Three Essays on Silence – Weekend – Kommersant

What is being done with an inconvenient historical past? He is hushed up. But silence about the past is by no means always the result of censorship or repressive historical politics. Such silence has many registers. Contemporary art is increasingly speaking out about this traumatic silence.

Text: Anna Tolstova

Boris Nikitin. Magda Toffler. Experience about silence", 2022

On an empty stage in a circle of light is a chair. A man in black jeans and a white shirt will sit on a chair and begin to read the text, throwing the sheets with what he has read on the floor. That's the whole scene. The man in black jeans and a white shirt is the Swiss director and playwright Boris Nikitin, the world premiere of his one-man show “Magda Toffler. The Experience of Silence” took place at the Styrian Autumn 2022 festival in Graz. The performance begins with a story about Heinrich Himmler's first Poznań speech, delivered to the top of the SS on October 4, 1943 and dedicated to the "final solution of the Jewish question." The speech was secret - historians found its text almost thirty years later, and recordings of Himmler's speech on wax plates were discovered even later. "Why record a secret speech?" the narrator will ask and move on to an autobiographical narrative.

Five years ago, Nikitin, who was born in Basel, who does not know a word of Russian and who inherited his Russian surname from the male, French-Russian-Ukrainian line, released a play about his father - "Experience about Death". The Experience of Silence is the second, female part of the diptych, about Magda Toffler, his grandmother from her mother's Slovak side. Nikitin likens these confessional performances to coming out: for the director, a theater theorist, a graduate of the Institute of Applied Theater Studies at the University of Giessen, where Rimini Protokoll came from, they become a way to talk not only about his personal life, but also about personal doubts about how much you can trust "witness" of the documentary theatre, a person acting on stage as a living ego-document.

However, there is no doubt about the authenticity of Nikitin's confessions: his story has come to the attention of Holocaust researchers, who confirm every word of the play. Only after the death of his beloved grandmother - Nikitin will visit her for the last time in a nursing home in Bratislava shortly before her departure - will the secret that Magda Toffler was silent about all her life be revealed. The secret will be opened by another Magda Toffler, who miraculously survived in Auschwitz and now lives in Tel Aviv, the cousin and namesake of Magda Toffler from Bratislava: they are not Slovaks, but Slovak Jews, during the occupation, Nikitin’s grandmother’s father did not help his brother and his family hide, but and he himself died. Bratislava Magda Toffler was reluctant to talk about the war and the death of her father - he, a pharmacist, was allegedly executed for supplying medicines to partisans. How true the information about the death of a great-grandfather is is not the main question that occupies the author of the play; he, suddenly found to be a Jew and not yet accustomed to this new identity, is tormented by the question of why his grandmother was silent all her life about her Jewishness.

"Why record a secret speech?" - the narrator will repeat his question at the end of the performance. In order to listen carefully to the pauses between phrases - suddenly someone tries to protest, suddenly in these pauses it will be possible to discern even the slightest signs of disapproval. In the pauses between Himmler's words, we hear only approving silence. Silence, which legitimizes the crime.

Yasmila Zhbanich. "After, after", 1997

Children are like children: they burst into the class in a crowd, yelling and fighting. Noticing the camera, they try to behave decently - they were warned that the psychologist would come with the director who would shoot the movie. Three seconds later they forget about the camera, yelling and fighting. And then the psychologist comes: “What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of the dark? Why are you afraid?". “Mom was killed by a shrapnel in the house, and dad was stabbed to death in the yard,” says a six-year-old boy who does not cry. Mom, dad, brother, grandfather - the film was shot in the same school in Sarajevo in 1997. A very good psychologist works with children, a real professional - they no longer cry and talk about the death of their relatives calmly. Only the shy girl Alma says almost nothing: she smiles broadly with her gap-toothed - her milk teeth have fallen out - with her mouth, shrugs her shoulders and is silent. Therefore, the psychologist and the director go to Alma's house to talk with her dad and grandmother. Alma's family survived all this in Sarajevo, they didn't kill anyone, it's just that their mother, a Serbian, left her Bosnian husband and ran away, and Alma stopped talking - now speech is gradually returning.

Jasmila Zbanich became famous for feature films about the Bosnian War: "Grbavica" received the "Golden Bear" at the Berlin Film Festival, "Aida" entered the main competition of the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar. However, she started with documentary films - "After, after" her second film and partly a manifesto. Zbanich was born in Sarajevo in 1974, during the war years she studied at the local Academy of Performing Arts and, although she had not shot anything yet, she already knew how not to shoot. World Press Photo in 1992 featured a series of reports in Sarajevo by a French photographer: the most famous was a shot of a wounded girl, her dog killed by a grenade, her lacy white dress covered in blood, she screams in pain. The girl is the same age and friend of Zhbanich, then she lost her arm and leg, lives in France and cannot find the strength to come to Sarajevo. Seeing the bleeding girl, the photographer shot three reels of film, choosing the most spectacular shot and not trying to help her in any way - then random passers-by took the wounded woman to the hospital. This story is told in Zbanich's film "Pictures from around the corner" (2003): in the frame - only the place where the tragedy occurred, behind the scenes - the voice of a woman crippled by the war, there are no spectacular shots of the Frenchman, nor today's shooting of the legless and armless heroine. Trauma speaks itself in silence.

Henri Sala. "Interview (Finding words)", 1998

While sorting through old things, the young artist finds a 16-mm film with a newsreel fragment: the next congress of the Albanian Communist Party, party bosses, Enver Hoxha and some beautiful Komsomol member, who has just cheerfully rattled a fiery speech, gives an interview to television people. In the Komsomol, he is surprised to recognize his mother. Tape without sound. Mother reluctantly admits that she was an activist of the Union of Labor Youth of Albania, that in her youth she believed in these bright ideals, like everyone else, and then stopped. And she absolutely cannot remember what she was talking about then - it must be the same thing that everyone said in such cases. Then the artist searches for old party members from the newsreel, associates of Hoxha, whom Hoxha - shortly after this silent congress - transplants. But they also do not remember what the beautiful Komsomol member was talking about. Then the artist finds a sound engineer who worked at the newsreel studio in those years - he is now out of work, moonlighting as a taxi driver. But even the former sound engineer can't help. And then the artist goes to a school for the deaf - teachers read his mother's speech by lips. When he shows the transcript to his mother, she at first cannot believe that she could ever utter all this propaganda nonsense. And there are no words to explain how it happened. The contrast between the utopia of communism, which they then professed and preached, and the current devastation in Albania, which still creeps into the frame, is much more eloquent.

The film "Interview", the diploma work of the Albanian artist Anri Sal, defended at the Higher School of Applied Arts in Paris, became his pass to the world of festival art and a revolution in the field of video art. Soon Sala will become a true video virtuoso - in terms of working with sound, arranging space with the help of music, synchronizing audio and video sequences, he, the subtlest aesthete, has practically no competitors. But characteristically, this fine sound art begins with a film about silent film, uncomfortable questions, and silence that is far from golden.

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