im Außen – Béla Tarr, Jacques Lacan und der Blick”, takes a great interest in psychoanalysis.

Bernhard Hetzenauer, born in Innsbruck, is a filmmaker, author and curator. Among others, he studied film set and stage design with Bernhard Kleber at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and film directing at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg with  Pepe Danquart  and Wim Wenders. Hetzenauer is living and working in Hamburg, Vienna, Linz and Latin America. Many of his films are dealing with South America and Mexico. In 2013 he produced the film “Und in der Mitte der Erde war Feuer” which has received the Theodor Körner award and the film award of the Hamburgische Kulturstiftung. It is a portrait of Vera Kohn, a Jewish woman born in Prague in 1912 who emigrated to Quito (Ecuador) in 1939. In this documentary film the filmmaker is himself the second protagonist who is trying to understand his grandfather’s past in the SS with Vera Kohn’s help. After her flight to Ecuador and a psychological breakdown in the 1960s that brought her back to Europe for a stay at the therapy centre of zen buddhist Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, Kohn studied psychology in Quito. In the end, the film project is a therapeutical process for both protagonists. Also in 2013, Hetzenauer’s essay “Das Innen im Aussen” about the award-winning Hungarian film director Béla Tarr was published. Hetzenauer relates Tarr’s characters with observations of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

The film “Und in der Mitte der Erde war Feuer“ (A/D/EC 2013, 78 min.) is available on I-Tunes and Amazon. “Wann habe ich aufgehört, Dir meine Träume zu erzählen?“ (A 2007, 15 min.) can be borrowed for screening from the director.

Contact: Bernhard Hetzenauer MFA, Schiwiese 18, 4048 Puchenau.

“Das Innen im Aussen. Béla Tarr, Jacques Lacan und der Blick“. With an epilogue by Michael Pilz. Alexander Verlag Berlin, 2013, 128 pages, ISBN 978-3-89581-321-4, 19,90 €.


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