THE END OF THE NEUBACHER PROJECT tells the story of filmmaker Marcus J. Carney and his mother’s family. At the outset all characters portrayed seem like mostly healthy, regularly neurotic members of an average family. The filmmaker tries to come to terms with the family’s Nazi past, but step by step he encounters greater entanglements and deeper levels of denial. The main relationship in the film develops between the filmmaker and his mother, who is diagnosed with cancer during principal photography.
With its stunning use of family archive stills and 8mm footage, the film may rightly be called an epic home movie. By adding to this private archive material the ample public material about Carney’s forebears in the Viennese city archives, he shows us a shifting world in which the boundaries between private and public dissolve. This quality in the film is truly epic. Deftly handling the montage of a great deal of gut-wrenching imagery, Carney explores the trauma of his own typical Austrian family, a family defined as much by its atavistic love of hunting as it is by its feeling of guilt for the whole nation’s involvement in National Socialism. The broken centre of this family is to be found in its incapacity to mourn. This incapacity to mourn is so pervasive that it kills.
The film has been eight years in the making. Carney’s grandmother and mother, embodiments of the family’s history, both die during production. As we witness these troubled women pass through the agony of their final illnesses, we discover to what extent they are still unable to confront the complicity of their whole family in running the machinery of the Austrian National Socialist state. The grandmother has never overcome her denial as a strategy of survival, and the more Carney finds out about her the more shattered his image of her gets, yet even his love. The mother has been torn between acknowledging the historical facts, hesitating to accept her parents’ guilt-laden involvement, and her innocent wish to love these parents. This devastated her life - and indirectly threatens that of the filmmaker. He finds himself in a similar position: how to love a mother who is incapable of truly positioning herself?
Carney never blinks in the face of their agony – and his camera never avoids his own. He never stops shooting. He exposes himself as much as he exposes the rest of his family. As he stares without self-pity into the past and the tragically evolving present, we see him learn not to judge his mother’s denials. He accepts that those denials have shaped him, too. So he finally, through the making of this film, learns to love his mother sans peur et sans reproche.
In a final scene of surpassing grief, we witness Carney delivering the eulogy for his mother, dead at 61. He lays bare the denials his grieving family shudders to hear. And his message to them, his insistence on the true lineaments of his mother’s history, is all the more shattering for his refusal to indulge in self-righteousness.
By the end of the film, Carney’s courage in making what truly is an epic home movie throws down a challenge to other filmmakers, and to whomever sees his film: If we do find the truth we’re always saying we’re looking for, can we live with it? THE END OF THE NEUBACHER PROJECT says we can. More important, it shows us how.