Getty’s ‘Danube’: River of Memories

At the entrance to “The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River” at the Getty Center’s Research Institute is an observation by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Everything is in constant flux and movement, nothing is abiding…. We cannot step twice into the same river. When I step into a river for the second time, neither I nor the river are the same.”

An artist looking for confirmation of the philosopher’s credo that the only permanent reality is impermanence and transition could well fix on the streams of refugees flowing like ragged waves across the European landscape and battlefields in World War II. “The Danube Experiment” charts such a flow, and does it in so innovative a style and technology that Peter Forgacs, its creator, is forced to grope for a new vocabulary. At one time or another, he refers to the exhibit as an “interactive documentary,” “an immersive installation” or “the music of images.” Under these descriptions lies a fairly straightforward storyline.

On July 3, 1939, with Nazi troops already in Prague and World War II looming on the horizon, some 1,200 Jewish refugees boarded the Danube River steamboat “Erzebet Kiralyne” (Queen Elizabeth) at Bratislava. The plan was to follow the meandering course of the Danube through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to the Romanian Black Sea port of Sulina. There, another ship was to take the refugees through the Dardanelles and on to Palestine. After more than two months of delays and hardships, the refugees made it to Haifa.

One year later, in the late summer of 1940, the steamer headed in the opposite direction, up the Danube, with a very different load of refugees. They were ethnic German farmers who had settled in Bessarabia a century earlier at the invitation of Alexander I, czar of all the Russians. The land was now part of Romania, but under the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, the Soviets were given a free hand to take it back in 1940.

The fearful German farmers decided to flee, and some 600 boarded the Erzebet Kiralyne to be reunited with their ethnic kinfolk in the Third Reich. With the massive wartime disasters of the following five years, the two exoduses, down and up the Danube, might well have remained undocumented and forgotten but for the Hungarian skipper of the ship, Captain Nandor Andrasovits. The captain was an adventurer and ladies’ man, but also an avid amateur filmmaker who shot endless footage of daily life aboard the ship, from an Orthodox Jewish wedding (he gallantly turned over his cabin to the newlyweds for their first night) and lengthy davening sessions, to increasingly meager meals and extensive scenes of women and men taking showers, fortunately wearing bathing suits.

Enter Forgacs, a Hungarian artist with a Jewish background, who has earned a considerable reputation in Europe by tracking down home movies and “found” footage and turning them into multilayered documentaries. For the Getty exhibit, Forgacs, working with curators Marsha Kinder of the Labyrinth Project at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication and the Getty’s Zeia Alexander, has transformed the captain’s found footage into powerful visual, audio and emotional experiences.

To house the exhibit, they have adapted the Getty Research Institute’s space. First comes a small anteroom, displaying historical charts of the mighty Danube. In the next room are computers, through which visitors can explore the diaries and recollections of the refugees and add personal stories, if related to the main theme. An example is the diary of David Ashkenazi, one of the Jewish refugees, who wrote, “There are 1,200 of us aboard, Jews from nine nations — Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, Letts, Dutch and Turks. The chaos of languages is a perfect Babel.”

The exhibit’s centerpiece is a large room dominated by five huge adjoining screens, fronted by computer monitors. At a touch of the screen, a visitor can call up any of 18 segments, each four to six minutes long, to follow the story’s three streams: the Jewish exodus, the German exodus and the river itself. Explains Forgacs, “Everything is instantly there for your choice, so you can make a journey within a journey. You travel on a river of memory.” The full visual “journey” takes four hours. USC’s Labyrinth Project, which collaborated in the exhibit, has been producing interactive documentaries, melding different media with independent artists since 1977.

“The Danube Exodus” will be shown through Sept. 29 at theGetty Research Institute. Free; parking $5 (parking reservations requiredweekdays before 4 p.m.). For information, phone (310) 440-7300 or visit .