James T. Hong on Heidegger, Hitler, and His New Film

Cheryl Eddy December 18, 2006

There’s no middle ground with San Francisco artist James T. Hong: he’s got strong opinions and he’s not afraid to share ‘em. His work is smart, often darkly witty, provocative, and has — on at least one occasion, after a Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival Screening of “Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms (Sensitive Version)” — nearly incited audience violence. But meet Hong in person, and he’s a pretty damn friendly guy, even when discussing topics that might prickle more average company: Hitler; race (“Taipei 101” jabs at Asian girl-white guy couples); and his appreciation for the controversial, be it Mel Gibson’s latest public outburst or North Korea’s nuclear program. Hong is a risk-taker and he’s aware that his films can be challenging to watch, at least in terms of subject matter — even the most close-minded viewer would have trouble finding fault with the more technical aspects of his work (he prefers shooting on film, often in striking black-and-white). He’s currently working on a full-length documentary, tentatively titled New History Zero, which explores his interest in revisionist World War II history — particularly in regards to Japan, China, and the United States. One of his most recent works, “The Denazification of MH,” was just selected for screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January.

SF360: What is ‘The Denazification of MH’ about, and how and where did you film it?

James T. Hong: It’s about the postwar reflections of world-renowned and some say, infamous, German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In the summer of 2006, I was going to Germany for a festival, so I planned a pilgrimage of sorts to Heidegger’s haunts in southwest Germany and the Black Forest. I filmed a bunch of sites in and around the university town of Freiburg, where Heidegger taught, and inside a Black Forest village called Todtnauberg, where Heidegger had a small cabin in which he wrote much of his magnum opus, Being and Time. I got a lot of aerial footage of the Black Forest from a mountain lift. It was a lot of hiking with a shitload of gear, but it was really a very beautiful place — lots of green and still some snow in the mountains.

Yin-Ju Chen [Hong’s wife and collaborator] and I shot with expired film and high-contrast black-and-white stock originally designed for optical soundtracks — much of it generously provided to me by Gibbs Chapman. Security at different airports put the exposed film through a number of airport x-ray machines to enhance the graininess. Sylvia Schedelbauer read the voiceover script, which was based on actual questions from the Allies’ postwar denazification questionnaire, and Heidegger’s voice was culled from a number of recordings I found, bought, or already had from my school days.

SF360: What inspired you to make it?

Hong: Even though Heidegger was and remains an incredibly influential thinker, especially in postwar France, he seems to be most well known for having been a member of the Nazi party. Some of my professors in school would talk about visiting Heidegger’s cabin in Germany and pissing on it. I didn’t piss on his cabin, but I did bottle some water from his still functional well as “Heidegger Spring Water” — a work in progress, art installation of sorts.
I studied Heidegger for a long time as a student, and much of his work has been a great influence on me, especially Being and Time. But I never could get rid of the image of a forlorn Heidegger being interrogated by the Allies. I’d read about the debaathification of Iraq’s former government, and it seemed to me doomed to failure, in a way similar to denazification, which was ultimately abandoned by the Allies.

What was fascinating to me was Heidegger’s emphasis on his own interpretation of the Pre-Socratics, particularly Heraclitus, and how his interpretation of primarily just one fragment, supposedly informed his decision to join the Nazi party. I also wanted to go back to struggling with Heidegger in the German, and the film made me do it. At least all my time studying German wasn’t a total waste.

SF360: For someone who isn’t familiar with your work, how does The Denazification of MH fit in with themes you’ve explored before in earlier films?

Hong: I’m not sure. Other than from a technical perspective, I’ve never been particularly adept at describing my own work. I need more time to thematize it.

SF360: How is it similar or different from previous works?

Hong: This feels like an exam! It’s similar in that it’s shot with black-and-white film. I’ve always thought black-and-white stock was more beautiful than color. I actually shot some color stock, but I didn’t use it. I suppose it’s also similar in that it deals with World War 2 and German philosophy — two topics I’ve dealt with before and will probably again.

Unlike many of my other works, the film doesn’t address any racial issues or Asian themes. I did consider making a short about reactions I received while I was in Todtnauberg. For example, when I apologized to people for my horrible unpracticed German, they would tell me that their Japanese was bad as well.

SF360: What do you think audience reactions to the film will be, at Rotterdam and otherwise? In what context is the film playing at Rotterdam (part of a shorts program grouped around a certain topic, for example)?

Hong: Right now, I don’t know how the film will be programmed — my guess is in some shorts program. Years ago Rotterdam showed an earlier film of mine (“Behold the Asian”), but few people showed up for the first screening, and I was too wrecked to make the second and third (if there was a third), so I don’t know what happened.

I assume a lot more people will understand German there, so they won’t need to read the subtitles. There is definitely an element of interpretation in the subtitles, as in all translations.

There is a long documentary called “The Ister” from a couple of years ago, I think, which also shows Heidegger’s cabin, but I haven’t seen it. After I finished editing, I also learned about a German film from a couple of years ago about immigrants who live in the forests of Germany or Eastern Europe. From what I understand, much of it is also in high contrast black-and-white film, with images of strong shadows and highlights. “MH” doesn’t cover totally uncharted territory.

I admit that the film isn’t for everybody. Who wants to see a film anchored on an ancient Greek quote from Heraclitus? Even if the viewer doesn’t know who Heidegger is or was, hopefully the film will be a thought-provoking 18 minute aesthetic experience.

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