Lovers of maps (you know who you are): attention! If you’ve ever suspected that Google Maps or the like could be the stuff of cinematographic beauty, then Patience (After Sebald) could be the film for you. For non map fetishists, beginning a documentary with screenshots of Google Maps and a rather RP voice-over may be the ultimate filmic turn off. But what this film requires – as the title suggests – is a little patience, if you’re prepared to breeze past geographical geek-offs and literary discussions on the nature of time, memory and landscape, that is. Patience is a richly rewarding exploration of the German academic and writer W. G. Sebald’s famous and utterly idiosyncratic novel ‘The Rings of Saturn’ (1995).
Patience (After Sebald) is a literary film essay from Grierson award-winning documentarian Grant Gee, known for his music documentaries on Radiohead (Meeting People is Easy) and Joy Division (Joy Division). Gee presents a mostly black-and-white exploration of Sebald’s famous book, which charts a meditative and melancholic walk along the East Anglian landscape. Titled in the original German as ‘Eine Enlische Wallfahrt’ (‘An English Pilgrimage’), the novel charts the physical and mental meanders of a mind hoping to dispel “the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work”.
Those who haven’t read or engaged with Sebald may struggle to find a way into this film, which incorporates actual footage of the director’s walk from Lowestoft to Southwold to Bungay, with various artists and writers’ interviewed responses to the work, from Andrew Motion and Tacita Dean to Robert Macfarlane and Marina Warner. However, in the name of research, I showed Patience to a Sebald virgin, and she adored the look and feel of the film even if she stumbled on various literary references or Sebaldian points of humour.
W. G. Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944, and died in a car crash in East Anglia in 2001, aged only 57. His father joined the Reichswehr in 1929 and remained in the Wehrmacht; Holocaust war guilt and themes of memory and forgetfulness are powerful presences in the works of a man who famously stated: “I don’t think one can write from a compromised moral position”. Sebald (known as ‘Max’ to his friends, in case you get confused in the first fifteen minutes of the film like I did) studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, and eventually settled permanently in England, where he taught at the University of East Anglia.
While the film may explore the unclassifiable nature of Sebald’s works – that particularly idiosyncratic style of his which takes in elements of the travel memoir, the history book, Holocaust literature, biography, comic prose, poetry, the essay, and photography – the style of the film itself is disappointingly unexperimental. Rather than seeking to reinterpret the text or bring to the film the very disparate elements of Sebald’s style, Gee sticks to a very linear documentary form, which is rooted in the text (showing page numbers whenever the actor Jonathan Pryce reads parts of the text), and in the walk itself. With various artistic talking heads providing most of the narrative for the documentary, the overall effect is one of a straight-up-and-down BBC4 documentary, albeit one with the occasional artistic fugue or moment of startling brilliance.
However, what Gee does capture so artfully is the peculiarly melancholic atmosphere of the novel, something Sebald partly achieves through his interweaving of prose and image. Gee sticks to a grainy black and white palette, often overlaid with mid-frame video shots to recreate the look of a Sebaldian page. This works particularly well when the Sebald scholar Lise Patt explains to us her thoughts on what the continuous imagery in ‘Rings of Saturn’ represents, suggesting one image is linked to another in notably symbolic ways, and that its up to the audience to tease it out. This is where Gee’s choice of title really comes into its own. If you’ve read Sebald, you’ll more than likely have experienced the unusual rhythm of his prose. Digression follows digression in a seemingly intangible manner; thought seamlessly weaves into thought in such a delicate way that you find yourself having arrived at point C with no idea how you moved from point A and B. And the prose gallops. Everyone I know who’s read a Sebald has done so in two days. What Lise Patt, and the film itself, suggests, is an exercise in patience – watching this film, walking the walk, and reading the book, should be a meditative exercise. Mind maps of ideas tracked in the novel, literary maps of the locations explored, the concentration of mentions of death, the transition from one image to the other – the film asks us to requestion our own reading style in order to squeeze out meaning and inference from Sebald’s text.
The film suffers from too many interviews, and as such threatens to lose it’s audience’s interest towards the end. Gee is at his best when capturing on camera the physicality and nebulousness of the East Anglian landscape. Sebald is obsessed with the physicality of natural phenomena – fog, mist, cloud, vapour and spume are explored by him as elements on the borderline between being and nothingness – and similarly amorphous elements emerge from Gee’s film, especially that particularly grey misty British sky we so love to hate. Gee overlaps outdoor noises of birds, waves breaking on the shore and road sounds with the interview voices of talking heads.
Shots from the film become reinterpretations of Sebald’s literary and mental landscapes; the writer’s photographs coming to life through a 21st century lens. This is a beautiful if unimaginative documentary about one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.
Patience (After Sebald) is in cinemas now, released by Soda Pictures. Contributor Sophia Satchell-Baeza can be followed on Twitter @SophiaSB1.