In 1995, German writer W.G. Sebald released The Rings Of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage, a curious hybrid of history and personal essay that begins with the author taking a walk around Suffolk, but then wanders free-associatively through Sebald’s thoughts about other writers, the commerce of the area, and the varieties of European landscape and culture. The book has never been a mega-seller, but its devotees tend to be obsessive. Fans have been known to follow in Sebald’s footsteps by taking the walk themselves, and to make their own personal maps of both the literal path Sebald took and of his train of thought. The Rings Of Saturn seems like a thoughtful ramble, but then Sebald will make a connection that has readers frantically paging back, realizing that there might be more to the book than just the idle notes of a man on a hike.
Grant Gee’s documentary Patience (After Sebald) is about The Rings Of Saturn, and attempts to adapt it. Gee, who previously captured the grayness of Manchester well in his fine 2007 documentary Joy Division, grounds this film in long, beautifully composed, grainy black-and-white shots of the places Sebald wrote about—often with the page numbers superimposed on the screen. To this, Gee adds clips of scholars and disciples talking about what Saturn meant to them, along with recordings of Sebald and readings from the book. But the main focus is on the landscape, to the extent that Gee often superimposes his interview subjects’ faces over the roads, bridges, and fields of Sebald’s route.
One of those interviewees talks about how Sebald wanted his work filed in every section of the bookstore—fiction, autobiography, travel, what-have-you—and Gee tries to hold to that spirit with Patience (After Sebald). The film is digressive and scattered, but without the possibility that viewers can flip back and forth to make their own connections. In a way, Patience is a lot like how one of its interview subjects describes an attempt to do Sebald’s walk: He says he could retrace the steps, but not the experiences, or the revelations.
That said, like The Rings Of Saturn, the individual pieces of Patience (After Sebald) are so engrossing that it almost doesn’t matter whether everything coheres. And Gee is able to do in movie form what the book can’t, by showing archival footage of the people and historical events Sebald describes, and directly comparing some of Saturn’s photographs by laying one atop another. Though Gee spoon-feeds viewers a little by having people just say what Sebald’s book is about rather than letting them discover it for themselves, he does develop Sebald’s major theme of disconnection. Patience reveals through images and tone as well as through the interviews how Sebald yearned for restorative meaning in the places he toured, only to end up lost in thought.