There are times when you are out walking that a kind of hypnotic paralysis overcomes you. You are enwrapped in the rhythms of your gait, the pleasant sameness of the countryside, and you become oblivious to anything but the forward motion, the almost imperceptible bobbing of your gaze.
It is precisely such moments that are at the heart of W.G. Sebald’s book “The Rings of Saturn,” a remarkable hybrid of memoir, history, novel and travelogue. It is also that state to which Grant Gee apparently aspired when making his new film “Patience (After Sebald),” which opened this week. The film follows the German novelist’s path through the East Anglia countryside, offering a sort of visual gloss on the text, combined with ruminations on Sebald’s writing career and life. Gee’s use of grainy black-and-white, occasionally with splashes of older color footage, effectively creates a sense of locations recalled in repose.
At the outset of the film, Sebald’s former publisher Christopher MacLehose recounts a story about the difficulty of categorizing “Rings” when the book was being written up for the season’s catalog. Asked which category he wanted the book to be placed in, Sebald replied: “I’d like all the categories. Don’t put me in a box.”
One of the boxes into which Sebald, who died in a car crash in 2001, at 57, is frequently placed is “Holocaust Studies.” Born in Germany in 1944, he grew up with a profound sense of guilt as a member of the generation of so-called ‘68ers, the young West Germans who challenged their parents’ recollections and the bland homogenized history that they were taught in schools. Sebald would move to England permanently in 1970. His books — written in German but translated into English in close collaboration with the author — are redolent of the English countryside and its literary history. But there is a constant undercurrent in them, an insistent subterranean counterpoint of the dark side of European history. (In “Austerlitz,” the closest thing he wrote to a conventional novel, that theme becomes the central one.)
As “Patience” makes explicit, Sebald’s method is one of carefully designed indirection, as superficially random as the path he walks. His books are filled with documentary photos that resonate in peculiar ways. A 19th-century image of the morning catch by the fisherman of Lowestoft, one of the stops on his walk, reveals “a pavement of fish,” as one speaker puts it. That image, in turn, triggers a long digression on the natural history of the herring which, in turn, leads into a discussion of the use of artificial light in Victorian cities. In both Sebald’s book and Gee’s film, this sequence of associations seems both perfectly natural and utterly logical.
In “Rings” his treatment of both the Holocaust and the WWII bombing of German cities is similarly oblique. (His last book, “On the Natural History of Destruction,” published in English after his 2001 death, was a controversial study of the bombings.) The motif of silk and silken threads runs through the book, culminating in an astonishing section on the Nazis attempt to create a synthetic silk industry. A deserted beach reveals the abandoned hulk of a research center used by British military intelligence for the development of bombing technology. Most tellingly, an idle glance through the pages of a London newspaper turns up a nightmarish photo of the Ustasha, the Croatian fascists who murdered thousands of Jews, Serbs and Bosnians. They did so under the watchful eye of their Nazi allies including, as Sebald drily notes, a young officer named Kurt Waldheim, who would later occupy “various high offices, among them that of Secretary General of the United Nations.”
Following the path of Sebald’s walk, “Patience” recapitulates much of this material. On the positive side, this means that one can understand the film without having read “The Rings of Saturn,” but it places a singular burden on Gee to add something to that text besides the mere fact of images that move.
Therein lies the film’s primary shortcoming. Gee has accumulated a wide range of voices, from MacLehose to Sebald himself, from Marina Warner to psychoanalyst-writer Adam Phillips. Sebald is certainly an artist whose work both deserves and rewards a flight of intelligentsia commenting on his methods and materials, and they have many insights worth sharing. (Sebald himself was particularly astute discussing his writing.) But the great strength of the moving image — particularly as selected by Gee — is that it confers a strong sense of place, which is the heart of Sebald’s craft. The voices don’t add to that and they frequently become an interesting distraction. Ironically enough, Sebald’s writing would be better served by fewer words; Gee’s images (many of them drawn from the books quite smartly), do a better job of conveying his meaning. n
“Patience (After Sebald),” directed by Grant Gee, will play at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.), May 9-15. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.