Patience (After Sebald) sees Grant Gee’s richly-textured path meander through the Suffolk countryside and the work of the acclaimed Anglo-German writer.
Post-War Paths by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Better known for his rock-band documentaries, Grant Gee’s latest feature-length film focuses on retracing the steps of the internationally acclaimed Anglo-German writer and academic W.G. (Max) Sebald. Widely tipped as a potential Nobel Prize winner before his untimely death in a car accident in 2001, fame came to Sebald relatively late in life, on the translation of his works from his native German tongue into the English of his adopted home. A professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, Sebald set off one summer to walk the length of Suffolk to “dispel emptiness” after completing a long and gruelling stint of work. This walk formed the basis for his book The Rings of Saturn, the work on which Gee chooses to concentrate in this film.
As Patience (After Sebald) develops, those with a link to Sebald, such as his publisher, fellow writers, and academics to name but a few, offer their reminiscences of the author, in tandem with the feelings his works aroused in them. These appearances, sometimes taking the form of on-screen interviews and sometimes as voices-off, are interwoven with visual imagery of the retracing of Sebald’s steps and the countryside and sights he would have encountered on the route, albeit almost 20 years later. These images are occasionally given the luxury of full-screen format, but more often than not overlap in a frame-within-a-frame set up, providing an extra layer of complexity to the film’s intertextuality.
Inherently linked to a sense of place and journey the film begins with the thoughts of Barbara Hui, founder of the Litmap project. Hui was inspired to chart the locations featured in a variety of literary journeys and chose to begin with The Rings of Saturn, a book to which she felt a deep connection. Bringing the audience into the location, Sebald’s journey is pinpointed around this particular region of the UK, bulging as it does out into the North Sea towards his native Germany.
The features of Sebald’s works are his slowly developing thoughts and ideas, sparked to shoot off in particular directions on this occasion by stories or sights he sees along his journey. One of the commentators points out the juxtapositions in The Rings of Saturn, something mirrored by Gee’s film. As Sebald comes across a scene of local life in Lowestoft, in which the overabundance of the sea causes fish carcases to carpet the town’s main street, the narrative interweaves with the writer’s thoughts on the holocaust; themes of memory and an attempt at the reconciliation of the Second World War and its effect on his fellow German people occurring regularly in his work.
The film revels in the delights of the Great British outdoors, at a time of year when summer evenings spent on the coast have an almost halcyon quality. While Gee clearly enjoys recreating this atmosphere, he does not neglect the Sebaldian undercurrent of melancholy. This region, Britain at its best at this time of year, saw considerable destruction by German bombers during the war, something which Gee alludes to with just the right amount of frequency. Sebald never forgot this, gazing out from East Anglia towards his Teutonic homeland like a negative image of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer.
Patience (After Sebald) begins with a walk and, after Sebald, concludes by recounting all the catastrophes of Western European culture. One of the commentators in the film mentions travel’s capacity to bring one back to one’s original state, citing road movies and a sense of freedom as providing a chance to ponder one’s existence outside the hustle and bustle of urban life. Gee’s gentle and thought-provoking film also accomplishes just that, although for an audience without prior knowledge of Sebald’s work, the film undoubtedly loses some of its references. For those familiar with the writer’s work this is a skilful illumination of his legacy.
Patience (After Sebald) is released in the UK on January 27th 2012