Belgium, 2011, 93 mins
Antwerp Central takes the viewer on a journey through the physical and mental space of Antwerp’s railway cathedral, from its construction to the present day. Drawing inspiration from the book Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, screenwriter/director Peter Krüger approaches Antwerp Central Railway Station as a magical realistic location where past and present, history and daily life, fiction and reality are in constant flux. Antwerp Central is a film in which visual observations occasion historical, humoristic and poetic reflections on Antwerp’s railway cathedral.
The documentary Antwerp Central seems a crude description of the physical building its title refers to. It not only deals with the building itself but also with its surroundings, its history, its functioning, and its meaning. Guiding us through all this is an anonymous Traveller, performed by Flemish actor Johan Leysen.
He seems to function both as a bewildered visitor looking around in awe and as an omniscient narrator/God (“It had clearly been the intention…”), leading us through the stories, introducing us to experts, and sharing his philosophical contemplations. In the end however he seems most like one of the dead characters in The Sixth Sense or A Beautiful Mind: he doesn’t really communicate with the people he introduces, there’s no dialogue. We see him, but nobody else does. Documentaries are often inductive in character: the specific presented is related or refers to something more general. It can address the dilemma between the complexity of local, everyday phenomena and an explanation that surpasses the mere materiality of it. Viewing Antwerp Central also made me think of the concept of excess: that which is beyond the narrative of a film.
According to documentary theoretician Bill Nichols, excess in documentary “is that which stands beyond the reach of both narrative and exposition.”1 It is not part of the narrative and it is not part of an explanation or argument either. According to Nichols, the name of excess is history, as history always stands outside of a text. It’s larger and more complex than any text can encompass. A text is merely a way for us to make history accessible. Nichols mentions four explicit sources of excess: the exotic, the local, the sacramental, and the complex. Antwerp Central offers ample opportunity to discuss excess in all of these areas.
«contemplating time as the most artificial human invention»
According to Nichols, the sacramental describes practices or events that are not what they seem.2 In Antwerp Central, the sacramental as a source of excess is present in the four animals that permeate the documentary: a lion, a peacock, an owl, and a dog. Apart
that which stands beyond RAILWAY: Impressive are the many thoughts, ideas and pieces of information. Also the images, constantly moving, the sounds and music and, above all, the continuing voice of the Traveller.
From representing their species and the individual animals they are, these animals enter a symbolic order as well. The lion may refer to King Leopold II under whose reign Antwerp Central Station was rebuilt from a wooden station into the grand cathedral it is now. As it gets darker and the station is locked overnight, the lion remains to guard this territory. King Leopold is thus ever present in this building. The peacock is a Christian symbol of eternal life. In addition, it represents resurrection, renewal and immortality. The owl of course represents wisdom and a dog is a symbol of faithfulness and a protector. Excess remains in their symbolic representation however. The local as source of excess eludes more global or contextualizing description and is present in the protagonist’s inability to find information in Antwerp’s Jewish community, decimated during the war and now only represented by a small number of citizens.
A book about its history sought in a Jewish bookshop turns out to be out of print. Moreover, an informative conversation with the attendants doesn’t get off the ground. The community remains beyond description and exploration. Another example of the local as source of excess are the ‘experts’ who are introduced extremely briefly both as social actors and within the fictional, as friends or acquaintances of the Traveller. Postcard collector Stan Wagemans shows some of his cards but the Traveller talks about the collection in voiceover. Wagemans is introduced as someone the Traveller met before, doing research, but we are kept in the dark when it comes to his background, his personality, his fascination for postcards, and his relation to the Traveller, his ‘fictional life’. The same goes for historian Zana Etambala who we first see shedding a tear over an elucidation of Congo’s history and is later introduced by the Traveller as someone he apparently knows. Here, both Etambala’s identity as social actor as well as acquaintance with the Traveller remains obscure.
So in addition to the limited information we get about these individuals, excess remains in their uniqueness. Complexity as a source for excess is related to film and video’s set pace and the dominance this has over the viewer’s capability to watch at her/his own speed and ponder over, for example, an expression, statement or paragraph. In Antwerp Central, the philosophical contemplations of the Traveller are an example. Contemplating time as the most artificial human invention, he considers: “What is the significance of the fact that the hours of darkness and the hours of light are represented by the same circle?” Later on, remembering his visit as a child, the Traveller contemplates that: “No one can really explain what happens inside of us when we yank open the door that conceals the horrors of our childhood years.” The viewer barely has time to contemplate the contemplated as the film moves on.
Finally, the exotic as source of excess concerns the impossibility to naturalize it. It remains different, without familiarity despite efforts to explain it in words. It is situated in the archival footage from Congo, but also of King Leopold and his entourage, which is just as unfamiliar to us. The images of a procession, a display of his wealth in the possession of a country as private playground, are beyond description and appropriation. All in all it’s quite a lot to take in: the many thoughts, ideas and pieces of information, the images, constantly moving, the sounds and music and, above all, the continuing voice of the Traveller. It’s a great film to watch, but it’s full, very full. Once is enough.