Film Review: Patience (After Sebald)

The &#8220;nonfiction art film&#8221; genre gets a fresh, strange, downbeat new entry with <i>Patience (After Sebald)</i>, a fittingly melancholy reflection on the late writer W.G. Sebald and his work.

For the most part, W.G. Sebald (born in Germany in 1944) seems a perfect subject for a documentary, not only because his writing is as little-known by the general public as it is highly regarded by his fans, but also because there is a cinematic quality to his work. On the other hand, how do you translate Sebald’s modernist musings to the screen without becoming heavy-handed or overly literal? Filmmaker Grant Gee seems to have found the answer.

Inspired by the kind of art documentaries made by Chris Marker and Peter Greenaway, Gee (who also photographed and co-edited Patience) does not attempt to distinguish fact from fiction—if anything, the two are deliberately blurred. (One might think of here Carl Jung’s “autobiography,” Memories, Dreams, Reflections.)

We hear stories about Sebald, particularly regarding his de Tocqueville-like travels, from friends, colleagues and academics, including Arthur Lubow, Tacita Dean, Iain Sinclair, Andrew Motion, Adam Phillips and several others. We also listen to readings from Sebald’s travelogue essays and books (including his most celebrated tome, 1995’s The Rings of Saturn). If there is a drawback to the film’s method, it is only that we hear too many voices too often. Sometimes the images alone would have worked sufficiently without the talk.

Through subjective first-person black-and-white cinematography, Gee retraces Sebald’s journeys, mainly during his time living on the coast of Suffolk, England. These scenes are intercut with home movies of the author and colored maps of the areas, and each type of shot is superimposed over either the books’ printed words or the talking-head interviews. The cumulative effect is alternately charming and depressing. Sadly hanging over the film is both Sebald’s premature death (in 2001 in a car crash) and his experience as an escapee from Nazi Germany, followed by his bittersweet life in the English countryside. The sparingly used musical compositions by “The Caretaker” (aka Leyland Kirby), adapted from a Franz Schubert piece, underscore the gloominess.

The only major downside to Patience (After Sebald) is that viewers will need a lot of patience if they are unfamiliar with either the author or his work. But even these newcomers should gain something from this deeply felt homage.