Head to Head


Left: Claude Lanzmann, Sobibor October 14, 1943, 4 PM, 2001, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Right: James Nares, No Japs at My Funeral, 1980, still from a color video, 60 minutes.

“I split his skull completely, as if I’d been a specialist, doing it all my life.”

– Yehuda Lerner in Claude Lanzmann’s Sobibor October 14, 1943, 4 P.M., describing how he killed a Nazi death camp guard.

“Resistance, what is resistance? It is material.”

– Novelist Thomas Bernhard in Ferry Radax’s Three Days.

“When you get to my age, there are memories everywhere around the corner. Good ones, bad ones, they’re all the same to me.”

– Filmmaker Joe Gibbons in Saul Levine’s Driven.

“You’ll cut all this out anyway, won’t you?”

– Eighty-year-old dancer Paul Swan to Andy Warhol during an awkward moment in the filming of Paul Swan.

THESE QUOTES suggest something of the range of “Talking Head,” the rich, diverse, altogether amazing series of films that focus on the speech and actions of a single individual, programmed by Jed Rapfogel at Anthology Film Archives. I’ve viewed almost all sixteen programs and there isn’t a dull one in the bunch. If I had to pick just three, they would be Lanzmann’s Sobibor (2001); the Warhol double-screen Edie Sedgwick vehicle Outer and Inner Space (1965) paired with Paul Swan (1965); and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967).

Sobibor, Lanzmann’s stripped-down, journalistically-acute 1979 interview with Holocaust survivor Yehuda Lerner, was originally intended as part of the documentarian’s monumental Shoah (1985). But because Lerner’s story countered the prevailing belief that Jews went to the gas chambers without resistance, Lanzmann decided it deserved a film of its own. That is not to say that Sobibor has anything in common with the recent genre of Holocaust uplift movies. To ensure that we understand that Lerner’s experience was nearly anomalous, the film concludes with a listing of the trainloads of Jews who arrived at Sobibor during its eighteen months of operation. (Some 250,000 were murdered there.) The first half of Sobibor combines Lerner’s voiceover with contemporary footage of bustling cities and bucolic landscapes where the horrors of the past are all but obliterated. But if the sites of various camps and ghettos have been prettified with parks and monuments, trains still rumble along the same tracks that routed Jews to their deaths. The most chilling meeting of past and present involves the screeching of gaggles of geese that live in the ruins of the death camp. The Nazis employed just such geese to cover the screams of the dying in the gas chambers. In the second half of film, Lanzmann fixes his camera solely on Lerner, as he tells the story of how he and about twenty others, most of them Russian-Jewish army officer POWs armed with axes and knifes, carried out an insurrection that gave the population of the camp a chance to escape en masse. Although only about six hundred made it into the surrounding forest, and the vast majority of those subsequently died at the hands of the Nazis or their Polish sympathizers, the uprising forced the closing of the camp. Lerner, a stocky middle-aged man (he was sixteen when he escaped from Sobibor) with a twitch at the corner of his lips (the only visible “scar” left by his traumatic past), tells his story straightforwardly but with a certain amazement at his own luck and courage. Relishing the irony, he explains that the revolt went like clockwork and succeeded, in part, thanks to the Germans’ obsession with punctuality. Lanzmann asks his questions in French and Lerner responds in Hebrew. The complications of translation from Hebrew to French (subtitled in English) causes a delay between Lerner’s words and the viewer’s comprehension, thus making palpable the distance between his experience and our own and giving us time to imagine the unspeakable.

The movies that comprise “Talking Head” fall into two groupings. The foreign language films—from Germany, Austria, France, and China—are narratives of lives shaped by war, fascism, and other forms of state oppression and terror. Among them is Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s The Confessions of Winifred Wagner (1975), which screens in both its 104-minute and 302-minute versions. The antithesis of Sobibor, its titular subject was the widow of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried and the organizer of the Bayreuth Festival. An example of denial to the point of madness, she rhapsodizes on Hitler as a patron of the arts. Syberberg’s ambivalent relationship to German romanticism is better played out in his Parsifal (1983), but Wagner herself is a monster not to be missed. More accurate and painful accounts of lives under the Nazi regimes are found in Christoph Hübner’s Thomas Harlan–Moving Shrapnel/Wandersplitter (2006) and André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002). And in Ferry Radax’s Thomas Bernhard–Three Days (1970), we hear from the bleakest of contemporary writers how his earliest memories of abandonment and illness take place within the landscape of the rise of fascism. Admirably minimalist in form, Radax’s film allows us to hear Bernhard’s actual voice. The weight of its depression and barely contained fury is no different in life than it is on the page.

Left: Shirley Clarke, Portrait of Jason, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Right: Ferry Radax, Thomas Bernhard – Three Days, 1970, still from a black-and-white video, 58 minutes.

The American movies in “Talking Head” are notable for their lack of overt political dimensions. The exception—it is in that sense the swing movie in the series—is James Nares’s No Japs at My Funeral (1980) which juxtaposes British television’s outrageously biased coverage of the “Irish Troubles” with the first-person account of an IRA member gone underground. Nares who moved from London to New York in the early 1970s was at the time, unlike the American-born filmmakers in the series, an outsider by birth as well as by choice, the choice being to make movies of no commercial value. Indeed the American movies selected are all films about outsiders made by outsiders. Thus two of the young Martin Scorsese’s early documentaries, ItalianAmerican (1974) and American Boy (1978), are respectively a portrait of his first-generation immigrant parents and a monomaniacal rant by Steven Prince, better known for his performance as the gun salesman in Taxi Driver (1976). Prince is a riveting performer but no more so than the deadpan Joe Gibbons, whose investigations of his own addictions, obsessions, and general lapsed-catholic-with-a-vengeance amorality confound documentary and fiction, true confession and wild fantasy. Gibbons’s magnum opus is Confessions of a Sociopath (2002). It’s programmed with earlier, slighter works including the hilarious Barbie’s Audition (1995). Gibbons is also the subject of Saul Levine’s Driven (2003), which is notable for its depiction of an extended adolescence suddenly overcome by middle age.

Portrait of Jason (1967) is culled from twelve hours of film Shirley Clarke shot of Jason Holliday, her gay African-American household assistant, over the course of a single drunken night. Holliday aspired to be a cabaret performer and the camera gives him the license to let it all hang out. In its sadomasochistic coupling of the voyeuristic filmmaker with the exhibitionist performer, and in its use of a third party (Holliday’s glamorous cousin and Clarke’s lover, the actor Carl Lee) to needle Jason from off screen, the film resembles many of Warhol’s talking portraits. But because racial difference comes into play here, the power relationship is more complicated and disturbing.

Warhol’s Outer and Inner Space (1965) is the first American video-art work. Using a prototype home video rig lent to him by Norelco, Warhol recorded his superstar Edie Sedgwick, framing her in a TV screen–filling close-up as she talks to someone outside the frame. He then shot two sequential thirty-three-minute films of Sedgwick placed in front of the TV screen on which her own video portrait is playing as again she chatters to an unseen person and tries to ignore the presence of her own recorded recent past tantalizingly near but out of sight (unless she turns her back to the camera). The two sequential films (the final form of this mixed-media work is 16-mm film) are projected side by side so that there are four Edies on the screen. The title suggests enough meanings—concrete and metaphoric—to make your head spin throughout the film even if you barely pick up a word, good sound being a nicety that Warhol cared little about. The sound is surprisingly sharp, though, in Paul Swan (1965). Warhol filmed the former Isadora Duncan dancer who continued to perform the “aesthetic” dances he choreographed at the turn of the century for invited audiences in his Chelsea studio. As he plods through his atrophied routines, one imagines Warhol peering through the lens and seeing his possible future, especially when Swan reveals a shoe fetish that “Drella” (Warhol’s factory nickname, a combination of Dracula and Cinderella) could certainly relate to. There are few works of art that marry form and content to reveal the fissures of narcissism and the fear of death that seeps through them as powerfully as these Warhol talking heads.

Amy Taubin

“Talking Head” runs August 4–17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.