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.
The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise – it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”2 What happens when the image creates its own cosmic sense of destruction? To reach authenticity, are we supposed to mythologize the image?
There is a scene from the book addressed in the film in which Sebald, near the coast of Orford that was once a military zone, crosses a river to reach an abandoned outpost. Here he comes across a concrete pillar house surrounded by stones, a place where scientists once worked developing new systems of weapons – but what he “really” sees are graves where prehistoric men lay buried with their tools of gold and silver. These deserted and abandoned buildings, used in the service of science during the war, now remind him of temples and pagodas without any military resonance.
«only the narrative can save the photographic image»
The film shows how Sebald’s ruinous reading of images brings out an “authentic” beauty and experience perhaps equivalent to the fragment or the ring (The Rings of Saturn) that makes up the land. As Sebald himself writes: “But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”3
The rings of images are the rings of melancholia because they have the same function as toys have for children. It’s a kind of safety net, of wishful thinking, one points at the image and says how nice it would be if things looked like this even though they don’t. The point is that everything is connected. The adult knows what Sebald knows. Nevertheless, the film shows how the image becomes an attempt to release oneself from our present condition. This reflects a Sisyphusian experience in which one never reaches the state of freedom. And yet, it is through the image and its capturing of time and space that one encounters the long gaze of contemplation, a gaze that embodies an openness reaching beyond ourselves. A gaze connected to the ties of finitude.
1 See Susan Sontag: On Photography. 1977
2 walter Benjamin: «theses on the Philosophy of History» in illuminations. essays and reflections. Schocken Books. new York. p. 257-8. 3 w.G. Sebald: The Rings of Saturn. Vintage. 2002. p. 237.