Following in the footsteps of the narrator of W G Sebald's extraordinary work The Rings of Saturn sadly makes for a most pedestrian experience.
The film is disappointing on so many levels that it left me, as an admirer of Sebald's books, angered and profoundly depressed but, sad to say, not really surprised, given the British tendency to reduce all forms of cultural enterprise to the level of a National Trust magazine feature. One wonders whether director Grant Gee thought at all about the medium he was using or what 'a documentary film' actually means; surely the opportunity was there to explore in a Sebaldian way - allusively, tangentially, playfully - Sebald's extraordinary text and its impact on a generation of artists. Instead, we have a film which is earnest but wearisome; leaden-footed, and deeply unimaginative. Why, for example, are all the people interviewed either British or American? Given that Sebald was German, and wrote in German, achieved literary fame first in Germany and given that his subject, by and large, was the 'tacit conspiracy' of silence in post-war Germany, would it not have been worthwhile to talk to some Germans? It says something about the film's cosily insular outlook - something Sebald repeatedly and pointedly pokes fun at - that even though much is made of his European sensibility, and his work's Nobel Prize-worthy international resonance, the only German accent we hear belongs to Sebald himself. And even though Sebald's highly distinctive and exciting way of creating meaning and of questioning the value of documentary 'evidence' is exactly what all the people in the film are talking about, Gee seems to imagine that a series of images of the places Sebald mentions (rendered somehow more 'meaningful' or 'poetic' by being in black and white, or blurry, or wobbly, or all three) and some close-ups of the pages of the book, somehow magically add up to a worthwhile enterprise. They don't. They add up to some rather dull pictures to go with some rather dull talking and some rather dull music. The people interviewed have, with a few honourable exceptions, very little interesting or perceptive to say about the book, being largely content to try to explain how it works (as if we, as readers, had somehow missed this) how good it is (ditto) or, even more boringly, 'what it meant to them'. The film would probably be so boring for someone who has not already read The Rings of Saturn to sit through that it would put them off Sebald for life, and for those who have read the book it adds absolutely nothing to the experience beyond, perhaps, a sense of wonder that such a magical work can be made to seem so dull. Bewilderingly, Gee even gives space to some deluded individuals who think that by 'mapping' the places Sebald mentions they are doing something other than vapidly parasitizing his work. But their contribution seems positively scintillating in comparison with a final sequence discussing Sebald's untimely death which is as tasteless as it is pretentious.The absence of any adequate critical or artistic engagement with Sebald's work on the part of either the contributors or the film-maker is, given the intellectual generosity and fertility of its subject, profoundly dispiriting.