Patience (After Sebald)

from Patience (After Sebald) dir. Grant Gee

Known for his documentary on Joy Division, director Grant Gee's film Patience (After Sebald) was screened last week at the ICA. A q&a in which Gee explained the shift from music documentary to one about the late writer W. G. Sebald followed the Friday night screening. Gee had originally wanted to film grotty European hotel rooms, as if 'on tour' with his camera, but minus a band to feature. Indeed, the emptiness Gee hoped to depict in the hotel rooms is one of the elements that slid the project into Sebaldian territory. Gee proposed a voice-over accompaniment to the hotel room scenes: a voice reading excerpts of Sebald's books that discuss loneliness, wandering and European history embedded in its architecture.
What was eventually produced is essentially an expanded version of this proposal, with many voices reading Sebald in both senses – through his own words and their own. Gee decided not to film in Europe, however, but to undertake Sebald's walk around the Suffolk coast that features in his book The Rings of Saturn (the German original is subtitled An English Pilgrimage). Visually, we see many shots of anonymous lampshades, single-beds and radiators, paraphernalia of the everyday. There are also clocks, stations and barren streets, all filmed in an appropriately archaic format: a Bolex camera loaded with discontinued Kodak black and white film. The footage looks like Sebald's photographs, which he photocopied over and over until they became the dark and grainy artefacts he put in his books.

The German original of Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, showing the subtitle An English Pilgrimage

We hear writer/ walkers Robert MacFarlane and Iain Sinclair; translator, poet and friend of Sebald, Michael Hamburger; and artist Jeremy Millar, amongst others. These speakers appear on screen in somewhat cliched semi-transparent superimposition, suggesting Gee's simultaneous insistence and embarrassment in resorting to the talking-heads documentary format. Far more powerful are the times in which voice features without corporal accompaniment, particularly so when the voice is Sebald's own, speaking in interviews before his untimely death in 2001. His voice is very low and soft, running like an old but well-oiled cog, around and over the Sebaldian misty and monochrome shots. Given Sebald's use of unnamed narrators (in Austerlitz, for example) and very few images of himself or other people in comparison with images of buildings and plans, the film's use of 'disembodied' voice seems more appropriate to the subject matter than talking-heads. Music in the film is provided by The Caretaker (electronic musician James Kirby), whose soundtrack is characterised by white noise (the sonic equivalent to Sebaldian or Dickensian mist) and samplings of old opera, radio and piano music. Along with Sebald's faint German accent, the soundtrack implies a kind of translation – between here and there, past and present, this voice and that voice – translation being integral to Sebald's work. Iain Sinclair makes an interesting point in Patience regarding translation, saying that it adds a gloss to the original and thus transforms it into something else. He refers to Midsummer Murders, which is apparently popular in France. The dubbed French version has 'an existential gloss' lacking in the original. Sinclair suggests that part of Sebald's appeal is the gloss of distance – distance being associated with loss, fetishisation and longing according to Freud – that results not only in his work being translated from the German, but in its quotations from French, Dutch, Latin, Welsh and other languages. 

from Patience (After Sebald) dir. Grant Gee

Artist filmmaker Tacita Dean, who has written about Sebald and made a film about Michael Hamburger, features in Patience. Her practice shares with Sebald's a collaboration with chance. 'You go along and then something happens and you go somewhere else,' she explains. The virtue of patience is fundamental to this: an ability to wait and let things unroll in their own time before the camera or the writer. Gee explains that the film's title derives from Sebald's eponymous character Austerlitz, who plays with an assortment of photographs on a table as if with the card game Patience. Like Aby Warburg shuffling images on his Mnemosyne Atlas exhibition panels, Austerlitz orders and reorganises his collection of photographs, making new connections and associations that arise unexpectedly and take him and the reader on tangents into the past. Gee's collection of images for the film also takes us to unexpected places, for instance the virtual terrain of Google maps employed by Sebald scholar Barbara Hui to trace all the geographical references in Sebald's books. While visiting Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk, for instance, Sebald discusses Kentucky: on the 'Litmap', therefore, a line shoots out across England westwards to the States. The juxtaposition of a colour screen-capture from Google with the black and white Bolex footage is pleasing because it offers a new reading of Sebald that does not try to impersonate his archaic aesthetic but instead uses new technology as an interpretive tool.

Michael Hamburger dir. Tacita Dean

Unexpected associations are the protagonists for The Rings of Saturn, for instance in its photographs of dead herring piled up in Lowestoft that, by way of visual association, refract the discussion to one of the Holocaust and victims awaiting burial in piles. A few pages on from the herring photograph (a few seconds on, in Gee's film), we see a photograph of piles of human bodies. In this sense, Sebald's method is close to Gerhard Richter's, placing the mundane or natural alongside the atrocious (Richter's vast collection of photographs, Atlas, contains tens of images of everyday German life, punctured by one or two of the Holocaust). Though sharing a visual commonality with Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas, Sebald's technique is closer to Richter's because of its political shock. Warburg's aim of forging new and oblique links between images, times and places to enrich our understanding of history is certainly shared by Sebald, but as Benjamin Buchloh writes in his essay Atlas: The Anomic Archive, the particularity of Sebald and Richter's post-war German identities, dealing with trauma and communicating a political message, albeit obliquely, distinguishes them from Warburg.

Barbara Hui's Litmap

Dealing with trauma in Sebald's case is inextricably bound with the act of walking. As MacFarlane points out in Patience, the English and European tradition associates walking with recovery, as opposed to an American notion of walking as discovery. Yet recovery is not achieved on Sebald's English Pilgrimage – on the contrary – the pilgrim ends up in hospital, overwhelmed by history, associations and memories prompted by the walk. Saturn is a planet associated in alchemy with bile and thus melancholy: one who senses an inexplicable sense of loss and sadness is 'saturnine'. 
Gee says Sebald's walk through Suffolk is a MacGuffin, in that he might walk anywhere (or even conduct a purely psychic walk) for the associations and thoughts would remain the same. Gee's detection of arbitrariness in the walk's location reflects in the film's form, which runs with little variation in pace or discussion. This is not necessarily a negative criticism, and one could easily argue that viewers simply need patience to meander with the narrative, and not expect to be pulled through it. As a result, it is easy to feel lost in Patience, unsure how the sequence of scenes or speakers' readings have reached the current point of discussion or will progress from it. This feeling of being lost occurs in The Rings of Saturn itself, when Sebald becomes disorientated at Dunwich Heath and finds himself returning to the same spot again and again – an experience described by Freud as uncanny. This collocation of mental and spatial experiences is underlined by Sebald's statement that a labyrinth of which he dreams resembles a cross-section of his brain. The entire walk is a walk through the mind, and in this sense, Gee's film is an attempted representation of it. 

A panel from Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas

Gerhard Richter's Atlas

Considering Sebald's footsteps, Sinclair discusses the current state of literature derived from walking. Now that Suffolk's coastal walks (or London's M25 walk, in Sinclair's case) have been 'written', and that much of the countryside has been homogenised into generic industrial and commercial parks (this being one of the main discussions in Patrick Keiller's Robinson film trilogy), Sinclair wonders whether one might have to walk 'the six orbital motorways of Beijing' in order to stand out from the crowd. But this sentiment of dissatisfaction and restlessness is typical of Sinclair, Keiller and Sebald's genre, and is what makes their voices so enjoyably melancholy. In their slow pacing they – and Gee in Patience – allow us some time and space to think.