Distant Journey through the Desktop

 

Distant Journey through the Desktop from Jiří Žák.
This videographic essay was made on the occasion of the digital restoration of Distant Journey (Daleká cesta, 1948) supervised by the National Film Archive in Prague.

Creator's Statement

Alfréd Radok’s Distant Journey (Daleká cesta, 1948) is a canonical classic of Czech cinema and a still unique answer to the question of how to express the inexpressible horrors of the Holocaust, which allegedly inspired, for example, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955).[1] Many studies, both home and abroad, have been written about its incisive condemnation of Nazi ideology and antisemitism or its unique blend of a melodramatic story of survival in Nazi-occupied Prague, expressionistic scenes from the Terezín concentration camp, and inserted clips from period newsreels and Nazi “documentaries” (e.g., Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).[2]

Nevertheless, such a reflexive film also needs a reflexive film theory. One that is not content solely with written analysis and interpretation but extends this reflexivity directly into manipulation with sounds and images. In particular, the film’s “trick montage” sequences,[3] based on interactions between the larger “documentary” frame and the smaller “fictional” frame within a single film shot, not only establish a relation between two visions of the Holocaust but also imagine a way in which two or more images can counter each other. This technique heralds Radok’s idea of an “artistic report” – a multidimensional structure in which “a realistically descriptive layer and a markedly stylized layer would permeate”, allowing comparisons of the points of view within a single frame of reference.[4] Radok later developed this idea in the multi-screen projections at the experimental theatre Laterna Magika;[5] nevertheless, the concurrency of various layers of reality already appears in Distant Journey.

Radok’s trick montage thereby signaled towards a new mode of seeing – one that allows us to grasp multiple registers of reality at once. In this sense, it can be perceived as one of the many possible predecessors of contemporary desktop cinema, a format usually adopted for simulating the experience of browsing through the online landscape.[6] Crucially, this resonance does not lie only in the possibility to alternate between different screens and windows. Our essay primarily wanted to exploit the desktop cinema’s capacity to reflect upon the conditions under which simultaneous moving images are assembled into larger meaning units – either by the creator or by the spectator. The importance of trick montage in Distant Journey resides in its attention to the processuality and relationality of meaning. Rather than pursuing any final interpretation of the events, we are encouraged to let the meaning arise from the mutual interactions between the images on a single plane.

This videographic essay, created on the occasion of the digital restoration of Distant Journey by the National Film Archive in Prague, aims to actualize this mode of seeing precisely in the film’s short trick-montage sequences – from today’s point of view nearest to the “split-screen” technique. More specifically, it isolates and amplifies moments in which fictional events shift into a small frame in the lower right corner, while documentary and newsreel shots of war destruction, Nazi emblems, and anti-Jewish terror emerge in the background. These moments’ potential to produce reflexive videographic thinking independently of its placement in the fictional story is investigated in the computer desktop interface and the editing software. Thus, the film’s operations with distinct yet mutually involved layers of representation can be rethought both retrospectively – in terms of desktop cinema’s historical heritage – and prospectively – in terms of Distant Journey’s legacy in the digital age.

First, to see how exactly Distant Journey’s juxtapositions of documentary and fictional footage contribute to a critical and historically informed understanding of multi-image interfaces, they are confronted with Jaimie Baron’s notion of the “false archive effect.” This effect arises when the film plays with the impression that we are observing authentic archival footage, even if it is not.[7] The effect can be achieved in various ways, such as via fictional re-enactments or manipulations with archival material, often so as to challenge the claim of any visual representation to exclusive truth – either for deconstructive purposes or for less desirable aims of disputing established historical facts, including the Holocaust.[8] Distant Journey through the Desktop strives to follow up on the more analytical, media-reflexive strategies of falsifying the archive effect and pose an alternative to the approaches that misuse the effect for enforcing one “truth” over another. The essay first demonstrates the presence of these techniques (e.g., ironic commentary, embedded newsreel footage, and staged scenes) in the opening sequence that inevitably leads to the first trick montage. Later, the trick montage sequences, amplified through the desktop perspective, are revealed as instances of the false archive effect that are particularly suited to the online landscape. By emphasizing simultaneity rather than hierarchy, dependence rather than separation, they portray the documentary and fictional levels as two forms of determinism whose truth lies in permeating one another. The false archive effect would then rest precisely upon their mutual intertwinement in a split-screen arrangement, denying the possibility of any mode of representation prevailing. Through this interface, the archival experience may arise with the awareness that powers of the false are always-already present.

Second, as the trick montage sequences are placed into the framing desktop interface, the documentary-fiction divide becomes all but one of the many antagonisms played out on the immanent computer screen. If one does not want to become overwhelmed, s/he must concentrate on the shifting relations and transmissions between the images and their enclosed layers of reality. As for the trick montage sequences, highlighting the distribution of attention between two interconnected frames reveals a subtle interplay of presence and absence (as in the third “suicide” sequence), before and after (see the sixth sequence with the screaming Terezín prisoner), past and present (as in the final rescue sequence). The desktop interface allows these sequences to become implicit or explicit models for interacting with multiple frames and pop-up windows in a critical manner. Many desktop documentaries tend to underestimate the complex exchanges between the (often ontologically distinct) realities enclosed within the individual windows in the name of capturing an overall experience of dealing with images in the online space. By offering a perspective “from below,” the trick montage turns the meaning-making role of micro-operations between the images/layers of representation into a focal point. In this sense, the technique can remain relevant even in the times when the simultaneous presence of diverse images on screen presents a norm.

Following this double movement in Distant Journey allows us to see that the reality of moving images within an increasingly convoluted audiovisual sphere can be approximated only through their mutual entanglement. Rather than unraveling it, the trick montage deepens this entanglement and, updated into the desktop environment, gains a more encompassing meaning as a mechanism for tracking transmissions and transformations between the interacting images side-by-side, as they are taking place. Consequently, the film’s reflexivity can also be extended beyond the scope of the original film and translated into the way we see the world.

Note:

One of the reviewers rightly commented upon the essay’s lo-fi character. We believe that minor glitches, lags, and imprecisions should not be overly smoothed out, as they reveal the complexity of mediating processes that are required to translate the desktop experience into a meaningful audiovisual work and also the multitude of subtle differences that arise when the individual images and sounds are imported into various types of software. In particular, a videographic essay about the false archive effect should be wary of leaving out signs that point towards its own powers of the false.

Endnotes

[1] Schnapková, Andrea, Hudec, Zdeněk et al. 2018. Daleká cesta: Kritické a analytické studie. Praha: Casablanca: p. 19.

[2] See, for example: Bazin, André. 2014. “The Ghetto as Concentration Camp: Alfréd Radok’s The Long Journey.” In: Bert Cardullo (ed.), Bazin on Global Cinema, 1948–1958. Austin: University of Texas Press 2014, pp. 92–96; Cieslar, Jiří. 2001. “Living with the Long Journey: Alfréd Radok’s Daleká cesta.” Central Europe Review, vol. 3, no. 20. Online: <https://www.pecina.cz/files/www.ce-review.org/01/20/kinoeye20_cieslar.html>, [accessed 19 March 2020]; Kerner, Aaron. 2011. Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films. London and New York: Continuum: pp. 21–26.

[3] This expression is used in the technical screenplay, see Drvota, Mojmír and Radok, Alfréd. 1948. “Daleká cesta (technický scénář).” Praha: Státní výroba dlouhých hraných filmů.

[4] Quoted from: Cieslar, Jiří. 2007. “Daleká cesta Alfréda Radoka.” In: Eva Stehlíková (ed.), Alfréd Radok mezi filmem a divadlem. Praha: Národní filmový archiv – Akademie múzických umění: pp. 11–12. See also Divadelní odděleí Národního muzea, Poznámky k připravované premiéře filmu Daleká cesta. 1949, p. 1. 

[5] Česálková, Lucie and Svatoňová, Kateřina. 2019. The Dictator of Time: (De)contextualizing the Phenomenon of Laterna Magika. Praha: Národní filmový archiv – Filozofická fakulta Univerzity Karlovy.

[6] See, for instance, Distelmeyer, Jan. “Desktop-Filme: Hilfe, da gibt's keinen Button!.” epd Film, 9. 7. 2018. Online: https://www.epd-film.de/themen/desktop-filme-hilfe-da-gibts-keinen-button, [accessed 19 March 2020]. De Rosa, Miriam and Strauven, Wanda. 2020. “Screenic (Re)orientations: Desktop, Tabletop, Tablet, Booklet, Touchscreen, Etc.” In: Susanne Ø. Sæther and Synne T. Bull, Screen Space Reconfigured. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press: pp. 231–262. 

Relevant examples of the desktop cinema approach in videographic film studies are Galibert-Laîné, Chloé. 2019. “Watching the Pain of Others.” [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, vol. 6, no. 3. Online: http://mediacommons.org/intransition/watching-pain-others, [accessed 19 March 2020]; Galibert-Laîné, Chloé and Lee, Kevin B. 2018. “Reading // Binging // Benning.” Vimeo. Online: https://vimeo.com/252840859, [accessed 19 March 2020]; Charlie Shackleton, “Criticism in the Age of TikTok.” Sight & Sound, 13. 1. 2020. Online: https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/video/tiktok-m..., [accessed 19 March 2020].

[7] Baron, Jaimie. 2014. The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History. London and New York: Routledge: pp. 50–51.

[8] These specific procedures are discussed, for example, in Bordino, Alex W. 2019. “Found Footage, False Archives, and Historiography in Oliver Stone’s JFK.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 42, no. 2: pp. 112–120.

 

Biographies

Jiří Anger is a doctoral candidate in film studies at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University, in Prague. He is also an editor for the peer-reviewed academic journal Iluminace and curator and researcher at the National Film Archive in Prague (NFA). His research focuses mainly on figuration and materiality in archival footage, experimental cinema, and videographic film criticism.

His texts and videos have appeared or are awaiting publication in journals such as NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, The Moving Image, Film-Philosophy, [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies or Studies in Eastern European Cinema. He is the author of the monograph Afekt, výraz, performance: Proměny melodramatického excesu v kinematografii těla (Affect, Expression, Performance: Transformation of the Melodramatic Excess in the Cinema of the Body). He is currently working on a doctoral thesis titled “Keep That Image Burning: Digital Kříženecký, Found Footage, and the Crack-Up in Early Czech Cinema”.

https://cuni.academia.edu/Ji%C5%99%C3%ADAnger

 

Jiří Žák graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (Studio of Intermedia Work III/Tomáš Vaněk School). He went to study stays at the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design in Prague, the Studio of the Visiting Artist at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, and the University of Art and Design in Karlsruhe. He works primarily in the media of the moving image and video installation, merging research, lyricism and the narrative form. He addresses the identity of post-communist countries and its deconstruction through non-western perspectives. He has researched the issue of Czech arms export to the Near East on a long-term basis, his other theme of interest being the sociopolitical relation to information published in the media and online. His latest works have also focused on environmental anxiety. Žák introduced his work at a number of independent galleries and institutions in the Czech Republic, and recently also internationally, e.g. at the Warsaw Biennial. He is active in the Studio without a Master. In 2015, he became a holder of the EXIT award, in 2017 he was a finalist of the Other Visions competition at PAF Festival of Film Animation and Contemporary Art in Olomouc. Žák is a finalist of Jindřich Chalupecký Award 2020. He works for Artyčok TV and the National Film Archive in Prague. 

http://jirizak.com/

This article was created with the institutional support for the long-term conceptual development of a research organization provided by the Ministry of Culture, Czech Republic.

This video by Jiří Anger and Jiří Žák approaches Alfred Radok’s newly digitally restored “Distant Journey” via the desktop. It begins with the question: "How to think about a film that itself thinks?” One answer the video suggests is to think with the audiovisual images and to appropriate poetic principles of the film to its own contemporary analytical videographic study.

Bringing “Distant Journey” into a digital sphere, placing it in the context of videographic criticism highlights a fascinating genealogical trajectory, i.e., it allows the film's “trick montages” to be seen in relation to contemporary digital (videographic) practices.

Especially intriguing are the film’s specific procedures and movements of scaling, layering and relating different frames that evoke a spatial and gestural quality that is re-visioned and multiplied in the setting of the desktop as an environment and surface-stage for thinking with audiovisual images. It raises questions of the interaction with different desktop interfaces: navigating the desktop (as in the production of this video essay), viewing a screened and staged desktop – a constellation that includes g-docs, the editing software, a PDF and various video players – and playing it on your own desktop.

In the end (mirroring the beginning) the colours are once more inverted from white to black. The desktop is turned off, but can be re-entered any time as an image space that unfolds in the movement of the (scripted) analysis of active spectatorship.

The video highlights “media-reflexive” appearances of documentary footage within the filmic structure. It links the split-screens to the film’s opening sequential montage of marching Nazi-soldiers and the silhouettes of Jews heading for deportations that gets rearranged by the video in a side-by-side-comparison. 

(That images cannot be separated from specific forms of montage in which they are perceived is rather essential for videographic practices at large and is amplified through the desktop. Regarding the ‘updated’ trick montages, one could say that side-by-side-image-compositions are media for thinking about the entanglement of images as they are themselves new images.)

Subsequently, the video exposes certain shots in the opening documentary sequence which recur later within the film’s narrative. The embedding of these shots is linked to Jaimie Baron’s writing on a “’false’ archive effect.” (Baron’s double-edged take on a critical attitude towards an archival effect refers also to the denial of the Holocaust directly beneath the presented quote. In this regard, an archive effect is relevant for “Distant Journey.”) 

One can question that the split-screens establish a “false” archive effect in Baron’s sense as she uses the term for the simulation of ‘found’ documents. The essay rather relates it to a critical debunking, „the aim of challenging claims of any visual representation to exclusive truth.” The two frames of the ‘trick montages’ are thus not regarded as fixed (historical, narrative) contexts. In another passage Baron writes: “By recontextualizing found documents, filmmakers may produce new and sometimes perverse or contradictory meanings from them – and, yet, the potential meanings and effects of these indexical archival documents will also always exceed the intentions of the appropriation filmmaker.”[1] The film’s thinking (beyond truth-claims based on indexicality) is made graspable in this video as mutual entanglements focusing on the specific spatial juxtapositions of asynchronous perspectives[2] experienced as temporal modulations: the visible and the invisible; suffering and the before and after; a shared (future) vector in a space of action.

The last sequence is taken up on by the essay – the sound of a motorcycle lingers on – when the desktop is filled with all “trick montages”-sequences, accompanied by percussive sounds building up with recurring drum beats while one player after another is closed and the voice-over concludes. But does the filmic reflexivity need to be ‘liberated’? 

The analysis of the reflexive multi-perspectivity of the filmic world is brought back to the desktop and leaves it open to the viewer to “actualize”, to reflect its contemporary relevance – as is taken up on in the creator’s statement. In the end, it opens up new perspectives on “Distant Journey” and its thinking (not least of the Holocaust, Nazi ideology and antisemitism) as a question of its present viewing. Regarding the relation of different modes of seeing, temporalities and perspectives of speaking about a common world,[3] the question of reflexivity and cinematic thinking could be well extended beyond the split-screens to the film’s melodramatic and expressionistic modes.

Endnotes

[1] Jaimie Baron (2014). The Archive Effect: Found footage and the audiovisual experience of history. New York, pp. 25.

[2] See also Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann (2015): „Das Gedächtnis des Archivs. Die Erinnerung an den Holocaust im Non-Fiction-Film. In: Asynchron. Dokumentar- und Experimentalfilme zum Holocaust. Aus der Sammlung des Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst e. V., Berlin, pp. 31f.

[3] See also Hermann Kappelhoff (2018). Front Lines of Community. Hollywood Between War and Democracy. Berlin/Boston, pp. 100, 286.

This audiovisual essay by Jiří Anger and Jiří Žák focuses on the « trick montage » technique that the Czech filmmaker Alfréd Radok designed for his 1948 film Distant Journey, that sees the screen split between two images – one belonging to the film's fictional diegesis, the other a historical audiovisual document. Anger and Žák re-activate this editing technique performatively by staging their research on the desktop of their computer, where images also routinely co-exist on one screen, framed by different browsers and windows. The confrontation between these older and newer forms of image juxtaposition is presented by the authors as a way to explore the similarities and differences between their respective modes of operation.

The intellectual and formal experiment proposed by the video essay is undisputably fascinating; after watching it, and reading the authors' accompanying statement, I was left with many questions. For instance, the authors' comments on Jaimie Baron's instrumental notion of the « false archive effect » made me wonder: are they suggesting that the inclusion of the documentary sequences in Distant Journey have the effect that the fictional scenes are perceived as (false) archives ? that for today's viewer, both the film's documentary and the fictional scenes have indeed become archives ? that the juxtaposition of different media in various co-existing frames – an avant-garde technique that has been normalized by the development desktop interfaces – can't but lead to a derealization of all (documentary and fictional) images ?

My second remark concerns the literature mentioned in the written essay. It seems to me that the contribution could have benefitted from refering to Harun Farocki's notions of « counter-image » and « soft montage », especially as they have been theorized by Georges Didi-Huberman (among others) in relation to images of the Holocaust. Literature about image juxtaposition in desktop films and more broadly in computer interfaces could also have been explored further, such as Lev Manovich's seminal writings about the cinematic heritage of language of new media, or more recently Miriam de Rosa or Jan Distelmeyer's texts on desktop cinema (whose texts are only briefly acknowledged in the author's supporting statement).

Yet in its current state, this contribution constitutes an original contribution to both fields of Film and Media Studies, and perhaps most importantly, a significant exploration of the affordances of the « desktop documentary » form in a videographic context.