Films adapted from books are all the rage nowadays, it seems – Harry Potter, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre not to mention the Twilight series. This is another, though the source text makes a normal filmic and dramatic rendition a little more complicated. W.G. Sebald was chair of European Literature at the University of East Anglia when, in 1992, he walked down the Suffolk coast to clear his mind of an emptiness which always took hold after a period of intense work. A year after completing his walk, stuck in a hospital bed with a leg injury caused by treading the uneven sands down the coast, he documented the journey from memories and thoughts. In the hands of any other writer this documentation would likely end up suitable for Suffolk’s tourism service, but becomes, through Sebald’s pen, an atmospheric, emotional and layered exploration traversing time, distance and meaning; ultimately discussing very little to do with the county and much to do with man’s relationship to melancholy, disaster and the haunted feeling of existence. Threaded into and around his pedestrianism is a deep text full of ideas but not one which obviously lends itself to the large screen treatment.
Gee’s previous feature-length documentaries took music, and the bands that created it, as source material though, as with Patience, the story revealed in each was more to do with landscape and how it affects the creative spirit than a note-by-note deconstruction. Joy Division documented how the social and physical atmosphere of a broken, post-industrial Manchester fed the veins of the band and, through them, the music. In Meeting People is Easy Gee meticulously recorded the non-place experienced by continuous travelling as he followed Radiohead on tour, picking up the details and discordant, abrasive way in which a permanent dis-location can unravel both psychological and group cohesiveness.
Sebald’s writing also takes on this notion of permanent movement – that of his coastal walk – but lets the dis-locating nature of the ever-changing horizon allow his mind to wander without deference to geographic location, chronology or, on occasion, truth. Gee has this relationship to place in mind within his film – though this place is actually the text and images of Rings of Saturn rather than the landscape of the route itself. Though, it is this route which creates a backbone to the film as Gee retreads Sebald’s footsteps, offering up the journey as a structure from which to hang the multitude of accents and ideas which are conjured up. His film recordings of locations delicately intermingle visually with floating images of the text and images from the book to give a third space hovering somewhere between fact, interpretation and myth.
This montage technique has been developed by Gee throughout his works, but fits nowhere better than in this film. There are hardly any sharp cuts or edits; the soft overlapping of grainy footage, imagery, textured soundscape (fragments of out-of-copyright Schubert recordings reconstructed by The Caretaker), Jonathan Pryce’s readings from the book and talking-head voices form a range of discourses, all serving to unravel the multitude of idea strands created through the journey. It all fits perfectly to the original text, but also to the desire by Gee to create an absorbing form of documentary – less didactic, more atmospheric. Massaging the rigid components of film, time and place, into a more fluid and poetic form reminiscent, in parts, of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.
The Suffolk coast has always proved fertile for the creative imaginings and poetic renderings of artistic minds – nowhere less than Dunwich, the city which is no more, drowned, England’s Atlantis, emitting a quiet tolling of submerged bells for the childlike and hopeful minds which can hear them. Turner sketched the remaining buildings before they fell off the cliff, Britten composed psychological seascapes of the waves which felled them, and Swinburne wrote By The North Sea while overlooking the absence of the town, contemplating the relentlessness of time and nature – the winds in his poem are never satisfied or wary, their voice is loud, long and low as it kisses the tomblike waves.
Windmills proliferate Gee’s landscapes – apparitions drawn over the footage by Gee’s hands, though it feels like they may have re-appeared magically in the alchemy of the developing tank. Sebald encountered a derelict and defunct windpump along his walk, and considered these conical, collapsing brick towers protruding from the land as “relics of an extinct civilisation”. Gee sees them everywhere, still working – wind pumps and mills stand alert addressing the aggressive forces of wind and waves continuously reshaping the coastline. A view into the past, ghosts forever articulating and simplifying the invisible forces that flow around and throughout.
If you haven’t read Rings of Saturn you may get lost in some of the monologues as they so closely relate to the original walk and text, but this in itself is not a bad thing. You certainly won’t lose anything of the experience and, for all I know, it may even be an even more rewarding and disorientating exploration into an unknown. If you have read it you will immediately be taken back into its intoxicating entropy and search your shelves to pick it apart again. It is the kind of text that can be read any number of times from any number of angles, and yet Gee has managed to create a piece of work which doesn’t seek to resolve, or even profoundly understand, but instead to unfold and open up, using film to create a new landscape with which to consider the author’s thoughts, just as Sebald himself used the landscape of Suffolk to explore and unpack his own ideas.
Words > Will Jennings
The film opens on Friday 27th January, at the ICA cinema, London; Curzon Renoir, Curzon Wimbledon and around the country, as part of their important initiative,The New British Cinema Quarterly. Following premieres at New York and Vancouver Film Festivals last Autumn, it will also be distributed in the United States in late April by Cinema Guild. Patience will also be premiering in Europe at the important Rotterdam International Film Festival in early February, with other international screenings imminent.