”Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artifact we create.” –W.G. Sebald
In the summer of 1992, W.G. “Max” Sebald embarked on a lengthy walking tour of East Anglia, a region of the U.K. noted for its often harsh environmental conditions and a richness of cultural history. One result of Sebald’s journey was the publication of The Rings of Saturn, a masterfully executed rumination on all sorts of very interesting topics, ranging from the natural history of the terrain to the works of Sir Thomas Browne and the introduction of silkworm cultivation to the West — all of them in some way relating all of them to the loss of memory and the inevitability of decay. The book, published in 1995, became something treasured and revered by those who took the time to read it and spawned one of the neatest literary dork projects around, LITMAP. Drawing upon a wealth of source material and meaningful interviews with Sebald devotees, biographers, and friends, Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) does an astounding job of capturing the hard-to-pin-down tone of Sebald’s work.
Traveling along the same route that Sebald chose for his walking holiday, Gee effectively captures the weight of the author’s writing through a mixture of inventive camera work, beautiful editing, and a sensible use of Leyland Kirby’s vivisection of an old 78 recording of Schubert’s Die Winterreise as a backing soundscape. Gee’s stark black and white cinematography exudes a tarnished quality that perfectly complements the motif of loss that held The Rings of Saturn together, and which bears some resemblance to Bill Morrison’s work. Some shots of the desolate Suffolk coast paired with Kirby’s screwed re-imaginings of Schubert and Jonathan Pryce’s plaintive readings of selections from Sebald’s book are downright chilling. It would be impossible for Gee to touch on the multitude of anecdotes, historical musings, and biographical intrigues contained within Rings, and the film will almost definitely draw criticism from those who would’ve preferred a bit more focus on the Tales-of-the-Weird-type stuff that contributed to the breadth of the book.
Gee resisted the urge to include many expository interviews, and eschews completely the use of a narrator. Consequently, those totally unfamiliar with W.G. Sebald might feel a bit lost at first, but the picture of the man emerges commensurately with the picture of his work and the land that inspired him. A German expatriate, some of the most compelling sections of the book dealt with Sebald’s inability to feel at home in the world, even after spending decades as a professor at the University of East Anglia. The interviews Gee does include are insightful, often very personal, and reveal different layers of the astounding scope of Sebald’s ambition in Rings.
Patience is an immersive experience, hypnotically paced, one scene flowing seamlessly into the next throughout. It’s a beautifully executed and meaningfully degraded audio and visual experience. If there is one hermeneutic we can utilize when viewing Patience — or indeed in reading Saturn — I suggest it’s contained in this passage from the book: “From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.” This waning and fading away preoccupied Sebald throughout his career, and Gee’s construction of Patience illuminates this brilliantly. The film places a slight amount more importance on Sebald’s conflicted relationship with his German heritage than did the author in Rings, but this is only a minor complaint about an otherwise exhilarating documentary, which, like Sebald’s own work, is hard to definitively label with any extant genre.