The work of late German writer W.G. Sebald truly deserves to be labeled “unclassifiable.” His books aren’t exactly fiction, since most of his stories draw from both history and his own life, yet Sebald tells these stories in ways that bring history to life in ways that feel like fiction. One could call his books travelogues, since they technically feature characters exploring various parts of a given geographical environment (he even includes photographs, old and new, to illustrate his texts)—but if they’re travelogues, they are also travelogues of Sebald’s mind, considering how often he digresses from the location he finds himself at a given point. And if you’re looking for conventional narratives, forget it: His writing is distinguished more by its essayistic quality than by any focus on narrative.
Sebald’s 1995 work The Rings of Saturn, a travelogue of sorts set in and around Suffolk, on the eastern coast of England, is of a piece with the rest of his small but widely celebrated oeuvre, and it’s the jumping-off point for Patience (After Sebald), British filmmaker Grant Gee’s new film—a documentary which itself is difficult to easily classify. But it’s that formal and thematic adventurousness that not only makes it near-Sebaldian, but also thrilling, provocative, and fascinating in its own right.
Gee seems to have decided that the only way to come close to capturing Sebald’s unique sensibility was to try to approximate it on a formal and visual level. So while Patience is, in some ways, the usual talking-head documentary, with various writers and artists—some of whom met or worked with Sebald, some of whom are just impassioned admirers—offering up testimonies, analyses, and insights into the writer and The Rings of Saturn, Gee adopts a wildly discursive style similar to Sebald’s prose; he shoots most of this film in grainy black-and-white, echoing the black-and-white photographs in the book, and keeps most of his interview subjects at the status of voiceover narrators, only showing some of their physical forms in five-second fade-in/fade-out medium shots. Gee additionally leans on the Caretaker’s richly meditative soundtrack, an eerie score that electronically alters selections from Franz Schubert’s famous 1827 song cycle Winterreise, to instill in the film the same melancholic feeling that predominates in the book.
But Gee’s film isn’t distinguished by formal interest alone. Beyond its author’s travelogue style, freeform ruminations on history and memory, blurring of fiction and nonfiction, and black-and-white photographs, what is The Rings of Saturn ultimately about? Patience attempts to get to the bottom of this work in as exhaustive a manner as possible, allowing its interview subjects to expound upon all kinds of different angles, some related directly to the book, some more tangential in nature. Some of the interview subjects, for instance, put The Rings of Saturn in the context of post-WWII literature in general, suggesting that Sebald may have been trying to dip into history in order to implicitly critique both German society and the world after the atrocities of that major conflict. Others place it in the same literary “pilgrimage” tradition of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Kerouac’s On the Road; Gee’s film, likewise, could be said to be a road movie in the sense that it’s structured around the filmmaker’s own attempt to recreate the path Sebald charts in the book. (Fittingly, one of the interview subjects refers to an essay Sebald once wrote about Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road.)
Patience is a rarity: a wide-ranging piece of literary criticism brought to vivid cinematic life, bursting with ideas—some of them elaborations on Sebald, others more tangential in nature—and inspired visual translations of them. It will surely be a feast for those who are already at least somewhat familiar with The Rings of Saturn and Sebald’s work in general; Gee’s film, among its many achievements, offers valuable context for a more in-depth appreciation of the book. For others, the film will still work as a heady, tantalizing introduction—hardly a replacement for reading the book, but nevertheless a film that will make one want to dive into it as soon as possible.