A multi-layered, highly original essay on landscape, history, art, life and loss, the film offers a unique exploration of the work of W.G. Sebald. Structured as a journey through the coastal Suffolk landscapes described in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – one of the most highly praised and hotly discussed literary works of recent years – the film avoids typical art documentary strategies, weaving commentaries by artists and critics such as Robert McFarlane, Rick Moody, Adam Phillips, Tacita Dean and Chris Petit into a rich aural tapestry that offers a revealing counterpoint to images of places and things described in the book. The result is not an adaptation or explanation of Sebald, but a kind of aesthetic response to his work. Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) is a dense investigation into the mythology of the image and the authenticity of human experience. The film is a meditation over the last ten years on one of the most innovative novelists of our time, the German writer W.G. Sebald who died in a car accident in November 2001. The film follows a journey to one of the peaks of Sebald’s oeuvre: The Rings of Saturn. Sebald’s books are all accompanied by black and white photos placed in between the text and creating a generous photographic source of memory that leaves the reader either in a state of vertigo or intensified attentiveness.
As in the book, the film is a kind of pilgrimage through the East English county of Norfolk and is accompanied by Sebald’s own encounter with landscapes, the spirit of places combined with the encyclopedia of the place – its layers of history, its forgotten stories, its people and objects. All this connects the actual landscape with a kind of mental and mythological one. This doubling of Sebald’s pilgrimage organizes a kind a mental cartography – a mapping of actual places and mental spaces.
Combining interviews with people who inhabit the places, or who are inspired by Sebald’s writing, the film is in itself a contribution to a research project of spatial and existential topography. The film questions the relation between the text and the image, shattering Susan Sontag’s statement “one never understands anything from a photograph.”1
Sontag was certain that only the narrative can save the photographic image that in itself cannot represent reality. Along Sebald’s lines the film takes a different approach. Hence, the film seems to embrace Roland Barthe’s phenomenological approach in which we are drawn towards the image, towards that which calls forth an unusual effect. It is this capacity of the image that offers an experience, that makes us sense reality. The photographic image refers to something outside the frame, and provides it with authentic experience. Hence, it is first of all by placing oneself in the actual setting of the places that one brings life back into the past.
«what he ‘really’ sees are graves»
To take seriously walking in the landscape is to collect fragments, that is, images of the past that is in danger of piling up as a forgotten ruin. The world that Sebald sees, and the world that Gee’s film makes visible, is a world and a civilization that is about to disappear, leaving catastrophic shells in its wake. One is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s herostratic description of the painting Angelis Novus by Paul Klee. It “shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.
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