This is an edited transcript of a talk given at Norwich Castle on Tuesday the 27th of August 2019. Detail has been edited, aspects taken out and points clarified from the original talk. My thanks to Dr. Nick Warr and Philippa Comber in particular for the help and information given both before and after the talk.
Considering the wealth of imagery on the walls of the Line of Sight exhibition housed next door, it’s unsurprising to find the work of W.G. Sebald to be deeply connected with another visual medium, that of cinema. However, this may be seen as an unusual statement to make at first considering the lack discussion by the writer regarding the medium, at least in the public realm. Today I’m going to argue that the link is not only perceivable but, more importantly, that such an influence was a two-way street. For the writer was greatly indebted, clearly passionate even about the medium, and his writing appears to be the result of an immersion in the visual form as much as the literate one. Equally, like so many forms outside of literature, certain filmmakers have been touched by Sebald’s work since his death and so the relationship between the two is unusually complex.
Though this is part of a series of talks about Sebald, for those coming to this with only a slight interest in the writer and his work, I’ll give a brief biography. Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald, or “Max” to his friends, was born in the Bavarian Alps in 1944. He studied English and German literature in Germany and Switzerland. In the mid 1960s, he travelled to England where he first taught at the University of Manchester. Aside from a handful of brief stints abroad, he settled in Norfolk, working his way up the academic ladder at the University of East Anglia. He became a Professor and the chair of European Literature, as well as founding the pivotal British Centre for Literary Translation.
Publishing late in life, Sebald’s writing career was unprecedented in its rise. His first novel, Vertigo, was published in German in 1990 though wasn’t translated into English until almost a decade later. It was followed in German by The Emigrants (1992) and The Rings of Saturn (1995) whose eventual English translations, in 1996 and 1998 respectively, garnered critical appreciation. In spite of publications of previous essays and poetry collections since, Sebald’s literary life was arguably bookended by Austerlitz (2001), his first book to be published initially in English before the German translation. In that time, Sebald’s rise in the literary pantheon had been unparalleled and so his early death from an aneurism whilst driving on the 14th of December 2001 cut short a potentially world-beating career. Even Horace Engdah, the previous secretary of the Swedish Academy put his name forward as a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize had he lived.
There is no doubt then as to the power of Sebald’s prose which is a stark mixture of meandering travelogue, archaeologies of history and dissections of melancholia, matched in atmosphere by the grainy photographs and seemingly inconsequential ephemera that litter in between the pages. But today, I’m going to talk about Sebald from three angles, all related to cinema. The first is to look at cinema as an influence on Sebald’s writing, his relationship to cinema and even his own shadow-career as a would-be screenwriter. Moving on from this, the second section will look at Sebald’s influence on cinema as a subject after his death, looking in particular at documentaries about the writer and how making cinema with his work as a subject affected the way in which filmmakers approached the medium. And, finally, with this somewhat symbiotic relationship defined, we’ll conclude by looking at the potential of a Sebaldian cinema in itself; a cinema influenced by his atmospheres and methodologies but which uses them to create new work.
First, though, we go back to before Sebald’s rise in the literary pantheon had taken place, to the days of his life as an early career academic, a time filled with cinema visits and scriptwriting.
Sebald and Cinema
Though he rarely mentioned it in his work, other accounts of Sebald’s life show it to be one littered with enough instances of cinema to comfortably say that he was influenced by the medium. Philippa Comber recounts meeting Sebald in her book, Ariadne’s Thread, and I must extend my thanks to her before continuing. She has gifted a great deal of personal information not currently in the public domain and which makes up part of this talk. In her book she recounts an early meeting with the writer:
“And so it was that on a warm Saturday evening at the end of August, arrangements were made for a group of us to meet at the Noverre Cinema for a showing of Polanski’s 1979 movie, Tess.”
Later on she details a number of cinema visits, one particularly apt detailing a screening of Fritz Lang’s M; apt for it was chosen for the day’s entertainment over seeing a Cubism lecture held right here. As she writes: “Max came round again this evening. We went along to Cinema City to see Fritz Lang’s M, opting for this rather than the lecture on cubism at the Castle Museum.” Cinema was clearly important to Sebald, more important than he lets on in his writing or in the handful of interviews and essays that survive, where such an interest is largely, but not entirely, absent. But, once aware of this leaning towards cinema, we can begin to see its effect in the aesthetic of his prose.
As Nimrod Matin has argued, Sebald’s prose, even leaving aside the presence of actual images, could itself be seen as an attempt of cinematic rendering of the written form, one argued by both Matin and Sebald himself to be present in the difficult, solid-image prose of Franz Kafka (the difficulty arising in reading of both writers’ work from prose built on recreating images in earnest). He writes:
“The image’s physical shifting of positions serves as a medium enabling the metaphysical shift into the three above-mentioned dimensions. This enabling movement, I argue, is a primitive configuration of a moving-image. Its direct effect is a metaphysical shift of time, space and agency, which in turn creates the conditions for the image to become meaningful. Since this movement is a paradigm for writing, it can be seen as an embryonic definition of the cinematographic medium: writing through the setting-in-motion of images so as to enable their becoming meaningful.”
This also plays heavily into an idea of French post-structuralist Gilles Deleuze who argued that cinema itself shifted from images of movement to images of time after the Second World War, arguing for the heightened complexity of cinema after the war and its seeming emphasis on images and scenes that seemed to go directly against cinema’s main stratagem of condensed narrative meaning. Sebald’s writing is certainly closer to time-image cinema than narrative cinema but, considering the films that can be connected to the man, this is unsurprising.
Sebald himself actually taught a module on early German cinema at UEA alongside Professor Thomas Elsaesser, creating a long list of suggestions for relevant texts for his students, including films by Robert Wiener, Paul Wegener, F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.
Out of all of the films that Comber mentions in her book, however, the one that seems truly pivotal to Sebald is, in hindsight of the labyrinths of his writing, not surprising (and another time-image film). She details it as follows:
“Going to the cinema with Max was a treat. Not long before this, when talking about films, it emerged that there was one that had always held a particular fascination for both of us. This was Alain Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad. Its appeal lay as much in the hypnotic quality of the cinematography and soundtrack as the enigma at the core of its narrative. Maybe this predilection dated us; but then, we were children of the sixties – of the Continental sixties.”
Alain Resnais’ and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year In Marienbad is in itself a foreshadow of some of Sebald’s themes. It features the melancholy of a European retreat and the unreliability, perhaps even failure, of memory as the protagonist tries to solve the riddle of whether he originally met, and perhaps loved, a woman he meets in a luxurious spa retreat in Marienbad. Of course, in typical Sebaldian fashion, the film wasn’t shot in Marienbad at all but in a spa just outside of Munich (a common cinematic sleight of hand that I imagine Sebald would have been interested in recreating himself).
Reading Sebald’s work, in particular the Somerleyton segment of The Rings of Saturn, reminds of the way Robbe-Grillet treats background characters as his main characters discuss at length the problem in hand. As in many films by Robbe-Grillet as director, and to a certain extent in his novels, conversations render the world frozen, bodies turned to mannequins as the sheer weight of history within the wider story is unfolded and looped around. The links go further still considering Robbe-Grillet’s edited publication of the script as a self-proclaimed “ciné-roman” in which the edited dialogue is interspersed with still-photographs from the film. The document, in spite of being a film script and collection of film stills, was meant to be read. So far, so Sebaldian.
There are several references to cinema in Sebald’s work, at least in what has been translated. In one of the Sebald’s essay, Kafka Goes To The Movies, he mentions the Wim Wenders film, Kings of the Road (1976). Part of the German New Wave of cinema that arose in the 1970s, alongside work by the likes of Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, Wenders’ film highlights a particularly German take on the road movie, certainly seeming at least in part related to what we could later term to be Sebaldian. The narrative is meandering and melancholy, following two men travelling in an anti-road movie of sorts, recounting their various meetings with strangers on the way. Equally, in The Emigrants, the narrator sits in the cinema and has a revelation of sorts whilst watching Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and in Vertigo, the references to a certain Dr K. touch upon a character from The Student of Prague.
Heavily influenced by Wenders’ sometime collaborator Peter Handke (and a writer of a stage adaptation of Kaspar), it’s unsurprising to find some of the films Sebald mentioned to be loosely connected to the writer. Being a noted admirer of Handke’s work, in particular Repetition, Sebald’s sensibilities are clearly enmeshed in the same visual needs of the cinema around him, and certainly in a Germanic culture that actively sought to exorcise and face its past. As in a great deal of German language literature, German New Wave Cinema sought to find a new language outside of the previous, war-tainted culture.
Handke, like so many from the group of writers, filmmakers and playwrights who, in the Post-War years sought to escape the previous cultural baggage of Germanic culture, made films and wrote scripts and novels. Though rarely discussed or even publicised due to the copyright problems and the strict rules of archives, it’s unsurprising then to find Sebald’s early ventures into creative writing take the form, not of experimental novels or poetry, but in the form of scripts too, film scripts to be exact. As detailed in Comber’s book and explored further in our own conversations, Sebald’s initial work was in film scripts. The first script she details regards the life of philosopher Immanuel Kant, in English called And Now The Night Descends – Scenes from the Life and Death and Immanuel Kant. The script, which was completed and exists in its entirety, sounds as if it came close to actually being produced, allowing a possible alternative history of Sebald to be perceived. As she writes:
“There was good news from Jan Franksen, Max’s media contact in Berlin. It seemed that the TV station, Sender Freies Berlin, had contrived to secure a hefty sum for the “Kant Project” – one and a half million marks, he thought. And whilst the studio was proposing to start filming next year, Max remained sceptical: he’d believe it when he saw it…”
She further details the angle of script, hinting at what might have been had it been made; a typically phenomenological biography project seeming not unlike films from the same era such as Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch (1974), Straub-Huillet’s The Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), or Herzog’s The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974). As she writes:
“… the use of images was the ideal way to represent the life and works of thinkers of the past. (The same held for his use of images in a book: instead of “instructing” the reader how or what to think, pictures spoke for themselves.)… Rather than trace Kant’s development as a philosopher, or treat his metaphysics in any abstract sense, Max chose to introduce the reader/viewer to a human being of fragile constitution and marked eccentricity.”
Alongside this is a lesser finalised script regarding the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein though neither were ultimately realised. The plans for a chronologically jumbled collection of tableaux from the Wittgenstein’s life sounds remarkably like Derek Jarman’s later realised film project with the BFI, so there was undoubtedly potential in such scripts. Yet the sheer fact of their existence shows that Sebald was cinematically literate, passionate about the medium and that it was a creative pillar to what would eventually become his novels. In another life, perhaps he could have followed more closely the path of Peter Handke. Perhaps then this explains the contents of our next section of discussion; namely films about the writer and how his own aesthetic sensibility came to augment the form via his atmospheric palette, even when merely a subject.
Sebald In Cinema
With the writer’s place in the literary pantheon growing after his death in the (almost) two decades of this century so far, it’s unsurprising to find Sebald as a subject of interest for filmmakers. In many ways, especially due to his use of actual visual stimuli to break up his prose, his work has been ripe for cinema.
The first films to mention about Sebald are sadly ones that I can tell little about due to their scarcity. Having spoken to Comber at a recent BBC recording about her friend, film being one of the key connections about which we spoke, a film by a director called Thomas Honickel came up in conversation. Honickel is perhaps best known for his documentary on Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, Mabuse In Mind (1985), one of the films Sebald taught on his module on German Cinema. In 2007, Honickel made two separate films about the writer, W.G. Sebald: Der Ausgewanderte and Sebald. Orte. The former, which was translated into English with the subtitle of The Emigrant, documented his life and included interviews with his previous colleagues, whilst the latter followed in the footsteps of his books’ narrators. With no copies being available, though a supposed home release existing somewhere of The Emigrant, I can only speculate that these films bore some resemblance to the other films I’m discussing here.
The most successful film about Sebald to date, critically and in terms of recreating his atmospheres, came only a few years previously in 2012 in the form of Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald). Simultaneously following the route from The Rings of Saturn – recreating many of its original photographic images on grainy black & white 16mm – and assessing Sebald’s literary standing with a variety of talking-heads interviews, the film represents a pivotal moment in appreciation for the writer’s work. But, more importantly, Patience shows how the aesthetic of Sebald’s literary vision could be transposed with relative ease into the cinematic medium. This wasn’t simply through filming places touched by Sebald’s presence but in realising the very angle of perception that augmented his vision of such places in the first place.
Interestingly, Patience as a project came about, not as an exploration of The Rings of Saturn but actually through interest in Austerlitz. As Gee suggested in an interview with Book Forum, the film’s title was a reference to that book:
“We went through about three major attempts and different proposals about how to do a film about Sebald. When we came up with the title Patience, it was because in the book Austerlitz there’s a key scene in which the Sebaldian narrator comes across the Austerlitz character, sees him from behind in a room, and he has a stack of black-and-white photographs. The narrator says he can see Austerlitz dealing them out in a sequence like he’s playing a game of Patience, which is like Solitaire in the States.”
I myself was lucky enough to talk to Grant about his project, alongside the film’s composer James Leyland Kirby – alias The Caretaker – and, interestingly, Gee saw the cinematic potential in Sebald’s prose:
“Reading the books for the first time… I had the feeling of a strong, strange, cinematic quality to a strand of Sebald’s imagery. More so than even the photographs throughout the books, the written imagery just seemed to suggest grey, grainy, gently seething movie-camera images. A bit like Béla Tarr’s shots. Given the subject matter of the books, this seething weirdness was fascinating. Then I was asked by producer, Gareth Evans, to propose an idea for a trans-media event called ‘The Re-Enchantment’; all about artistic examination of place, and the idea crystallised to use the route walked in The Rings of Saturn for the form of a film.”
Gee’s recreation of Sebald’s world is startling, a mirror image of the book that manages to use the structure of The Rings of Saturn to turn in upon itself and assess the writer who created it. It’s an innovative move, one which shares a likeness with that other East Anglia ghost walker, M.R. James whose short story, Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You M’Lad was similarly inverted by Jonathan Miller and turned into a film for BBC Omnibus in 1968 that psychologised the thinking behind the story’s original writer. The two films also compare in that they both use the East Anglian coastline, including several shared locations (namely the crumbling coastline of Dunwich).
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Gee’s film, and certainly why it ultimately is the strongest of Sebaldian films made so far, is the musical collaboration with The Caretaker. Similarly to Sebald, The Caretaker took existing older recordings and played through their crackle until they disintegrated. Named as part of the Hauntology movement in recent years by Mark Fisher, The Caretaker’s soundtrack for Patience highlighted its memory-ridden aesthetic. When asked about the relationship between his and Sebald’s work, Kirby suggested the following:
“Grant Gee got in touch with me and proposed the idea that he’d love for me to score this film for him based around old recordings of Schubert he’d sourced. After reading the book I could see why Grant approached me, certainly if you look at the graininess of the images in the book. There’s a specific quality to that which could be compared to some of The Caretaker work I’d done up to that point. I wanted to stay true to the source material and looked for specific loops and also textures which I felt would work.”
Both Gee and Kirby suggested that the use of Schubert’s Die Winterreise and its various crackly recordings was that it had personal meaning to Sebald, Gee suggesting that he had heard that the music was played at Sebald’s funeral. He could not confirm this but the point is that the film was produced with a key to detail in every facet, recognising that a subject such as Sebald would benefit from being addressed through a common aesthetic language; one filled with memory, disintegration and melancholy. Arguably, these are all central components and echoes when considering the potential for a Sebaldian cinema.
Gee also has the advantage of having enlisted an array of knowledgeable speakers to litter his documentary with observations. The sheer diversity of background in the speakers, in particular the presence of people from the visual arts such as artists Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar, the theatre director Katie Mitchell and the filmmaker Chris Petit, shows Sebald’s influence to be essentially multimedia.
Dean is particularly poignant an inclusion considering the presence of her own 2007 film, Michael Hamburger in the Far Away exhibition until recently housed in The Sainsbury Centre; a Sebaldian meditation on the space and ephemera surrounding the man featured for his ghostly coincidences in The Rings of Saturn. Dean’s relationship with Sebald’s work is complex but, with there already having been a talk in recent weeks given by Dr. Lillian Cameron, I won’t dwell here on the connections between the artist and Sebald, simply because there are multitudes of interconnections. Suffice to say, some of these have manifested in the cinematic medium and, most importantly, through the analogue practices that Dean defiantly still works within to this day.
Gee’s film was by no means the last explicitly Sebald-themed project and was followed a few years later by the little seen film by Stan Neumann, Austerlitz (2015). Austerlitz was never properly distributed in the UK, surprising considering it was here where Sebald’s literary success was jump-started, but it is available online. The French film deliberately blurs the line between documentary and fiction, featuring well-known Leos Carax regular Denis Lavant as Jacques Austerlitz and the film documenting, simultaneously, the discovering of Sebald’s book and the book’s narrative of identity excavation. Though less successful than Gee’s film in recreating the atmosphere’s of Sebald’s book, the film is certainly an interesting inclusion in the slowly growing canon of Sebaldian cinema.
Of course, for a more specific film looking at Austerlitz, the shorter film put together by Richard West and Source Photographic Review is also worthy of discussion. The film is barely half an hour but features in-depth, detailed exploration and revisits to the locations of the photographs Sebald used in Austerlitz, conducted by Professor Jonathan Long, author of W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity.
In these films, we get a sense of Sebald’s gravitational pull and his keen eye for the most bizarre synchronicities. Simply dealing with his work, his life and his various themes often results with filmmakers being forced to adopt similar methodologies and aesthetic ploys in order to do their subject justice. In the final segment of this discussion then, we’ll move on to films that take this Sebaldian mindset and wander further from their source of inspiration; namely films that are Sebaldian without actually being about the writer.
The Potential For Sebaldian Cinema
What then can we really call a Sebaldian cinema? It seems a little too easy to suggest the previous films as being somehow uniquely Sebaldian when the writer is the very subject they are exploring in the first place. Instead, I argue that a number of films and filmmakers have, through differing ways, tapped into the same vein of ghostly history and melancholy place-sketching as Sebald did.
Sticking with theme of Austerlitz, we come to another film of the same name. Ukranian director, Sergei Loznitza, has become relatively successful in recent years for similarly themed work, in particular addressing the legacy and the complexity of the Russian experience and ghosts from the Second World War. In his 2016 film, Austerlitz, he turns his critical eye to what is often described today as “dark tourism” and the troubling, grating tension that has come from popularised, touristic visits to the remains of the concentration camps. Though not connected to Sebald’s book, Loznitza named the film in Sebald’s honour, most probably for dealing with the same themes but in an infinitely more subtle and suitable manner. Loznitsa’s film, in stark black and white, details the simple actions of tourists taking photos of extermination equipment with Iphones, going on disturbingly Tower-of-London-esque guided tours and capturing Selfies with the gates of Auschwitz and their motto Arbeit macht frei hashtagged.
In more calming, less critical work, we can see some Sebaldian potential in the work of filmmaker Ben Rivers. Filming on film, as so many filmmakers here do – Sebaldian cinema being distinctly analogue – his memory-drenched images of landscape and solitude bear more than a passing resemblance to both the photographs in Sebald’s books and the general atmosphere of the prose they’re placed within. In Two Years At Sea (2011), Rivers shows he has the same keen eye for eccentric characters, capturing the life of Jake; a hermit who lives a Thoreau-esque life in the forests of Scotland and could equally be a figure straight out of Sebald’s The Emigrants or Vertigo. Rivers also grapples with a common question raised by Sebald’s work; namely the blurred line between the real and the fictional. He turns the very process of filmmaking upon itself, fitting narratives into the capture of other film projects, in particular his Paul Bowles-inspired project, The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015) in which his narrative occurs in the midst of the filming of someone’s else’s real film. If any filmmaker comes close to recreating Sebald’s slippery, almost auto-fictional elements then it is Rivers.
Looking at more narrative-based cinema, its most successful Sebaldian exploration is arguably in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (2015); a film that surprisingly swept the awards season on both sides of the Atlantic. Its narrative of restless memory manifesting may perhaps owe as much to its original source material by David Constantine being distinctly Sebaldian as much as the film itself. For, with its tale of a lost love reasserting as a painfully destructive ghost in the East Anglian countryside, breaking apart the relationship between Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, the film is essentially a romantic tragedy fitted into the mould of the Henry Selwyn segment of The Emigrants. Such is the likeness between the film and the story, even down to the location of Switzerland housing the lost loved one and the outer Norwich landscape being the realm of the haunting, that the film can be seen as close to a big-budget adaptation of a Sebald novel as we’re likely to get.
I could go on to list filmmakers whose image draw likenesses to Sebald – I will here mention the filmmaker Guido van der Werve and his film Nummer Zestien – but the point would often be moot as his mentality has crept quietly into so much culture of many different forms. Finally then, and perhaps naively, there are the short films of my own, argued as being Sebaldian specifically because they were designed on my own part to be so. Shot on super-8 stock older than myself, I have often sought the Sebaldian disintegration in image and theme, going so far as to track East Anglian locations touched by the writer and equally taking the themes of his prose one step further into the strange and “wyrd”. To conclude then, I wish to screen a short film reacting to that strange friction found on the Suffolk coastline between Sizewell and Dunwich. It is the same friction tapped into in The Rings of Saturn; where the past destruction of the lost town of Dunwich and the implied, unconscious future destruction hinted at by the looming structure of Sizewell Nuclear Power Station seem to possess a dialectic quality.
In conclusion then, I want to summarise my key points. I hope in this presentation to have shown how Sebald was influenced, fluent, and perhaps even indebted to cinema as a medium. It is there in his past and it is there in his prose. I also hope that, in showing how Sebald as a subject augmented the cinematic medium, that the potential for an actual Sebaldian cinema was initially opened. But most of all, I hope that such a potential is, in the future, realised further; whether in new films or perhaps, if we’re lucky, in adaptations of the scripts that already exists by the writer, currently gathering dust in archives under the guard dogs of copyright. For, once the work of this visual, detailed and powerful writer is taken into the mind’s eye, his gaze cannot be quite switched off, his filter upon the world retains its startling ability to cut through the haze, and the potential of it, in our increasing age of circular history and calamity, has never promised so much that is necessary to all creative forms today, film or otherwise.