In a dissertation at the Department of Cinema Studies, Stockholm University, Jan Christer Bengtsson has studied and analyzed Peter Weiss’s short films to find out what meaning films had in the life of Peter Weiss the artist and what role they played.
“Peter Weiss filmed and completed fourteen movies during the years 1952 - 1961, two of them full-length features. His first films were a kind of short surrealistic and imaginative pictorial documents, and he initially found his themes in his own sphere of experience. In his first short films – he called them studies – he therefore posed questions about his own existence as an artist, his relation to women and his parents,” says Jan Christer Bengtsson.
In the first half of the 1950s, he shows aspects of contemporary Swedish society that could clearly be questioned. In some documentary shorts, Peter Weiss explored places on the edge of society such as beer taverns and night camps of hobos. He investigated life at a juvenile prison and drew attention to young people’s penchant for various types of drugs. As one of the radicals of his day, Peter Weiss was highly critical of prison as a form of punishment, and he trained his magnifying glass on various terrifying and destructive behaviors. In his quest for hope and meaning in life he made a short film for SSU (the Social Democratic youth organization) – “What Should We Do Now?” As many as 250 copies of the movie were made, and it was used as a basis for discussion of the substance abuse issue in the wake of the elimination of the individual ration book for alcohol.
One of the feature-length films – The Mirage (Hägringen) – was experimental in nature and was regarded as too inaccessible. The other one – the only major commercial production Peter Weiss was involved in – created quite a sensation when it was shown in Stockholm. In a press release from Frankfurt am Main tog Peter Weiss dissociated himself from having participated in making the movie Swedish Girls in Paris (Svenska flickor i Paris). People long wanted to believe that he had little to do with the film, but both he himself and those close to him maintained for a long time that he had been led astray by malicious individuals with no scruples. In his own notes written ten years after the film was made, Peter Weiss claimed that that was what can happen in the capitalist film industry.
“Actually he had had great hopes when he was given an opportunity to make a movie in Paris. But when he realized he would not have this chance, he wanted to preempt criticism by dissociating himself,” says Jan Christer Bengtsson.
In summary, it can be said that Peter Weiss struggled with personal difficulties to be able to express himself in language – a language consisting of words and signs – as it can in all probability be assumed that he harbored a great yearning to succeed as an author. In order to “conquer words” Peter Weiss practiced by describing different kinds of worlds – both internal and external ones. This can be one explanation for his addressing both surrealistic and psychological topics, and for his finding his way to documentary forms when he made movies.
More recent documentary film-makers, such as Stefan Jarl and PeÅ Holmquist, have acknowledged that they were inspired by Peter Weiss. Stefan Jarl dedicated his A Decent Life (Ett anständigt liv) (1979) to Peter Weiss, and PeÅ Holmquist made use of texts from Peter Weiss’s prose poems “The Vanquished” (De besegrade) (1948) and “The Aesthetics of Resistance” (Motståndets estetik) Part 1 (1976) in the film Where Is My Victory? (Var är min seger?) (2002).Title of dissertation:
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