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BERLINALE 2024 Forum

Alexander Horwath • Director of Henry Fonda for President

“When iconic actors in American cinema last long enough, a ‘persona’ arises for the audience”


- BERLINALE 2024: The Austrian filmmaker unpicks how he built a video essay around the biography of Henry Fonda and wider developments in the USA that intertwined with his life

Alexander Horwath  • Director of Henry Fonda for President

How does an American actor of a thousand faces become a parable paralleling US history since its founding day? Austrian film curator Alexander Horwath uses his fascination with legendary US thesp Henry Fonda to smartly build a video essay around his biography and the developments in the USA that intertwined with his life – Jodie Foster, New Hollywood, Taxi Driver and Ronald Reagan included. We spoke to Horwath about his Berlinale Forum-screened movie Henry Fonda for President [+see also:
film review
interview: Alexander Horwath
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Cineuropa: Is this film a master’s thesis or PhD that never happened?
Alexander Horwath:
No, it's not, even though I once wrote a five-page school paper on Henry Fonda. His daughter Jane was my first encounter with the Fonda family, but the proper stepping stone into the whole family saga was her father's films. I attribute certain powers to actors, probably more than many other cinephiles do. Many actors talk about just being a tool in the hands of others. Fonda also says, "These messages are not mine; people may identify me with these roles, but those are the words of John Steinbeck, for example, not mine." But you also have to read the unconscious. If you look at Fonda's biography, his worldview, his beliefs that become clear in interviews, the characters he has played, and then add them all up, you can see a narrative of America unravel. There can be a kind of authorship via performance, the shaping of a narrative about America’s history and present.

Everything repeats itself at some point – history, certain movements or political issues. How does Henry Fonda fit into the present?
I wanted to leave that question up to the audience. A large chunk of the film takes place in modern-day USA, because we filmed there. But Fonda died in 1982, so the history of the USA that I’m covering also ends there, with the beginning of the Reagan era in the early 1980s. I didn't want to include any Trump-era headlines or events, but I hope the film invites audiences to ponder some of the complexities that affect democracy today. The relationship between the rule of law and mob justice, for instance, which goes back centuries, or the role of film and media as “re-enactors” as well as agents of history. Trump appears more by chance because we were filming in Times Square and an actor in a mask ran in front of the camera.

What was it like to deal with the real person behind the actor?
I’m not sure if the factual, biographical existence of Fonda and his various fictional roles can, or should, be separated in a rigorous manner. That's one of the exciting – or disturbing – phenomena in popular culture. With iconic actors in American cinema, if they last long enough, a “persona” arises for the audience, where these things are intertwined. To a lesser degree, we still see it with some contemporary stars. You can always ask yourself, is this the person’s “reality”, or is it part of the fiction they inhabit? It's often not so easy to keep the two apart. Fonda himself tried very hard. He wanted to make his actual existence disappear behind the different characters he played. He always said, “That’s not me.” He didn't like himself, and he says so clearly. But then there are the facts of his life. As a boy, he witnessed a lynching, his second wife committed suicide, he got close to the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II. There are these facts, and there are these fictional characters. And I think that the links are substantial enough to allow for a “third” sentiment – a notion of hidden authorship.

You are an outsider in America. Historically, it has often been the case that people from outside, immigrants, have been the most critical of US jingoism.
I was always interested in what happened to Lang, Sirk, Lubitsch, Murnau or Jacques Demy, when they turned from European to American directors. The contribution of non-Americans to American cinema and their portrayal of America is very rich and continues to the present day. When it comes to Fonda, on the one hand, he seems like a quintessential American. But with this sceptical, critical and thoughtful nature, and his way of remembering the dead, he can also come across like an anti-John Wayne; in that sense, he may also be viewed as partly “un-American”.

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