already taut as a string about to snap.
Shot in the back of the neck. That's how you too will end,
On April 12, the Center for Documentary Arts will premiere an expanded and re-edited version of Hugo Perez's Neither Memory Nor Magic, a film portrait of Radnóti. The screening, presented in collaboration with the Opalka Gallery, will be shown at 6:30 in the gallery's theater, Sage College of Albany, 140 New Scotland Avenue, Albany. (If you haven't read my previous post about the event, there is additional information and a trailer there about Radnóti and the screening.) This is a proud moment for the Center for Documentary Arts; Hugo Perez is a gifted young filmmaker whose work is insightful and visually beautiful, and the opportunity to see this film in the intimate setting of the Opalka theater, with the director in audience, is a rare privilege. Perez and Radnóti each embodies the Center's humanitarian mission with work that speaks to individual conscience and calls us to empathy. Radnóti's poems are creative acts so potent they leave you changed. The same can be said of Perez's film, which was awarded the prestigious Chairman's Award of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
. . . Lonely the vigil I'm keeping;
in my mouth I taste that half-smoked cigarette, not your
kisses, and dreams won't come, no sleep will come to relieve me,
since I can face neither death nor a life any longer without you
Neither Memory Nor Magic—the title comes from a Radnóti poem—has been eight years in the making. Perez traveled to Hungary and Serbia to visit the places where the poet experienced his greatest triumphs and most desperate hours. He interviewed more than fifty people, including friends who knew Radnóti in Budapest before the war and a fellow inmate who shared the horrors of Bor. A poignant image early in the film shows an exhibit in a Hungarian school in which Radnóti's poems are displayed impaled on barbed wire. Later, Perez is welcomed by Radnóti's widow Fanni into the apartment where the couple lived together. And flowing like a strong current through the film are the poems themselves, which voice their author's hopes, joys, fears, anguish, and finally surrender in language both humble and haunting.
For its art, for its humanity, and for its portrait of grace in the face of brutality, this is a film not to be missed.
I spoke to the filmmaker earlier this month as he was putting the finishing touches on NMNM.
Hugo Perez: You could say that it started in Saratoga Springs, New York in the summer of 1996, when I had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn Forché and was introduced to her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. The whole idea of that book is that poetry can be almost documentary in nature, a poem can be like a mini-documentary. The book covers the twentieth century from Armenia to Rawada through the eyes of poets. This idea of poetry as witness was one I was quite taken with. Right in the middle of the twentieth century—right in the middle of the book—is the Holocaust, and one of the poets featured in that section is Miklós Radnóti. In fact, the story of the Bor notebook is the story she starts out her introduction to the entire volume with. The first couple pages are about Radnóti, and the notebook coming out of the grave. I read it and was really moved by it. Then eight years went by. I met this guy named Gregory Carr, who had a foundation called the Carr Foundation and at that time was interested in supporting documentary film. He asked if I had any ideas for a documentary that would celebrate the power of poetry. That’s perhaps the only time I’ve ever been asked that question, and will likely be the only time for the rest of my life. He asked with the intention that he was looking for a film to support. I thought back to Against Forgetting, I sent him a copy of the book, we talked about it some more, and we decide that Radnóti’s story captured the essence of poetry of witness. Ultimately, the foundation wound up supporting my film. Sometimes you choose films, and sometimes films choose you.
Why Radnóti, of all the poets in the anthology?
A couple of things. There isn’t anything else like the story of the Bor notebook. Literally, his final poems were in a grave for a year and a half before anybody saw them. His notebook with his final poems were soaked in his blood, blood of a poet. It adds a special drama and quality to his particular story. And also the fact that it was the Holocaust, this monumental moment of evil—it captures everything we were trying to say about poetry in the twentieth century.
What was it you wished to say?
In the case of Radnóti, in the last weeks of his life he must have known he was going to be killed. He must have known that perhaps nobody would ever see these poems he was writing. And yet he continued to write. He wrote four poems while he was on a two-month death march, before he was shot into a mass grave. To me that’s very powerful— even when you’re a week away from your death and can barely walk, you care enough about what you do, and believe in it enough, that you write a poem. As a poet, as a writer, you can’t focus on the outcome of your work, who’s going to read it. There’s something about the act of setting things down, putting pen to paper, that is meaningful in and of itself.
And the documentary was a way not just for us, but for you yourself to come to know this man?
I went in not as a scholar but as a filmmaker and storyteller. I wasn’t looking to make the definitive statement on Radnóti. I was trying to find connections that would help me understand him and the story of his world in a way I could present to audiences. Over the course of a couple years, I was back and forth to Hungary six or seven times, we interviewed more than fifty people, including a handful of people who had known him; I literally walked in the same places he walked. I went to Serbia to see the Bor copper mine, where he was a slave laborer. We followed the course of the last hundred kilometers of the death march, the different places where he stopped and he camped. There’s not much left of that time, but you get a connection of the geography, the place he was in, the sky that he saw. The film is episodic in nature, especially the last forty minutes, it’s a string of little stories that take you from the labor camp to the death march to his death and after his death. There’s a voice in each of those little segments that takes you through.
The film is a portrait of artistic courage and a love story between the poet and his wife Fanni.
Oh, definitely. One of the great privileges and pleasures of this trip was getting to meet and spend time with Fanni Radnóti, who is still alive today and still lives in the apartment they shared together. She had never done an interview. She has really been the keeper of the flame for Radnóti, she has assured that his legacy lives on. Every significant project on him that has happened as happened with her blessing or some conversation with her. I tried to get her to give me an interview and she wouldn’t. I finally persuaded her to let me film her, which I use as the ending of the film.
How did the experience enhance your understanding of Radnóti's poems?
When I read his work, it felt very personal, like he was speaking to me. Making the film helped me understand his world better. The thing I came to understand more was how he developed into who he was. He was Jewish by birth but not by culture. He was a very secular guy who as a teenager got introduced to the great Hungarian poets, and decided he wanted to be one of them. He went and he made himself into a great poet.