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Comforting sorrow and pity
on 23 May 2015
Objects in the rings of Saturn are scattered, diffuse, in constant motion, broken debris from asteroids and comets that have been orbiting the planet aimlessly and steadily for over four billion years. The journey in eternal circles goes nowhere, which for Sebald forms an irresistible image of wandering and its accompaniments — dislocation, exile, rootlessness, loss and homelessness. A child of the German wandervögel, he wanders as existential guide through such debris here on Earth — through history, landscapes, aesthetics and ideas, an itinerant philosopher-poet with a desire to roam, witness and remember.
The film is exemplary in its attempt to bring the nuances, peculiarities and difficulties of Sebald's writing to the screen. Its narrative is non-linear, its voiceovers sensitive and insightful, its cinematography dreamy, soft-focussed and full of dissolves, one form flowing into another, the sky merging with the sea, for instance, as if to say the only borders we see in the world are those we create and imagine. In this way the film is faithful to Sebald's mind and spirit.
It's often been said that he was a ghostly sort of writer, that he wrote about lost and missing things — things scattered from memory by time or by willful acts of denial or obfuscation. If so, the film takes advantage of this by showing the odd connecting points his mind made while wandering. For instance, he sees Norfolk, the ground over which he treads, as an extension of the old geological and geographical Germany. Long, long ago when the land was connected, long before there was a Channel, East Anglia was the mouth of the Rhine. The water to the east is not the North Sea in his mind; it is the old German Sea which washes against his old ancestral homeland. He is a wanderer and stranger in Britain, yet he is not. To the extent there can be any home on Earth for one, he's at home in Norfolk, in the old ancient realm of the Angles, Saxons and Norsemen. His sense of things — lands, landscapes, peoples, time — is fluid. Thus if his writing flows like a river between points in time and place, the film does too in a beautiful dreamy way. If you are quiet, mindful and patient, it sweeps you along, just as Sebald's books do.
There is joy in this because this is what beauty does to us. It makes us happy. But there is sadness too, a lamentation for loss — the hopeless destruction made by war, the ravages of landscapes made by human ideas and desires, the loss of places and homes, including homelands. Home is really an emotion, not a place. It's what we feel for something valuable and defining, for the things that make our identity. It could be anything: our old school, the fields and trees we played in as children with our friends, our bedroom, the town square now gone, covered by a car park and shopping centre. For Sebald modern Germany was the lost domain. He belonged to another Germany, perhaps the Germany Goethe had enjoyed, rather than to one divided by a wall and Cold War politics.
He wasn't at home in the silence of modern Germany either, in a past of which no one would speak openly. He called it a conspiracy of silence among the adults, a great taboo no one had the courage to touch. He had to discover the holocaust by himself, he said, and when he did he was astonished, mortified, ashamed. Where could he go to bury and honour the dead? What could he do? His solution was to go inward, and to England, and to ghostly, hallowed places in his mind. It's as if he wrote his books for the millions of departed souls, as though he wanted to reach out to them with his own comforting sorrow and pity. Wandering for him was a way of coming to terms with memory and history.
Film, naturally, is the art of the visual. How, then, to sensitively portray the inner world of a writer, the realm of writerly ideas? It's difficult, of course, and probably never fully possible. Reading a writer is what should be done. There in a book your own imagination creates worlds only suggested by the words. But film has a right to try. This one does and I think succeeds as well as may be thought possible. I feel Sebald's spirit in it. I see his ideas represented — ideas understood and appreciated by the filmmaker and all who took part in the film. Also, the film does not lecture to us; it invites us in. To the extent we can, we are allowed to enter the mind of a truly great writer. It's wonderful that this film was made. I believe it would have made him happy.