Patience (After Sebald) is a film by Grant Gee about the landscapes and legacy of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. It was premiered last year at a weekend festival celebrating Sebald in Aldeburgh and, unable to get there, I’ve wanted to see it ever since. On our first afternoon on a short break in London there was, fortuitously, a one-off screening at the Renoir cinema in Bloomsbury and so we grabbed at the chance to see it.
The emergence of this film reflects the huge rise in Sebald’s reputation: a contributor to the film even suggests that, had he not died in a car crash near Norwich in December 2001, he might by now have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Gee’s film explores Sebald’s profound influence on contemporary writers, thinkers and artists, some of whom speak in the film.
Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944. His father served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, and the Holocaust and its meaning for post-war Germany constitute a recurrent strand in Sebald’s work. He studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, before being appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966 and settling in England permanently, later teaching at the University of East Anglia.
The Rings of Saturn is an unclassifiable work – Sebald’s idiosyncratic style absorbs elements of travel writing (a walk along the Suffolk coast), history book, Holocaust literature, biography, poetry, essay, and photography. On one level, Patience (After Sebald) takes the form of Grant Gee walking in Sebald’s footsteps along the route taken in the book, filming the landscape in grainy black and white, like the images in Sebald’s book, and evoking the book’s powerful sense of a landscape refracted through the memory of the narrator. These are atmospheric passages in the film, enhanced by Sebald’s words which are voiced superbly by Jonathan Pryce.
In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. It was then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.
– WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, opening lines
Embarking on a film about The Rings of Saturn there is obviously a strong temptation to do this – to follow in Sebald’s footsteps- but Gee is aware of this, and several contributors to his film comment on the futility of such an endeavour, such as Robert Macfarlane, who tells of his attempt to retrace Sebald’s melancholy-drenched steps. He arrived in Lowestoft, and the weather was lovely, and everybody was smiling. He quickly realised that he was having too much fun, so he went and had a swim in the sea and gave up the venture.
Patience is an essay film rather than a conventional documentary, so there isn’t the usual gamut of people who knew Sebald talking about the man, or literary critics talking about his work. Gee’s film is more subtle than that; what we hear are responses by some of those who have been touched by his work, including writers Robert Macfarlane, Marina Warner, Andrew Motion and artist Tacita Dean.
Gee weaves their words into the film with great sensitivity: sometimes they are heard only on the soundtrack, while at others their heads fade in like ghostly apparitions over the landscape. The pace is measured, and the minor key mood is reinforced by the soundtrack music contributed by Leyland Kirby working under his moniker The Caretaker in which snatches of Schubert’s Winterreise are treated electronically – I quote – ‘subjected to his perplexing processes, smudging and rubbing isolated fragments into a dust-caked haze of plangent keys, strangely resolved loops and de-pitched vocals which recede from view as eerily as they appear’.
Gee’s film opens with a Google map created by Barbara Hui: Litmap uses Google to digitally map literature, to create a tool that can be used alongside traditional methods of close reading in order to critically examine narratives in terms of their geospatiality. She explains:
In keeping with spatial theorist Doreen Massey, I contend that places be defined as the nodes that are constituted by the intersection of multiple lines or paths of social networks. As she describes it:
What gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus. If one moves in from the satellite towards the globe, holding all those networks of social relations and movements and communications in one’s head, then each ‘place’ can be seen as a particular, unique, point of their intersection. It is, indeed, a meeting place. Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether it be a street, a region, or even a continent.
This approach is certainly appropriate to The Rings of Saturn, in which Sebald’s musings, as he walks along his Suffolk path, spiral outwards through time and place and across the globe.
Gee’s film is largely successful in capturing the book’s sense of physical meandering that provokes disparate mental associations. Tracing Sebald’s path in grainy black and white, the film segues into archive footage and back, collapsing present into past and echoing the ghostly images that punctuate Sebald’s text, the originals repeatedly photocopied until their lines were sufficiently blurred. As in Sebald’s book, we are brought sharply back into the 20th century by a high definition colour segment, such as when his friend and translator Michael Hamburger speaks of the man he knew.
Grant Gee’s documentary is a labour of love, its elegiac tone making an engaging tribute to Sebald’s work. There is only one questionable moment – the sequence in which some besotted Sebald follower decides to set of a firework at the roadside location where Sebald died and then claims to discern his facial features in the drifting smoke should have been excised. Overall, the film provides a useful guide to The Rings of Saturn (when Jonathan Pryce reads an extract the page number appears on screen), though someone who has not read the book may find themselves adrift.
It is those passages in which Jonathan Pryce reads from the book itself, augmenting Gee’s photography with the author’s sonorous words that are the best moments in which words and image synchronise with absolute perfection.