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.
Although Äkerman’s masterpiece defies categorization, it is a kind of “road picture.” For it, Äkerman herself took to the road, traveling from Germany to Poland to Moscow, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She explains that she had always wanted to make a film about “the diaspora of the Eastern European Jews,” and that, in a transfigured form, D’Est became for her that film, for, in each human face she encountered along the way, she felt the history with which she was investing it—a history including the Jewish ordeal of Hitler and the death camps and of Josef Stalin, the former candidate for priesthood whose anti-Semitism was actually more authentic (by which I mean less politically motivated) than Hitler’s. Road pictures are drifty things reflecting the impermanence and uprootedness of human lives, and in the sustained ironical technique by which Äkerman’s film proceeds it’s the “impermanence” and “uprootedness” of her own traveling and tracking camera that, destabilizing figures in often stationary positions, transforms them into a metaphor for lost and scattered Jewry—the most moving use of a moving camera I have ever encountered. Äkerman also films people walking, and this motion of theirs contributes to the same thematic result. It doesn’t matter how few, if any, of these people are actually Jewish, for Äkerman’s own Jewishness, and her reflections on the historic plight of European Jews, invest what she sees as a visionary with the thematic import she pursues as an artist.
Another aspect to this is the darkness of night in which Äkerman films much of what she sees, for instance, in Moscow streets. Headed for home carrying packages that imply rootedness and deliberation, people seem by the determination of their stride to be doing their best to push their way out of the darkness that nevertheless dogs them and is enveloping them. If one is of a literal mind, one can watch this and see little or nothing; but, once drawn into the film’s metaphorical, which is to say, spiritual life, one is overwhelmed by a circumstance so enormous it’s as if one were “feeling history” for the first time. The black of night in this film resonates with a sense of the eternal tragedy of Jewry: the home or even the life always being taken away—the nothingness to which the rest of the world is ever poised to consign Jews by scattering either them or their ashes to the winds. Äkerman’s irony embraces the idea that those whom she films here, who are seemingly hewing to a sure, steady course, are contesting their fate as wanderers or are in denial that this is their fate and their history. Closer to the surface, the Soviet Union has ended but its former citizens, apparently unfazed, go on with their mundane lives. They also are scattered to the winds, and therefore the continuation of ordinary existence cocoons them from this sea-change while Äkerman’s camera penetrates and deconstructs the event of their survival.
For the most part, Äkerman employs two kinds of shots in D’Est, tracking shots and static shots. Her long tracking shots, among the most beautiful I have seen, are correlative both to her own (topographic, emotional, spiritual) journey and to the uprootedness of her camera subjects, which, by ironic dint of her travels, she shares. Äkerman tracks through railway depots and through streets, alternating between humans in a kind of limbo, between their lives, as it were, and people, as Carl Sandburg would have it in his great American poem “Limited,” who are certain they are headed, by train, for Omaha, which in fact is only their most immediate destination. Perhaps the most piercing element in these trackings arrives very late in the film, on a Moscow street, when the camera passes a young boy (at one point the boy stretches back from the extreme right of the frame as if unsure about continuing on his way screen-left), finds him again, alongside a woman we also have seen before, and then loses him forever as we strain in anticipation to see him again, as if his future and ours depended on our reunion. Nothing so crystallizes the sense of impermanence that permeates this film than this little drama which is embedded in the flux of urban pedestrians all making their way to Sandburg’s Omaha. D’Est is a film populated by ghosts whose substantial reality provides an index of the depth of humanity that, metaphorically, has been lost.
Most of the static shots are interior shots, in people’s homes, and some of these find people, including children, in fixed poses, while others are engaged in repetitive activities. One such scene recalls similarly obsessive kitchen scenes from both Äkerman’s Je tu il elle (1974) and her tremendous Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975): a woman, seated at a kitchen table, slices a salami and some bread, slicing and slicing, and intermittently eating only a little bit (but with relish!). Do people do this? Perhaps rarely, if at all; but much of what we do amounts to doing this and things like this, and in all these interior shots Äkerman captures a sense of the routines and compulsive behaviors that people employ to curb frustrations and uncertainties and assuage loneliness. In line with this, a television set, usually playing, appears in these interior scenes.
One of the earliest static shots in D’Est—it comes close to opening the film—shows a boy in his late teens or twenties seated on a roadside bench, presumably waiting for a bus. He is wearing a red tank top, and behind him, on the vertical slats of a wooden fence framing his head, are painted red markings. Throughout the film, dabs of red punctuate nearly every shot, appearing quite often as an item of apparel, for instance. (In the film’s rural scenes, fluttering trees, in long shot, evoke the ephemeral and evanescent nature of existence.) Late in the film, the seemingly purposeless boy has been replaced by a concert cellist, who, after her seated performance, is gifted from the audience with bouquet after bouquet of red roses. Numerous nighttime shots in the film are bathed in a reddish glow, while others favor dusky blues that stress the film’s twilit sense of the eternal. (The film’s two principal color cinematographers are Bernard Deville and Raymond Fromont, and their work is wondrous.) On one level, Äkerman’s repeated use of red suggests the lifeblood of the people she essays, their determination to persist and survive, if not quite their ability to prevail. This is another way of saying, perhaps, that red is armament against the drabness and crushing oppressiveness of life. On the other hand, in ironic counterpoint to this, red evokes a sense of spilt blood, suggesting as much the forces arrayed against humanity as humanity’s quickened response to these. And, of course, red throughout, by its association with Communism, continually reminds us of time and place, and the end of the Soviet Union.
Time is a strange thing in this film. Some visual points of punctuation disclose the time in which the film was shot, the early 1990s, but for the most part there is washing over everything a sense that the human lives we see haven’t budged from the 1930s. D’Est is saturated with a sense of the past, implying that a connection with the past has in some sense held people back from their future. On the level of Soviet reference, this may suggest an ideological nostalgia contesting a nation’s ability to adapt and grow. On the level of Jewish reference, a more dire suggestion arises: the extent to which, by isolating and targeting Jews, the world has helped create a community whose insularity became a defense against eradication. On the other hand, some moments vividly juxtapose time references. In one scene, for instance, a pop singer, wearing a mini-skirt, performs on stage with a band while couples below dance in tentative rock fashion, among them a woman whose very long skirt seems to belong to a time of long-since abandoned modesty. In D’Est time yields to unspecified time yields to intimations of timelessness.
There is almost no dialogue in the film (at least in the VHS version I own), and what dialogue there is isn’t translated, allowing us to share Äkerman’s foreign journey. It’s a solemn world we enter, one certainly not without joy, but a world caught somewhere in between earth and eternity, hope and hopelessness, despair and fortitude. It’s a world of sounds and background noise, but the camera records the silence of faces—the gap between what they show and what they hide. On Yasujiro Ozu’s tombstone, American maverick filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has informed us, Chinese characters appear whose “rough translation” is “the space between all things.” Äkerman’s camera captures the space between all people, even when they are jostling one another in a crowd, as well as the space between all things that make up a person, an identity, or the elusive, perhaps illusionary appearance of identity. There is no rhetoric of humanity in Äkerman’s films; somehow, like Ozu, in fact, Äkerman is peculiarly capable of showing us in each person whom her camera passes over the individual’s silent participation in the aggregate of humanity. There is a universe in each grain of humanity.
Äkerman’s extraordinary use of camera would appear to stylize the humanity that her camera discovers, but, to an unprecedented degree, her human subjects react to the camera in their midst in all kinds of self-dramatizing ways. The net result is a film that is, at once, pure cinema and pure humanity. Post-D’Est, no one can be so foolish as to think that one precludes the other. Perhaps the fullest measure of the humane film that Äkerman has wrought is this: we keenly feel the loss of each face, each soul, the camera passes by, and, because there are so many of these souls in the film, we are never passive in watching the film, for we are always catching up with it.
Äkerman has given us such wonderful films: Hotel Monterey (1972), Jeanne Dielman, News from Home (1977), Toute une nuit (1982), La captive (2000). But D’Est towers over these and almost everything else by everyone else.
It is from Belgium, France and Portugal.
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