Lauded by some critics – the kind who tend to like my own work – as a masterpiece, Chantal Akerman’s 1993 D’Est managed to elude me until this past week, when I got a DVD and screened it for a class here. I’ve seen a handful of her films – those I vaguely recall were seemingly light comedies of manner (Toute une Nuit, Man with a Suitcase), and, I think but honestly don’t recall, that I saw some decades late, Jeanne Dielmann, though perhaps I confuse seeing it with reading about it. If I did see it, which I think I did, I didn’t much like it – too easy an out to take a knife and kill the John, and the prelude seemed needlessly long and mechanistic. And a few others but I am not sure which. The last one I saw was shot in an apartment in Israel, and had Akerman saying she couldn’t go out, and went on and on, boringly so, fitting Jonathan Rosenbaum’s over all view that her films are marked with a “melancholic narcissism.” Overall, from what I’ve seen, I have found Akerman rather over-rated in the arcane little hot-house world of festivals and critics. But then that seems part of the function of that world. I awaited watching D’Est with a bit of trepidation, hoping it wouldn’t be a bad thing to show my students.
I’ll quote from some of the critics first, starting with Jonathan Rosenbaum:
Chantal Akerman’s haunting 1993 masterpiece documents without commentary or dialogue her several-months-long trip from east Germany to Moscow—a tough and formally rigorous inventory of what the former Soviet bloc looks and feels like today. Akerman’s painterly penchant for finding Edward Hopper wherever she goes has never been more obvious; this travelogue seemingly offers vistas any alert tourist could find yet delivers a series of images and sounds that are impossible to shake later: the countless tracking shots, the sense of people forever waiting, the rare occurrence of a plaintive offscreen violin over an otherwise densely ambient sound track, static glimpses of roadside sites and domestic interiors, the periphery of an outdoor rock concert, a heavy Moscow snowfall, a crowded terminal where weary people and baggage are huddled together like so many dropped handkerchiefs. The only other film I know that imparts such a vivid sense of being somewhere is the Egyptian section of Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late. Everyone goes to movies in search of events, but the extraordinary events in Akerman’s sorrowful, intractable film are the shots themselves—the everyday recorded by a powerful artist with an acute eye and ear.
And then Dennis Grunes:
The most brilliant film from anywhere in the 1990s, D’Est (From the East) is the work of Chantal Äkerman, the world’s greatest Belgian-born filmmaker, the world’s greatest woman filmmaker, and the world’s greatest living Jewish filmmaker. Along with Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, Äkerman is cinema’s reigning humanist, and for more than thirty years she has been going back and forth between documentary and fiction, although her documentaries are highly dramatic and her fictions sometimes seem documentary, and she often lands in some magical space in-between. Like Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (1934), D’Est is a photographic essay, a visual survey, of humanity. [See this for the rest of his review.]
Having visited the Soviet Union a few weeks in winter of 1985, before the fall, and also East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and later again Russia, and the Czech Republic and Hungary and Estonia, I can attest to the veracity of Akerman’s images of a desolate world, somnolent people seemingly hanging on just to survive. Akerman’s trip, which took her from late summer/autumn through Poland, the Baltics, and then into Moscow in winter, was recorded in 35mm, mostly with a 50mm to 70 mm lens. The images have a stolid compression from this lens choice, lending a visual sense of restriction and claustrophobia, even when out of doors. After an open passage of daytime and sunlight the film shifts to hazy rain, then snow, and then dawn or dusk or night-time light, the color desaturated by fogs and mist or snow, and also by the end-of-the-line poverty of the Soviet empire. Interiors are awash in yellowed light, faded decor of kitsch and peeling paints. Similarly the people who populate this world are worn, though women seem mostly to brighten their pasty faces with garish make-up, and men theirs with the red wash of booze.
Akerman’s cinematic language is limited, commencing with primarily static camera shots, held a good time, then introducing tracking shots (from a car it would appear), slow and irregular in pace, left to right, right to left. At first these are interspersed with static shots, but slowly the moving camera takes prominence, then including forward and backward dollying movements (again from a vehicle), but also including one 700 degree panning shot in a train station, and a few other short pans or tilts. Cumulatively Akerman orchestrates these sluggish movements as a kind of hypnotic visual music, the pacing seeming to fit the dull walking pace of the figures whom she follows and likewise the dilapidated urban and rural scenery. Again and again the camera passes grim townscapes, and their equally grim occupants, figures in fur hats and heavy coats bundled against the cold. High-rise housing complexes loom in the yellowed light, snow streams down, and again the camera passes by the faces, some ignoring the lens, some performing idiotically for it, some pretending to ignore but their eyes flicking up as it passes, and some resisting, hiding their faces. These tracking shots recur in places of transit – a railway station, queues at a bus station, figures standing forlornly in a market displaying their paltry goods for sale. Towards the film’s conclusion the camera returns no less than 3 times to the same bus station, slowly tracking by long clustered lines of faces, drooping bodies, taking a corner and then picking up yet another line of similarly desolate figures – in the morning, a gray daytime, night. Interspersed among these tracking shots are interiors – a woman in her kitchen fixing some sausage, a singer in a dance club belting out a song while couples dance before them, people in their houses. Quotidian images of life in the eastern bloc, circa 1990. Unifying all these are an aesthetic consistency of color, light, and the slightly compressed spatial qualities of Akerman’s lens choice. For some additional stitching, a few times external music or other sounds come to accompany the muffled ambient sounds of the shots themselves. As a quasi-climax to the film there is a long shot of a woman playing a cello in a concert hall, and then receiving bouquets of roses; though following this once again come tracking shots on the streets. And then, abruptly, the film stops.
I found the film mesmerizing, the cadence of its minimalist sequence of cinematic shots working into a rhythmic system that in a sense discards time, and the simple powers of the images – solid, plain, enigmatic – coupling with sufficient force to hold my attentions. Or more exactly to lose my attentions enough to let my mind wander, busily filling in the near-blank cinematic sheet before me: Akerman in a sense gives very little, though what she gives provides enough suggestive power for the viewer’s mind to swarm with thoughts. In my case thoughts already well-worked from my own passages through the East Bloc, as well as through 2nd hand variants in films, books, essays. Thoughts about lives stunted and distorted by an ideological system such as that which ruled Russia and Eastern Europe, and then about how something similar exists in my own country, America. In forswearing either narrative or an explicative voice-over Akerman opens her imagery to such thinking, and for those either experienced in the world she depicts, or given to such inner reflection, the film offers a ripe field. Critics naturally scurry in to fill in the blanks with innumerable speculations, most of which show more about themselves than what is on screen. For those for whom guidance is a requirement a film such as this is doubtless quickly boring and pointless.
Fortunately it seemed my class for the most part liked the film a lot, perhaps even more than I did. I found the ending arbitrary and in a way lazy, as if Akerman and her editor had grown exhausted with yet another tracking shot, and decided “Enough!” and simply stopped the film. One student intellectualized this, citing a somewhat earlier shot on a snow covered Moscow boulevard in which the camera looked back, a “natural” ending, and he suggested to have ended there would have reduced the film to a travelogue – we came, we left. I can see an intellectual logic to this, but not a good excuse for Akerman’s abrupt The End. The film had symphonic aspects, but it was as if for a conclusion she simply deleted the last movement.
For some other views and thoughts see Acquarello at Strictly Film School, the NYTimes review of an installation version of this film, an art review of the same installation, and a decent review for a DVD of the film.