“I sometimes stop on the road to the sources and question the signs, the world of my ancestors.”
Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions
Dan Eisenberg's film, “Cooperation of Parts” is a film in the form of a questioning journey through signs, landscapes, memory, and established meaning. It is a film that is an inquiry into the construction and collapsibility of identity; a film that creates and navigates through a constellation of questions, but not without holding the questions themselves accountable. The filmmaker himself is not exempt as he interrogates the nature of filmic discourse, his own work, and his own sense and limitations.
Eisenberg travelled through Europe - France, Germany and Poland in particular - to investigate and witness the traces and presence of his immediate family past and the indissoluble shadow of the Holocaust. Motivated by a desire “to see with both eyes open,” for the first time in his life he visited the death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau before finding Radom, his mother's native town. A proverb, one of the many that appears within the film, expresses the thought - “The longest road is fom the mother to the front door.”
It is the personal nature of the search and the relative distance travelled that contributes to the emotional and intuitive life one feels within this film. It is Eisenberg's combination of poetic and analytical rigor that makes “Cooperation of Parts” so challenging, moving, and formally exhilarating.
• • •
The film incorporates the structure of a responsibly sober precautionary tale, a quality shared with the proverbs. Proverbs have great significance within the film - they appear throughout in spoken narrative and written text. They surface musically as rejoinders, skeleton keys, litanies, alarms going off summoning attention - fine concentrates of accumulated history. The filmmaker has carefully chosen these proverbs from many sources: some from Yiddish lore and contemporary literature, some he has written himself or remembered from childhood. “Cooperation of Parts”, in the complexity of its individual sections, eventually reveals an intellectual elegance - a knot both compact and open - again, shared properties with the proverbs.
The proverbs themselves are a rich source - instructional, ironic, enigmatic, portable. In their conciseness they can travel well. Small enough not to be forgotten or mis-told, rich enough to be inexhaustible and opalescent, they contain a multiplicity of aspects and applications. The nomadic, the apprehended, the displaced person can find the proverb easily, can conceal it easily. The proverb reveals and keeps present a key to identity and orientation.
Like the intentions of “Cooperation of Parts”, the proverbs and the film's structure sharpen attention and preserve acuity. In the beginning section of the film, the sound of a tuning fork punctuates cuts between images. Apart from its timbre, it creates a resonance. The tuning fork has an extended decay time with sound continuing to oscillate long after it is produced. The instrument determines pitch and creates a standard by which other instruments can find their tuning; it can provide a relative diagnosis. The film seems to be asking us if we have found our correct pitch - if we are attuned to what we are seeing and hearing. Later in another context there is a corresponding admonishment: “Listen to yourself...just listen...Its not really what you want to be feeling.” It is the call for us to recognize who we are, question what we perceive, realign ourselves with our own senses, redefine our own identity. Both the text and the structure contain remembrances and forewarnings that dance with the inexplicable.
• • •
In a previous film, “Displaced Person", Eisenberg sought to examine issues around the Holocaust through historical information and cultural artifacts that are available and given to all of us as “readers” of history. Circling from the exterior in a highly individualistic way, “Displaced Person” works with a carefully chosen set of particular elements in order to explore the larger questions within the historical field. Stately and sinuous passages from a Beethoven string quartet create a complex argumentation around images and text. This music, both sympathetic and distanced, establishes rhythm and breadth in relation to a radio interview with Claude Levi-Strauss, and archival footage obtained from rephotographing Marcel Ophul's “The Sorrow and the Pity.” These elements wheel through many revolutions of repetitions and combinations, forming multiple perspectives. Through recontextualization, meaning blossoms rationally and incongruously like the alleged blossoming of flowers that took place in the dead of winter in wartime Germany, brought on by the intense temperatures of exploding shells.
“Displaced Person" is a tether that entwines and unravels; by necessity and the nature of its subject it is inconclusive. Perhaps starting from what is missing there, “Cooperation of Parts" returns to the same subjects from a more particular and private vantage point. In the new film, Eisenberg tests how the vast repository of public information on World War II relates more specifically to his individual experience as a child of survivors. He seeks to determine which parts of his experience reside in the world at large, which are a part of his parents' life, and what actually belongs to him alone.
Out of a feeling of urgency to know more, the filmmaker undertook his journey to Europe to confront a tangible world that was previously both vivid and spectral through evocation throughout his life. He was ready to ask how the Holocaust had defined him personally. The resulting film explores the boundaries between historical and private experience. It tests the limits of what is knowable through the questioning of conditioning and assumption.
As a film of remembrance and active resistance, “Cooperation of Parts” joins forces with a vast array of works that take on issues of the Holocaust. But very few of the films (and Ernie Gehr's remarkable “Signal: Germany on the Air” is certainly one of them) are works of such radical invention, that offer not only an individual perspective but a new possibility of seeing the world.
• • •
The film creates a network built through collision and conjugation, the mating of opposites, a breeding of contradictions. Dialectics. A “cooperation of parts” is just that cooperation implying if not harmonious at least productive reciprocity and concordance. But the title could be said to contain more sinister connotations. Collaboration has many implications: whether it be France collaborating with Hitler's Germany or the way in which we cooperate with the very things that conspire against us. Participation. Assistance. Complicity.
Cooperation of parts implies nothing working in isolation, but each part influencing and being influenced. Within the cooperation of the individual elements of the film, opposition and irresolution reside to create abrasions, to open wounds, to provoke. A dialogue of the self emerges, a split level voice that spars with itself as the film talks back to its maker in an attempt to dislodge the fixity of the finite point of view.
This device is both ancient and modern. In many of Jean-Luc Godard's films, the director employs the voice of a near alter-ego, omniscient, confiding, upbraiding, declaiming like a Mayakovskian newscaster through a forceful whisper. Richard Foreman's plays employ a similar phenomenon of the disembodied voice as a ricochet, an alter-ego translator, a Greek chorus with a single larynx -- the divine delusional voice of the bicameral mind, a Cartesian tourist guide.
In “Cooperation of Parts” there are two “audible” voices, one that is physical that is of the filmmaker himself, and the voice that is “heard” through written text. These voices are human, vulnerable, meditative, caught up with perplexity and judgments, deeply involved with commentary.
As Eisenberg said in conversation, “A lot of things were written on separate occasions. They find themselves in different parts of the film. But what they all add up to is questions, questions and more questions. That's the legacy, you know, that's really what's handed down. That comes from another place too, its very Jewish. It comes from questioning the text, always questioning the given word. I've always loved seeing the scripture, the Talmud and other scripture with the various commentaries written around it. It was very interesting to pick up a copy of “Glas” by Derrida and see it in the form of the Talmud.”
The two voices in Eisenberg's film are not polar, but they inform each other and the images. And the voices bear watching. We enter the film at a terminal, a point of departure: a train station in France. This sets the journey in motion. As we enter, a voice informs us, “Here’s the oldest picture I’ve managed to obtain.”
The narration seems to be providing us with a verbal description of what we are seeing but almost immediately discrepancies become apparent. We are torn from that belief, unable to trust the reinforcement of the verbal account. Image and sound separate and do not support each other except for momentary engagements that are designed coincidences. It is actually a photograph that is being described and not the images before our eyes.
Hollis Frampton's film, “Nostalgia” worked with this skittish discrepancy between the images seen and images of photographs described. “Nostalgia” used a more consistent asynchronicity, or more accurately, a delayed synchronicity. But what is most important in Eisenberg's use of this device is the intention of this misleading voice, and the relationship it creates with us from the outset. For the voice begins with an utterance that is factually false but operates under the guise of gathered evidence. Its implication of commentary is also deceptive. The voice deceives us and reveals its deception inadvertantly, not out of a perversity of will, insincerity or even as a structural conceit, but rather to warn us against blind acceptance. We are put on guard so that we begin to question all that is presented to us.
• • •
“There exists, in fact, a unique moment in relation to the possibility of me and thus the infinite improbability of this coming into the world appears. For if the tiniest difference had occured in the course of the successive events of which I am the result, in the place of this me, integrally avid to be me, there would have been 'another'.” Georges Bataille, from Sacrifices
In Dante's Inferno, with the precise and horrifying symmetry that punishment takes on in relation to the crime, thieves are no longer able to possess a namable identity - they are robbed of themselves. Cursed with perpetual metamorphoses they become a chaotic blur, they are in disarray. An old Yiddish proverb reveals that “an evil person leaves no pattern.” The thief's ability to say “this is who I am” is relentlessy intercepted by a contradictory succession of selves. The shock and the instability, the velocity of this roulette renders them indeterminate and fractional. This is a true melting pot ofindividuality.
The character in Woody Allen's “Zelig” underwent metamorphosis at a more measurable and less mercurial rate. Here identity has a more chameleon aspect in that its transformations are differently motivated. Is the ego an adhesive to which interchangeable personality traits attach themselves? Or is an identity crisis a situation of chronic empathy where the character becomes like those around him so as not to be detected as an anomaly? “Zelig” is a kind of parable of Jewish assimilation. It demonstrates what might be an acquired “talent”, an automatic reflex seemingly necessitated by history. “Zelig” reveals an individual who may be camoflaging himself in order to counteract a threat against his own existence.
The Nazis and a good deal of the German population were able to project a potent set of fears and self loathings onto the Jews. The Jews became the receptacles of Nazi fantasy about the cancer that was deteriorating their race and obstructing their mission on earth. If at first the Jews were a screen for this set of deplorable characteristics, later, in retaliation against these imagined properties, the Nazis declared that the Jews had no human identity at all. Jews were reduced to the sum of their physical parts that were collected for industrial usage and macabre furnishings. They were expendable, convertible material that purged the spirit and made the furnaces glow. For the Nazis, no recognizable life was being taken. This made it possible for them to refer to the Jews as “dolls” and in their own mind form the hostile and dependent symbiosis that arises between the brutal child and its playthings.
In "Cooperation of Parts”, identity is an essential question. Eisenberg recognizes the need to both assert and question his identity, both as an individual and as a Jew. A proverb within the film seems to view identity as both securely and fatalistically fastened. “Wherever you go, you can never get rid of yourself.” This is dealt with in the film as the issue of what constitutes identity is explored. Eisenberg marvels at the very fact that he exists at all. Seeing himself as a statistical oddity in light of the numbers exterminated and the numbers that survived, “by all rights or reason I should not exist.”
But perhaps the most crucial statement made in the film concerning identity is “If left to invent myself I could wind up with a clear case of mistaken identity.” This indicates that although we have the capacity, we are not the sole authors of our own character. It relates to the implausibility of the self - if left to our own devices, how could we ever reconstruct the right formula of conditions, ingredients, and accidents that have resulted in our being who we are. Through this we must acknowledge the architecture of our own construction - the cooperation of parts.
The above statement can also eerily introduce a twist of unreasonable doubt. Could I be someone else, someone who isn't me? Am I already not who I am - have I been hijacked or thrown into this identity? What belongs to me?
Everyday reality informs and deforms us. The limitations of the self determine some of the boundaries of what is knowable.
Many scenes from the film remain indelible or seem to be so as I recreate them from memory. The images of Dachau and Auschwitz which have been seen so many times in so many contexts run the risk of becoming paralyzed in a numb iconography. Eisenberg successfully counters this by the nature of his movements and active inscription through the space that leaves his own trace. A quality of agitated searching and motivated seeing keep the images awake.
But the images I retum to are those which the fllmmaker composed in the courtyard of the apartment house in Radom, Poland, where his mother once lived before she was taken to a work camp. This is perhaps a place where by all rights Dan Eisenberg should have grown up. I have seen these images only in silence: I cannot guess what feelings they may convey when coupled with sound. Seen photographically, it seems to be site of grace - there is exquisite clarity and rhythm in these compositions. There are startling compositions of the locomotion of play, of sudden combustions of movement and frolic. The framing eye magnifies and selects small and powerful details of balance and tension. the children themselves seem to cluster spontaneously at times into a tableau of repose.
These images, like all the others of the film, are not removed from scrutiny and must be questioned. They seem to contain a truth as yet unable to be categorized. Yet in Dan Eisenberg's film, "Cooperation of Parts”, as the proverb says -- “truth pricks the eye.”
Mark McElhattan is a film scholar and curator.