‘The physical pleasure of finding traces past’, says historian Arlette Farge, ‘is followed by the sense of doubt and powerlessness associated with not knowing what to do with them.’ Herein lies, perhaps, the premise for the BFI’s invitation to the artist Deimantas Narkevicius. Housed in the BFI’s national film and television archive is ETV, one of the largest surviving collections of socialist propaganda films in Europe. To mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the BFI invited Narkevicius to trawl through the collection to compile images and sound for his film ‘Into the Unknown’, 2009.
Given the expected political charge of the footage, Narkevicius’ film is a strangely quiet affair. It presents pastoral outdoor scenes, boat landings, industrial construction sites and hushed libraries. Taken primarily from the GDR period in East Berlin, the observational or documentary aspects are, of course, never entirely neutral. Each scene is vested with an idea of political importance, of power. Yet Narkevicius sets in motion lyrical pairings that present a social fragility that involuntarily leaks out from the footage, a fragility that is augmented through the artist’s careful editing. Hospital patients quietly and obediently wait for their doctors, a group of pensioners hold court around a piano, a motorway rumbles close-by to a man and child fishing on the city limits.
There is little ‘Ostalgia’ to be found in this film, however. An extended scene of a radio repair construction line, with its long hours of labour and demonstration of skill on a Fordist level, seems to point to the obsolescence not necessarily of the hunks of radios themselves, but of the way of life. Cut to a bell foundry, where people test the pitch of the church bells with tuning forks. We move from outmoded technology to faith in Narkevicius’ simple edit. On the one hand the viewer sees the apparently progressive technical life of the city, on the other there is a rural, traditional life external to notions of state, of city, and of the GDR.
Perhaps the most interesting scene of the film, however, is a sequence of an extended tracking shot of a long table piled with books. The display of knowledge is quietly paraded as volumes of Pablo Neruda, Käthe Kollwitz and historical books of Büchenwald flit past the lens. The book jackets form an unlikely collage, where images and text jut up against screen. Volumes are splayed open for the camera, but their words and titles are suddenly indecipherable in this method of display, and thus the oddness of the footage, of the desire to present books on film, is exposed.
The title of the film, meanwhile, has an almost anachronistic resonance, but evokes the feeling of communism’s desire to create an ideology outside and above time. Its failure to do so radically reinserts the temporality of its subjects and its culture back into the unlikely holding cell of the archive. Narkevicius’ role, then, in piecing together this footage and giving it a shape and name, is intrinsically ambiguous.
In the neighbouring gallery, with an identical black box setup, is an earlier film by the artist, ‘The Dud Effect’, 2008. This work uses a reconstruction format that is perhaps more familiar to Narkevicius’ mode of working, and the viewer is guided through an abandoned missile test site in Lithuania, his home country. Retracing the procedure of a missile launch with careful precision is the protagonist of the film, Evgeny Terentiev, a former officer of the army base in which the film is set. Terentiev’s expressionless gaze seems mechanical, as do his actions, although the reconstruction appears as a reconciliation, of sorts, with memory. Narkevicius intercuts the reconstruction scenes with landscape shots of the military site itself— now a series of abandoned, decrepit buildings and the swathes of broken, monumental shards of concrete and steel (and strangely not dissimilar to Smithson’s ‘Monuments of Passaic’, 1967, or indeed, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker from 1979). The edit produces temporal continuity, where the destructiveness of such weaponry seems immediate and devastating, while the reconstruction is an eerily banal sequence of slight gestures.
‘The Dud Effect’ is, with its palpable journey into memory, in many ways sharper than ‘Into the Unknown’. It possesses an intentionality that is unflinchingly direct. In comparison, ‘Into the Unknown’ seems restrained. The ‘knowability’ of the Cold War between East and West is still an untransferable experience. And while the crisp anachronisms of Narkevicius’ work are startlingly accomplished within his staged films, such as ‘The Dud Effect’ (and his stunning ‘Revisiting Solaris’, 2007, not exhibited here), his investigation into the ETV archive for ‘Into the Unknown’ feels like the beginning of a journey not yet articulated.
Isla Leaver-Yap is MAP’s editor-at-large