By Damon Smith in Director Interviews
on Wednesday, May 9th, 2012
One of the great European literary figures of the past half century was the German writer W.G. “Max” Sebald (1944-2001), a late bloomer who fused essay, history, memoir, and meditative fiction into an unclassifiable weld of eloquently bewitching prose in four major works (Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz), all written over the last decade of his too-abbreviated life. Sebald’s solitary narrators, given lightly autobiographical shadings, wander landscapes as far-flung as the Suffolk coast or the Slovakian countryside like melancholic revenants dwelling on the fate of individuals lost to war or time, the operation of memory, and other seemingly arbitrary recollections triggered by the encounter with a physical environment. Although the surfeit of stories and micro histories in his work often return us in unanticipated ways to his principal preoccupations — the Holocaust and the Allied bombing raids that decimated Germany during World War II — Sebald’s wider concerns are the decay of civilization and the array of momentous events to be found in scrutinizing neglected or uninhabited buildings, corroded tools, artifacts, and totems, and the old black-and-white photographs that punctuate his allusive texts, revealing curious details and correspondences but refusing to yield their secrets entirely.
It would require a filmmaker with, yes, patience, to shoulder the task of conveying Sebald’s strangely alluring prose into a cinematic field of reference. A veteran of music docs and rock videos for the likes of Radiohead and Blur, British filmmaker Grant Gee (Joy Division) tackled the challenge of unveiling the Sebaldian universe in a nonliterary medium by focusing on a single book, The Rings of Saturn. He began by retracing the narrator’s walking tour of East Anglia. After the journey, which he made on foot and documented on a Bolex camera, Gee spoke with a number of authors and artists (Rick Moody, Lise Patt, Andrew Motion, Ian Sinclair) who have been influenced by Sebald’s unorthodox style, the blend of fact and fiction that makes such “real” distinctions hazy and perhaps, at least in his dreamy subjective evocations of history, even irrelevant. In his new essay-film Patience (After Sebald), the result of those documentary efforts, Gee blends images of the locations he visited with archive material, stately readings by Jonathan Pryce (Brazil), and ghostly appearances by his aforementioned interview subjects and even Sebald himself, fittingly present only in an audio clip from KCRW’s long-running “Bookworm” program, hosted by Michael Silverblatt, which aired days before the author’s death.
Filmmaker spoke with Gee about literary obsession, walking art, and why documentary can pull off a difficult subject. Patience (After Sebald) opens today at Film Forum in New York.
Full Interview: GRANT GEE, “PATIENCE AFTER SEBALD” | Filmmaker Magazine.