“One dreams of a story like this,” remarks documentarian Peter Forgacs in his latest foray into history through home-movies, “Miss Universe 1929.” Liesl Goldarbeiter, a Jewish girl from Vienna, won the beauty title in Galveston, Texas, and, in the rush of docus mining the personal archeology of the Holocaust, it is not hard to see where Liesl’s story is heading. But another, stranger narrative also emerges here, about one of the most beautiful women on the planet and a man obsessed with filming her. Fascinating, Jewish-themed doc seems a natural for fests and limited urban release.
Hungarian helmer Forgacs snagged Tribeca’s best docu prize last year for his “El Perro Negro,” compiled from home-movies from both sides of the Spanish Civil War. Here Forgacs maintains his experimental filmmaker’s approach to “found footage” and his fascination with the symbiotic relationship between the subjects of amateur movies and the people who shot them.
Forgacs’ dual focus on the filmer and the filmed in “Miss Universe 1929” is heightened because shutterbug Marci Tenczer and beauty queen Liesl were cousins. Marci had two passions — 16mm film and cousin Liesl.
Unbeknownst to her, Marci submitted Liesl’s photo to the Miss Austria contest. She won and went on take the Miss Universe title. Liesl was offered a lucrative acting contract by King Vidor, but she declined and returned home to Vienna where she had her pick of beaux, including the ever-faithful Marci, who here is interviewed at age 95 in his apartment, surrounded by memorabilia of Liesl.
After the Miss Austria contest, Marci no longer held a monopoly on images of Liesl. Forgacs freely samples photos of Liesl modeling fur coats for magazine ads, newsreel footage of Liesl attending lavish European receptions, and pictures of Liesl posing in the swimsuit parade along the Galveston beachfront.
Also included here is one of the earliest sound newsreels ever made, an interview in English with the elegant Viennese beauty (complete with outtakes). Forgacs also increasingly interpolates newsreel imagery of another type of parade across Europe, as rising Fascist parties march in mounting menace.
Oddly, Forgacs dissipates all suspense as to Liesl’s survival under the Nazis, dropping “spoiler” photographs of her with white hair at various points of the narrative, though the details of her escape and the ultimate fate of her family await chronological development.
For Forgacs, old footage serves as a rare object, the precious texture of time itself. What makes “Miss Universe” so unsettlingly strange is that, despite whispered excerpts from her diary, home-movies from just about every single stage of her life, and exhaustive reminisces by Marci, Liesl herself remains an impenetrable image: There is no sense of the real woman behind the graceful body and warm smile.
Captured on film by Marci with her rich playboy husband and best friend who lived together in a vague but suggestive menage a trios, Liesl still fails to register as anything but beautiful.
Laszlo Melis’ subtly nuanced music interweaves fond remembrance and threatened terror to unify the fragmented facets of Miss Universe’s past.