It's a chilly March day, a timid sunshine coming through the branches of the still naked trees, when we meet Eve Heller at the entrance of the Jüdischen Friedhof Währing in Vienna. The American-Austrian filmmaker is the winner of the ExtraVALUE Film Prize by Erste Bank in cooperation with Austria’s Viennale International film festival for her film Singing in Oblivion.
We are happy to have helped Eve at the beginning of this project when we supplied her with some rolls of Earl Grey B&W 35 mm ISO 100, and Lady Grey B&W 35 mm ISO 400 that were used during the first stage of production. It was important to collect a photographic archive, while doing research, and shooting preliminary images of the location, which ended up building the vast documentation for the project to come alive.
We walked the paths of the cemetery and talked about the story of this project, how it came about, and what it means to her.
Eve, thank you for being here with us. My first question is about this place. Is there any personal connection with the cemetery for you? What sparked the first idea to choose it as your location?
My father's side of the family were candy manufacturers based in Vienna, k. und k. Hoflieferanten - the Heller enterprise supplied the emperor's court with sweets. The Hellers were integrated in Vienna's culture, members of literary circles, close to the Freuds, participating in an elaborately interwoven world of people, ideas, neighborhoods and cultural institutions.
My father Peter was 18 at the time of the Austrian Anschluss – when the Nazis rose to power here in March of 1938. He made it out in the nick of time, after earning his Abitur – or highschool diploma that May. His family was robbed of almost everything. It was an extremely traumatic time. His immediate family were able to survive. We are only just beginning to learn about our extended family, aunts and uncles we grew up never knowing, because they had fled to far corners of the world or were killed in the camps.
Whenever I came here to Vienna with my father, I would sense his profound melancholy. He loved Vienna as his own hometown, and he loved showing it to us, even if was also painful. I naturally had a haunted feeling whenever I visited.
In 2005 I met the love of my life at a film festival in Canada, and soon decided to move to his home country of Austria from the US. Once here, I continued to have this very powerful feeling of missing my father’s world, family, friends and "Mitmenschen". I pass buildings where these people lived and continue to be haunted by this sense of missing threads, individual lives and their times.
After my father died in 1998, years before I met my future husband, I had gone to Vienna’s General Cemetery to visit the graves of people whose lives and work interest me. It was there that I stumbled on a section where tombstones were overgrown by hip-high grass, some covered with graffiti, many fallen and broken in two. A wild pheasant flew up as I made my way into what turned out to be an abandoned Jewish section of the graveyard.
I was deeply anguished by the palpable sense of how there was nobody left to visit the graves, an imagination of the missing generations. This reality was clear - especially in contrast to neighboring sections of the cemetery that were perfectly intact, with visitors coming and going. I started shooting the scene with my Super 8 camera, trying to capture a sense of it all.
Creating Singing in Oblivion was a long process of over 10 years. Can you tell us a bit more about the process?
Yeah, fast forward to 2008, after I had moved to Vienna. My dear friend Peter Miller was coming to town with an Arriflex film camera that had an anamorphic lens to capture widescreen imagery - major motion picture size. I'd previously only worked with Super 8 and 16 mm.
Peter said said, "I'm coming to the city with a widescreen 35 mm camera and would like to offer you one day to shoot whatever you like. Try and think of what that could be." I was amazed. I didn't have money to buy 35 mm film stock, but figured I might be able to find some short ends (a few hundred meters of leftovers from a commercial production sold cheaply on the open market).
I instantly knew I wanted to shoot that Jewish section of Vienna’s central cemetery. The widescreen format would allow me to capture a sense of scale in regard to the abandoned tombstones, the lives and generations unable to visit their ancestral gravesite. Later another friend suggested we check out the Jüdischen Friedhof Währing, a more ancient and very beautiful graveyard I‘d never seen.
Can you tell us about your creative and technical process of the filming?
I chose to use high contrast 35 mm film which has very fine grain. It's 12 ASA, so it really needs a lot of light and is extremely unforgiving: you have to get the exposure just right. We chose to film at a slow speed so more light would have a chance to pour into the lens of the camera (on playback at 24 frames per second, the film naturally looks sped up). Amazingly, the footage turned out to be perfectly exposed - thanks to Miller’s skill. We only had one overexposed shot!
The second part of making Singing in Oblivion involved working in a darkroom where I contact-printed objects I lay on one meter film strips at a time and exposed to an enlarger’s light before processing each strip by hand: I printed necklaces from my grandmother, the ring of a grandfather I never met, glass negatives, etc. None of these images would have been possible to capture digitally.
Needless to say, the frame by frame darkroom work was painstaking and required numerous exposure tests. After working hours on end under the red light, I'd get exhausted and yearn for daylight. So I'd head out into the garden. There I collected feathers, leaves, seeds and other objects of nature which I’d go back and contact-print in the darkroom.
In Singing in Oblivion, these passages of the film convey a sense of timelessness and the recurring cycles of nature of which we're all a part - past, present and future. In this sense, nothing is ever over. There is a tragedy to the forgetting about those who came before.
The film is divided into two moments with contrasting pace. A moment of pause and reflection at the beginning and a faster moment with the characters that enter the story. Is there an allegory between a present day that feels slow in action to preserve the cemetery and a past that seems to have eaten the place so fast with the growth of the vegetation?
I slowed down the film in part because the exposure of the high contrast film resulted in a speedy pace in contradiction to my intentions. I liked the idea of opening with a filmic image that almost resembles a photograph. There's this feeling of the past, a world caught in time – like amber. Slowly you see this world is in motion, there is a sense of presence, but as if in a slightly altered state. The opening of the film is supposed to be meditative, in mindful synchronicity with the delicate life around us. By slowing the film down, we’re able take it less for granted.
I organized the opening sequence of shots so that each successive image includes more motion, until there's a sort of epiphany with that one shot in which it starts raining and is suddenly struck by direct sunlight – a miracle of a moment for which we could never have planned! As the sequence proceeds through different shots of the graveyard, one comes to understand how damaged the place is.
The film then shifts to negative imagery, contact-printed glass negatives, photographs that convey a sense of presence and human life. I tried to figure out a way to convey how these negatives captured actual people, like spirits, so we don't just think – oh, that's a nice photograph of back-in-the-day.
There is a woman standing at a window, looking out from behind a curtain. There's a woman at a table, looking directly into the camera, looking at us. I attempted to build up a kind of visual dialogue with these spirit-like figures who are as if watching us in the present, and who in a sense aren't gone.
In a big way my film is an echo chamber of the missing threads I feel or imagine. I attempt to convey presence rather than simply mourning absence.
When the characters enter the story they appear first in the negative form, almost like ghost-like figures. Is the fading and alternation between abstract elements such as leaves and objects, to the reveal of the people, a way for the viewer to get acquainted with the ghosts of the past?
That's exactly right. And to imagine or feel there is a life here, a whole time and a space. You see what they're wearing. At first you don't get any further detail. It's as if they're the spirit of a character. And then you see them in positive, alive and well in their moment in time. And this moment in time comes to be the 20s, before the Nazis came to power.
When you found the images at the flea market did you know anything about the story behind the images?
No. My film was partially sparked by lost familial threads, including the fact that we – among a world of others – have terribly few ancestral images, photographs or letters. People left their possessions behind as they fled – or worse. I searched far and wide for material to make this film which had started as an idea and a question: How could I make a film that isn't a documentary with a voiceover, but instead renders a kind of echo chamber expressing the second-generation dilemma of feeling ancestors and worlds that disappeared, but sing out of a sense of presence rather than absence?
I wanted to honor a sense of these people and not necessarily make a film that casts guilt or talks about the horror of it all. I wanted to conjure and iconically bring back to life a glimpse of what once was. I discovered the key to my film in a suitcase of glass negatives which contained photos from the 1920s. I especially bonded with a woman who resembled what my grandmother may have looked like back then.
I believe it was when this figure materialized before my eyes via the darkroom chemistry that the title for my film came to me, Singing in Oblivion. During the Nazi era the cemetery was closed to the public. It was said that people walking by heard a paradise of birds living behind it's high stone walls. Nowhere else in the city did the birds have a space entirely to themselves. A myth developed that an ornithologist had convinced the authorities not to destroy what in effect was a bird sanctuary. But from what I learned, this is an urban legend.
In any case, as I worked on the film in the darkroom for nine months, I listened to a CD of local birds calls. When I went out into our garden I could hear them live. In the darkroom, the abandoned glass photo negatives seemed to likewise be singing to me from out of their orphaned state. And the image with whom I bonded seemed to be singing straight out of oblivion, thanks to the guy who sold me the glass negatives he happened to find abandoned in the attic of a house. The images revealed a constellation of characters and moments in time that had been forgotten, an intimate world that came back to visual life in the darkroom.
Does the use of an analogue process bring to life the idea of the cemetery as a metaphor for the current state of collective memory regarding our recent past?
This cemetery is largely a forgotten place, a kind of oblivion. Nowadays they open it up every second Sunday of the month to the general public, and are doing intensive restoration work on the oldest tombstones. But when I first started this project in 2008, it was never open. You had to make an appointment to gain access. Today there is a greater consciousness, but most people don't know about the cemetery and too few visit the place.
Most people don't know much about their local history. And they don't perhaps know that they're living in an apartment some Jewish people or "politically incorrect" individuals were pulled out of and killed during the Nazi era.
There's an ongoing forgetting. Both my parents endured the trauma of the Nazis rise to power and the war. They told me their stories. I would go to Munich where my mother grew up and she’d tell me of the horrors she'd seen. I have flashes of her images as I walk by places that look perfectly intact now.
Wherever I am, also in America – I go up the Hudson River and I think about the natives who used to live there and are now isolated, their worlds and communities largely destroyed, reduced to living under poor conditions on reservations.
More people in the US should know and think about this, this should be part of our education. We need become sensitized and change our ways, learn to treat one another with care and respect. The Jews contributed hugely to the well-being of what is Vienna today, creating great art, architecture, literature, innovations in the sciences, etc.
Birds song is often associated with re-birth and renewal. Do you feel that the audio component of the movie can leave the viewer with a sense of hope?
I hope that it helps people to be mindful about how precious life is. Singing in Oblivion begins with death and it ends with birth. The baby at the end is looking into the viewer's eyes and is partly representing a new beginning, but also the innocence of the people that were destroyed. There's this sense of a mother in the 1920s with her newborn baby, and the question of what happened to these people.
I hope to convey a mindful understanding on a very elemental level that we're all responsible for each other. The Jews were seen as filthy animals responsible for the world’s troubles. Here instead you see a woman like any other, having a baby, a very intimate moment in family life, a universal human right, to be born and to live.
You can see Eve Heller IN AND OUT OF TIME exhibition at the The Stadtpark Gallery in Krems.