Polish theatre director Janek Turkowski draws the audience into his mission to derive meaning from films he discovered depicting an unknown woman’s life
Margarete: an empathic experiment in narrative and artifice. Photograph: Pierre Borasci
Goethe Institute, Dublin
It is difficult, now, to move through life without leaving a trace. At the very least, most people will cast a long digital shadow.
Polish theatre director Janek Turkowski is drawn to fragments from past lives, the intertwining of memory and history. When he came across a cardboard box with a carefully archived stash of eight-millimetre film reels and a projector in a market near the German-Polish border, he set out to reconstruct the life of the woman who appeared in the images. This subtle, hour-long performance is his narrative of the quest to find out about her, accompanied by projections of the silent films, digitally remastered.
Initially this piece seems to have escaped from a film festival programme, but Turkowski’s live presentation gradually becomes an empathic experiment in narrative and artifice. He draws the small group of audience members, sitting around the screen, into his mission to derive meaning from this raw material. Images of one woman, Margarete Ruhbe, recur, filmed in the Eastern Bloc during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the films are of group excursions – holidays to landmarks in the former Soviet Union.
Turkowski is dogged, almost obsessive, in his scrutiny of this material, and he begins to speculate about her, and the other people in the films. Who was behind the camera? Why were there so many similar scenes? Was the Stasi following her? He plays with the reels, changing the texture, editing and remixing. When he adds a soundtrack, the images become more poignant. He invents subplots and characters, perfectly aware that these are his own – often droll – projections.
Excavating Margarete’s life, layer by layer, he asks questions about her that touch us all. How will we be remembered, and who will remember us? Margarete was a pharmacist, not an artist or writer; she never married and had no children. What’s left behind are these flickering images. Like Turkowsi when he finally tracks her down, aged 99, the viewers want more: something of great significance, a revelation, a purpose. Instead, in an understated coda in which he returns to the flea market where he first stumbled on the material, there is an abiding sense of transience and fragility. Ends Saturday