The Poetics of “What Is the Case”: Péter Forgács’ Wittgenstein Tractatus and the Documentary Fact

by Tyrus Miller


“And from nothing in the field of sight can it be concluded that it is seen by an eye.”

                        —Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,                         5.633 [1]

Since 1988, the Hungarian media artist, filmmaker, and sociologist Péter Forgács has assembled the Private Hungary documentary series, now twelve films from a collection of home movie stock dating back to the 1930s and up to the present. These films draw upon the Private Film and Photo Archives in Budapest, which comprises about 300 hours of home movies, predominantly from the pre-World War II period, and an additional forty hours of interviews with the relatives of the amateur filmmakers who shot the footage.  Most are collaborations with Hungary’s most important minimalist composer, Tibor Szemzõ.  Forgács’s films have aired on Hungarian television and in international film festivals and art exhibitions; he was recently a resident fellow at the Getty Institute in southern California.

Reassembling the cinematic traces of a world irreparably altered by the passing of time and the dislocations of Central European history, Forgács movingly evokes the pathos of individuals conducting their everyday, domestic lives against the backdrop of historical events they can only partially comprehend.  At the same time, he reflects on the almost miraculous facticity of the film material itself, its survival from the destruction that must have engulfed thousands of amateur films for every one preserved in his archive. As Joanne Richardson writes, Forgács “has given the private archive project an ontological dimension, turning it into a reflection on the nature of memory, the construction of history, and the phenomenology of film-making itself.” [2]

This ontological thickness of the film material is perhaps most spectacularly evoked by his 1996 film, Free Fall, and its 1997 successor, The Maelstrom, both of which document the story of Jewish families almost up to the point at which they are incarcerated in concentration camps.  One reaction to these films is simple astonishment at the sheer will to register daily life on film, even in situations of extreme danger and hardship.  In the case of Free Fall, the survival of the film stock parallels the remarkable survival of the filmmaker and his wife in the camps; Forgács has recently made a follow-up that picks up their story from their reunion after the war until the wife’s death in the 1950s.  In The Maelstrom, in contrast, the film becomes a posthumous memorial to the filmmaker, who died in the camps.  The effect in both cases is to set up an emotionally charged resonance between film, lived time, memory, history, and death. 

In 1992, Forgács made two films that utilize the same home movie materials, but that stand out for their explicitly reflexive, metapoetic handling of them and their innovative formal structure: Wittgenstein Tractatus and Bourgeois Dictionaries.  I will be concentrating my comments on the former film, which arranges the film images against a backdrop of quotes from Wittgenstein.  Bourgeois Dictionaries, however, also explores “linguistic” and quasi-mathematical frameworks for presenting the images, reflecting in a Wittgensteinian fashion on relations of saying and seeing, names and pictures.

About thirty minutes long, Wittgenstein Tractatus is organized into seven sections, formally alluding to Wittgenstein’s book, which offers seven basic propositions and a series of elucidating comments that are numerically subordinated to the main propositions.  Although Wittgenstein’s words and to a more limited extent his photographic image and his handwriting are constant presences in the film, Wittgenstein Tractatus is neither a wittily artful biographical fiction like Derek Jarman’s very different Wittgenstein  nor a typical documentary presentation of Wittgenstein’s philosophy.  Instead, it might be characterized as a poetic montage of verbal and visual documents that resonate with the historical pathos of the Central European, bourgeois, Jewish life-world that Wittgenstein shared with the filmed subjects of Forgács found footage.   In this sense, Forgács’s film might be understood as an historical critique of the Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, revealing its schisming of the subject between the logically speakable and the mystically inexpressible to be a profoundly historical artifact of a specific culture, to be traceable to the contradictions of everyday life of Central European Jewry in the twentieth century.  In addition, I want to suggest, Wittgenstein Tractatus can be understood as a metapoetics of the Private Hungary documentary project as a whole.

One discerns in Forgács’s film very little of the Wittgenstein who, rightly or wrongly, is taken to be the inspirer, first, of Vienna Circle logical positivism and, later, of British ordinary language philosophy.  Rather, the Wittgenstein of Forgács’s film is the theorist of the facticity of the world as it is (“what is the case”), its composition from matters-of-fact and the relations between them.  In analogy to the filmmaker himself, this Wittgenstein is concerned with picturing the world in the arrangement of his statements and with understanding the conditions of their meaningfulness.  He is the explorer of the limits of language and the indicator of a configurational and gestural realm that can been seen rather than said.  He is the paradoxical voice of an aesthetic and ethical realm that can only be pointed to in silence, because nothing sensical can be said of either suffering or pleasure.  He is a mystical witness to the ontological wonder that the world is and that it is in order as it is.  He is the author of that Tractatus that Ernest Gellner characterized as a “poem to solitude,” [3] a poetic assemblage of gnomic propositions that poignantly bespeak, in their very austere and ascetic denial of worldliness, the solipsistic isolation of the early Wittgenstein.  And finally, metonymically, lacking a national-cultural home and seeking it despairingly in logic, war, labor, and eventually everyday speech, he is a singular instance of the Central European Jewish bourgeoisie that constitutes Forgács’s primary focus in his documentary explorations.

*  *  *

“Everything we see could also be otherwise,” Wittgenstein wrote, in arguing against an a priori   order of things.  “Everything we can describe at all could also be otherwise.”  Forgács quotes this passage in the film and has identified it as a kind of summation of his documentary project.  Wittgenstein glosses his refusal of an a priori order as a denial of a psychological agency that lends necessity to the fact that things appear as they do; he emphasizes instead the sheer contingency of the world’s advent to a subject.  That subject, he notes, is not part of that world, a “constitutive ego,” as phenomenologists would have it, but is rather a non-psychological edge at which the interpenetration of world and thinking reaches its limit.  “Here,” Wittgenstein concludes, “we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism.  The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it” (Tractatus 5.64).

As editor of found film footage, Forgács is dealing with traces of a visual world that he cannot enter except at the tangent of the film material itself.  He is dealing with an intimate world that he was literally never in and can never directly see.  As archivist and editor, he is the non-psychological limit of that past world’s factual advent from possibility to actuality in the present.   Through the bracketing of his own person involved in the use of found footage, Forgács tends towards a “pure realism” in Wittgenstein’s sense—a realism based less on the mimetic veracity of the images, which like all home movies are often quite contrived and “hammy,” than on the factical authenticity of the film material itself, from which the living subject of experience has withdrawn into death, anonymity, or oblivion.

At the same time, however, neither the original filmmaking nor Forgács’s editing appear anything like “impersonal.”  On the contrary, there is a strongly “personal” quality to many of the images.  The viewer is led to ask: Who is that?  In what relation do these people stand?  To whom is she speaking?  What caused him to glance away a moment?  Is he angry or just bored?  For whom is she waiting?  Why does he look sad?  In many cases, we simply can’t discover it from the filmed footage.  Though perhaps the archived interviews suggest some clues, many times probably not even the filmed subjects themselves could tell us now.  The films evoke a zone of irreducible hiddenness that lies beyond the limits of the visually manifest, a perhaps permanent “solipsistic” veiling of whatever personal meanings and motivations the images might once have possessed.  What is left is only a set of signs that can be seen, and as seen, seem to possess a meaningful character; but what they mean, one can’t really say.  It is as if the answers to the questions that the images evoke were held in a space of privacy—but a paradoxically impersonal space, a privacy belonging to no one in particular.

*  *  *

Throughout his film, Forgács offers a world in which language and image, word and diagram, object and movement, sound and silence are complexly and enigmatically intertwined.  The different dimensions in which meaning “takes place” come in contact at only at shifting tangents rather than aligning in relations of correspondence.  Meaning appears constantly—it can be seen—but resists being stated in proposition form.  Forgács is as concerned to depict this resistance of his material to speakable meaning, to map out its edges and limits, as he is to motivate and formulate meaningful interpretations of it.

Thus, for example, Forgács overlays a geometrical diagram on the image of a fallen horse and a clocklike diagram over the image of a topless woman at a sewing machine.  Such juxtapositions demonstrate not that the world can be reduced to a “logical picture,” but rather precisely the incommensurability of the various ways in which the world can be apprehended.  For example, one might ethically commiserate with the animal’s suffering or the woman’s naked toil or, alternatively, aesthetically appreciate the abstract curve of the woman’s moving arm and its contrary direction to circular rotation of the sewing machine wheel.

Similarly, words and letters appear in the urban environment in this final section in ways that emphasize the indefiniteness and mobility of their meanings.  Words and letters may signify in a quasi-algebraic way within formal systems of relations; for example, the letter G appears on a streetcar, indicating a segment of the urban transportation network.   They may give names of stores and people, which refer them to systems of kinship and the division of labor.  They may also serve to cue practical functions such as forbidding or inviting certain actions.  The word “Szabad” (free), for example, appears in the final chapter in the window of a moving taxi from which street scenes were shot.  This word signifies something humbly practical in this context: that the taxi will pick up riders.  But seen, for example, in another context, perhaps on a banner in the streetcar pushed down the tracks by the people of occupied Budapest in Istvan Szabo’s film 25 Fireman Street, it could mean something quite different.  Its meaning holds for a world in which it is contingently the case, but it could be otherwise.

Earlier in the film, Forgács quotes Wittgenstein that language clothes the thought in such a way that the thought cannot be recognized from the clothes.  Another detail in this final section refers this Wittgensteinian disjunction of thinking and speaking, of seeing and saying, to the images of Forgács’s own film and his editorial “tailoring” of them to quotations from Wittgenstein.   As if recalling this passage and providing a self-reflexive illustration, Forgács includes in the final section a bizarre, masked sandwich-board man who is walking around the city carrying words that literally cloth and hide his body.  The signboard, which one can barely make out, reads “A láthatatlan ember visszatér”—The Return of the Invisible Man.  Like a cinematic ghost who walks the streets of Budapest, he is clothed in the Hungarian language, advertising for a film made up of images synchronized, originally, with English words.

*  *  *

Forgács’s interest in the non-correspondence of the visual and the verbal extends to a different Wittgensteinian conception of documentary mimesis.  In the opening propositions of the Tractatus , Wittgenstein introduces a range of terms including “Ding” (thing), “Gegenstand” (object), “Sache” (a matter, an affair), “Tatsache” (fact),  and “Sachverhalt” (which I’ll translate, rejecting C.K. Ogden’s confusing “atomic facts,” as “state of affairs”).   “The world is the totality of facts,” Wittgenstein writes, “not of things.”   And: “The world divides [better translated “dissolves,” “decomposes”] into facts” (Tractatus 1.2). A state of affairs is a “combination of objects (affairs, things)” (Tractatus 2.01).  Facts (Tatsache) are composed of states of affairs (Sachverhalte), which either exist (positive fact) or do not exist (negative fact). Facts, therefore, are combinations of objects, affairs, and things as viewed in light of their existence or non-existence.  And the world can be analyzed down to these existing or non-existing combinations, not down to objects, things, and affairs as such.  It is the facts—existing or non-existing combinations--not objects, things, and affairs that we picture: “Wir machen uns Bilder der Tatsachen” (We make to ourselves pictures of facts.) (Tractatus 2.1).

I don’t wish to get lost here in the complexities of tractatian semantics, nor am I suggesting that Forgács is simply depicting or applying ideas derived from Wittgenstein.  I do, however, think that formal attention to Forgács’s composition of images in Wittgenstein Tractatus suggests his Wittgensteinian rekeying of the question of documentary realism.  To formulate it broadly, Forgács shifts documentary realism away from a conception of correspondences of the film image to an object, event, person, or social category (Sachen, Dinge, Gegenstände) in favor of an analogical circumscription of cultural, historical, and anthropological “facts” (Tatsachen) and “states of affairs” (Sachverhalte).   The existence of a configuration—its factuality, its facticity of “being the case” in the world as captured at the moment of filming—is what is presented by Forgács’s film in the first instance.  Only derivatively is he interested in the object, event, or matter as such, the names of people and occasions that may, in fact, be lost in time.  The resistance of the image to identifiable meaning, thus, is not merely a matter of missing information, as if watching the film with an archival finding aid would yield a better viewing.  It is the very lack of identifiable reference in many of the scenes that allows its analogical linkage to other images to be made, thus revealing a common cultural / historical / social “fact” beneath continually varying object, things, affairs.

To demonstrate this point, I have identified three prominent image-clusters from Wittgenstein Tractatus that illustrate how Forgács’s selection of materials represents contingent instantiations of basic situations.  In other words: how through different “objects,” he presents the same ”facts.”  These clusters include:

1)      scenes of animal suffering

2)      scenes of dancing

3)      scenes of transportation

One can relate, as I’ve already suggested, the scenes of suffering and of dancing to the limits of representability that Wittgenstein assigns to the ethical and aesthetic realms respectively.  Neither suffering nor pleasure falls, for Wittgenstein, within the logical form of the world and hence remains unspeakable, though silently apprehensible.  The scenes of transportation are less easily interpretable in this sense, but relate to the more general problems of relating the world as seen and said.  What all these elements have in common, however, is that they trace out relations in space that are tangential to propositional language.  If, however, movement is integral to the film medium, then we may read Forgács’s concentration on these variably realized “facts” as making the case for the ethical and aesthetic relevance of the documentary cinema, as providing a crucial way of silently acknowledging that which it is not possible to speak.

*  *  *

In conclusion, I will refer to one brief sequence from Forgács’s extraordinary addition to the Private Hungary series from the same year as he made Wittgenstein Tractatus, the film Bourgeois Dictionaries.   In this film, he moves through a series of topically organized images linked to a set of words alphabetically marked.  These range from “jeweler” to  “life” to “annexation” and “amnesia.”   Together they illustrate, in this index-like form, the drift of Hungarian society towards collaboration and Nazi occupation, with its connotations of both bureaucratic classification and racial exclusion.

In one particularly moving sequence, Forgács edits together a series of images of a Jewish man in a number of different scenes, in which his appearance is captioned with the logical variable “x.”  Throughout the sequence, the man is referred to simply as “X ur” (Mr. X).  Mr. X is seen in a variety of settings, from domestic to business to ceremonial occasions.  Towards the end of the sequence, however, Forgács interpolates one of the more standard “dictionary entries” of the rest of the—“Jewish labor service,” “train”—film which suggests Mr. X’s ultimate fate as a victim of Nazi racial policy.  Here Forgács’s historical “fact” becomes truly representative, a picture of a world in which “what was the case” could have been otherwise, but in the historical case we know, thousands of people stood in the factual place of “Mr. X.”


[1] All quotations from Wittgenstein refer to the paragraph numbering of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1922], trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985).

[2] Johanna Richardson, “Est-ethics of Counter-Documentary,”

[3] Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma  (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 46ff.



Peter Forgács: Bourgeois Dictionaries  (Private Hungary 7), 49 minutes, video, FMS-BBS, 1992.

Free Fall (Private Hungary 10), 75 minutes, BBS-HTV, 1996.

The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle, 60 minutes, Lumen Film production for VPRO-TV, Holland, 1997.

Wittgenstein Tractatus  (co-directed with Tibor Szemzõ, composer), 32 minutes, Interlude Series, FMS-HTV, 1992.

Derek Jarman: Wittgenstein , 75 minutes, UK, 1993.

Bio: Tyrus Miller is Associate Professor of Literature at University of California at Santa Cruz and coordinator of the Modernist and Avant-Garde Studies research group there.  From Fall 2001-2003, he will be director of the Budapest Study Center of the University of California.  He is author of Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars (U of California P, 1999) and is finishing a new book, “Resonances of the Readymade: The Afterlife of an Artistic Paradigm.”



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