Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

W G Sebald's comfortless universe

The title, Patience (after Sebald), may be unpromising but the film started well with a reference to Barbara Hui’s ‘litmap’ (http://barbarahui.net/litmap/), an exhaustive mapping of WG Sebald’s journeying in Norfolk and Suffolk (mainly Suffolk) described in his ‘The Rings of Saturn’, first published in German in 1995 and then in an English translation by Michael Hulse in 1998. Being Norwich-based I have walked a certain amount in this area and instantly wanted both to look at this website and to reread the book. Good start, as I say.


Fascinating therefore to see some of the places Sebald walked through filmed in black and white, which is probably appropriate to the way Sebald drained the colour from his world: it is greyer, flatter than a technicolor one, but it is also less specious, more truthful, and black-and-white can be luminous. I wondered whether the director, Grant Gee, could have played more with the tonality of these filmed sections.


Good too is the series of comments by other writers (Iain Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane et alii), Sebald’s publishers (Christopher Maclehose, Bill Swainson) acolytes (Katie Mitchell, Tacita Dean), academics (Marina Warner). This gave us some view of Sebald the writer and the man behind the surface of Sebald the walker, an inner landscape behind the outer one.


The problem for the film is how to wrap it all up. His view of the world is so comfortless, and the only redemption is the quality of his prose, so carefully crafted, so wide-ranging, so subtle – light as air, heavy as gold. But if I heard her right, Katie Mitchell seemed to say, 'We can take comfort from that,' then added, 'can't we?' The question is pertinent.


De mortuis nil nisi bonum. It would be a violation of taste to attack Sebald for his melancholy, but the film could have done with a maverick voice doing so – after all Sebald himself was a maverick and took interest, we were told, in people outside the existing structures, political, cultural, social, whatever. Hence the extraordinary discovery in his book of the Suffolk farmer who has built a replica of the Temple in Jerusalem in his barn, which is both a documentary project, and an imaginative one, like Sebald's writings themselves. You could see why this was so fascinating to the author.


I wanted the film to be 60 to 70 minutes long, perhaps as a way of getting out just a little bit earlier from under the boulder rolling over me. The 90-minute length gives the film a hyperbolic quality perhaps, so characteristic of our times because the hyperbole is not quite sustained. One solution would have been to alter the texture of the film more. Another way, perhaps inconceivable, would have been to shift into another gear at the end. As I left the cinema I found myself remembering the last lines of Milton’s elegy ‘Lycidas’: "At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:/ tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new." Milton of course has the religious outlook to manage this redemptive note. And so does Tennyson in his bleeding chunk of melancholy, ‘In Memoriam’, when he refers right at the end to “the far-off divine event/to which the whole creation moves" - which must be an echo of the last line of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’: "L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.” In the 21st century we’ve junked the religion; hence the comfortless note of the film.


Can we celebrate too an East Anglian film? At first sight yes, but because, while Sebald had his home in Norfolk, yet he never felt at home in Norfolk, nor indeed anywhere else (except the St Peter’s island on Lake Biel in Switzerland – an island of the mind really), Sebald is no more East Anglian than one can describe Ovid as a resident of Tomi on the Black Sea, or Dostoevsky a resident of Siberia. His was more a condition of permanent exile and the fact that he was in East Anglia is contingent only.


Finally, surely there was a better title to be had than Patience (after Sebald)? Sebald needs to be the first word because he is the begetter of the film and Grant Gee is only the midwife, skilled I grant you. So I offer Sebald’s Labyrinth, but I am sure there are better. Answers on an email please to cawkwell200@gmail.com.


March 2012