Channeling a similar wavelength as Chantal Akerman’s recurring themes of identity, parental silence, and haunted memory, compatriot filmmaker Boris Lehman creates an equally melancholic and autobiographical self-confessional essay film in À la recherche du lieu de ma naissance, a resonant and intimate exposition on the indelible legacy of Nazism, the diaspora, the Second World War, and the Holocaust on the psyche of the postwar generation of displaced European Jews. Opening to the image of Lehman’s seemingly innocuous, off-camera request to an accommodating clerk at a Swiss registrar’s office for proof of his birth, the film is a broader examination of the intersection between personal and cultural history, as the task of obtaining a reissued birth certificate itself sows the seed of creative inspiration: a point of departure towards the figurative reconstruction of one’s unremembered moment of origin. Returning to Lausanne over forty years after his birth, Lehman’s self-reflexive autobiographical reconstructions – depicted through re-enactments, archival footage, family photographs and correspondences, interviews with interned (and subsequently resettled) exiles, and surrogate representations of rites of passage – subvert the notion of personal history and instead, converges towards an examination of a suppressed collective consciousness.
From this perspective of estranged history and unwitting, self-inflicted cultural amnesia, Lehman’s diaristic exposition transforms into an integral question of identity: what does a birthplace signify when the physical location has been disconnected from the emotional idea of one’s home, when the destination is only a momentary passage, a transitory refuge from an obscured, forgotten (or suppressed) memory that reflects the trauma of exile…the very impossibility of home? At the heart of Lehman’s elusive quest is the assembly of inherited artifacts, second-hand testimonies of survivors, and even the observation of religious rites into a reconstruction of personal memory that reveal an underlying sentiment of disconnected heritage. Deeply rooted in a sentiment of a silenced history – a metaphoric erasure of the past that has been engendered by his late parents’ own reticence over the trauma of their displacement during the war years (and eventual permanent exile), first, during the Nazi incursion into Poland, then subsequently, from their adopted home in Belgium during the occupation – Lehman’s journey become a search for the invisible, a struggle to assimilate and contextualize the unregistered memories of a suppressed past into the unreconciled reality of a present day consciousness:
Painfully, I realize that my parents forgot me. They never talked to me, never told me about their lives because talking was not possible for them. In taking refuge in their silence, they walled me up in mine. I am a prisoner of my own memories. But the few that I have oblige me to invent rather than relate. All that’s left of my parents, a few photos in an album that I can’t or don’t want to decipher. Do I recognize myself in these pictures?
Challenging even the most seemingly trivial fundamental foundations of his identity based on materials and interviews he has gathered surrounding his parents’ life during the war years – a letter of safe passage to a Lisbon port in Portugal in order to board a ship bound for Bolivia that his parents had never undertaken, perhaps, because of his imminent birth (and that, as Lehman would surmise, turned out to be a moment of serendipity in avoiding the inevitable encounters with the waves of Nazi war criminals fleeing to South America); a tongue-in-cheek survey of the common variations and “misspellings” of the surname Lehman that suggest (whether consciously or unintentionally) an obfuscation of culture and ethnicity; an interned prisoner and exile who has kept a suitcase of war “memorabilia” (false documentation, censored letters, photographs, testaments given by refugees who had been delivered into the hands of the Germans by “neutral” Swiss government officials) that prompts the filmmaker to question if his birthday is indeed even his own actual date of birth and not a product of the false paper trail created to evade Nazi persecution across Europe – Lehman returns full circle to the idyllic – and poetically homonymic – Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) that his mother once crossed in the days before his birth. Concluding with the recounted mythical tale of a wandering hermit who once traversed the entirety of the city in reverse, only to end his inscrutable venture by turning back at the shore of the ubiquitous lake, the enigmatic image also reflects the interconnectedness and self-reflexivity of Lehman’s journey: a search, not only to understand the circumstances behind his parents’ uncertain lives as refugees that led to his wartime birth in a foreign land in 1944, but also for the very nature of the process of memory and its sublimation into the human consciousness by which it shapes and defines our own identity, where the void of its absence becomes as formative as its haunted – and inescapable – persistence.
Acquarello, 2006 [reprinted]