Shooting of the documentary "Grandmothers" by Chantal Ackerman, within the framework of the television program "Dis I"

Perhaps I should not have been shocked to learn that Belgian film director Chantal Akerman had killed herself in October 2015, dying in Paris at the age of 65 after being hospitalized shortly before with depression. She’d given ample notice that suicide was on her agenda. “I’ve often wanted to kill myself,” she wrote in her memoir Ma mère rit (2013). “But I told myself I could not do that to my mother. Afterwards, when she’s not there anymore,” she writes. No Home Movie (2015), Chantal’s last film, records her mother’s rapid decline and death at the age of 86.

Chantal’s mother, Natalie Akerman, a Polish Jew who had survived Auschwitz and emigrated to Brussels, apparently would declare “without anyone having asked”, that she no longer remembered much Polish. This proved to be a key statement for Chantal Akerman in her work that became more and more focused on the relationship between mother and daughter. So much so that in 2011, she said: “The only subject of my films is my mother.”

The Varda/Akerman magic

In truth, I didn’t know Chantal Akerman very well. She taught a couple of classes I took at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee nearly two decades ago. But she had the gift of meeting you at whatever level you approached her. She humorously allowed me to take a picture of her staring at a pair of shoes (in acknowledgement of one of her colleagues, Sandy Stone, and an ironic parody of Heidegger’s hymn to Van Gogh’s painting of peasant footwear).  She refused to put on any airs. The first film-maker of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda, whom I also met at Saas-Fee, possesses the same magic and indeed makes films as unclassifiably personal and documentary in her “fictions” as Akerman’s.

As part of her course, Akerman confessed that she could not give us theory. She insisted on her instinctive approach to film-making: “I don’t have an idea,” she once said. “I have a feeling that I try to express.”

From the film Jeanne Dielman.

To be fair, I’ve hardly seen one tenth of her 45 films, not even the one that made her famous at 24: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a 201-minute opus consisting of “real-time” domestic chores carried out by a part-time sex-worker and mother, e.g, making beds, peeling potatoes and kneading veal. The New York Times described it as the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema”. The Village Voice put it at 19th in its greatest movies of the 20th century. It helped make Akerman a substantial influence on feminist and avant-garde filmmakers, such as Gus Van Sant and Sofia Coppola in the United States.

Jeanne Dielman starred Delphine Seyrig, but Akerman has often been the major player in her own films. “I can’t have actresses playing my clumsiness,” she explained. “It seems impossible for me to be in a restaurant without knocking something over: my gestures are too large, or I’m pursuing my thoughts and get startled.”

No, not boring

As Max Nelson – and other sympathetic critics – recently noted in The New York Review of Books, while descriptions of her films make them sound boring, they are unfailingly full of “tension, vigour and purpose”. Jeanne Dielman shows us the disintegration of a single mother’s practised rituals. Critic Piers Marchant this year placed it second in the list of his top five films, giving it 9.3 out of 10 and five out of five for relevance.

Chantal Akerman.

The earliest full-length study of Akerman I know, entitled Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (1996) by Ivone Margulies, misses the point of her filmmaking. It is impossible for nothing to happen, even if that seems to be the story (and Jeanne Dielman ends in an unexpected act of violence). As Chantal insisted later, it took a lot of rehearsal to give the impression of acts taking the time they would in real life.

What has not been enough noted is the way in which Akerman focuses on the destruction and boredom of the cultures we live. She told me that Jean-Luc Godard had inspired her to make films, and her first movie Saute ma ville (1968), filmed when she was under 18, has Godard’s Buster Keatonesque melancholic sense of humour about a girl’s setting fire to a room that ends in the destruction of a city (I say girl because it is treated as the gesture of an adolescent).

Home without history

Fourteen years later she went back to the parts of the world her parents had escaped – Russia, Poland and East Germany. Originally, says Max Nelson, Chantal Akerman planned to make a film about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. But what she found was an absence of history though everywhere she went “it was almost like home, or near enough – the same food on my table that my mother always made.”

What she brought home to put together in her 1992 film From the East (De l’Est) was a collection of landscapes, interiors and people – “snowy roads and sidewalks, tenants sitting in living rooms or watching television, middle-aged women cooking, dancers taking to the floor in a gloomy recreation hall, a pianist rehearsing at home, a cellist playing onstage” (Nelson): “No one speaks” – and none shows any memory of the Jewish-Polish culture that permeates the landscape without ever being evoked. It is remembered by its absence and somehow Akerman fills the screen with a yearning sense of poignancy for a flat culture she would loved to have claimed as her own.

The link with Akerman’s Jewish background was palpable. She even described the domestic chores in Jeanne Dielman as echoes of Jewish ritual life that had been abandoned or lost. For her, it brought “a sort of peace.” Jeanne kills to restore her safe, dead world of tradition, just as the East Europeans of From the East bury their disturbing past.

Akerman never set out to film anything related to the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe, she maintained. “But once I finished editing, I realized that the traces of the concentration camp experience were present in those images. The trains, the people with packages and luggage, waiting, motionless, like lines of deportees. All this happened, somehow, in the work. I didn’t intend it, but it’s there.”

In 1997, Forward magazine described From the East as “a minimalist road movie”. Filmed just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1989 revolutions, “Akerman focuses her lens on the faces of people caught in post-perestroika stasis, waiting at train depots and bus kiosks, in interminable lines, often for no discernible reasons,” wrote the uncredited critic. “Occasionally,” the writer adds, “they notice the camera, but more often they seem mesmerized by the social paralysis and creeping despair that surround them. The images stream past without commentary or interviews, mimicking the flow of time itself.”

“What I feel for Eastern Europe is like what Freud calls the ‘uncanny’, the sense of something at once strange and familiar, attractive and repellent…,” she told the Forward. “In my home,” she explained, “we ate the food of Eastern Europe. The way we dressed and talked all came from there. For a long time as a child, I thought that was how all Belgians lived. Only later did I come to understand the difference.”

Spiritually active but invisible

All this reminds me of a fellow Belgian’s words on China after the Cultural Revolution. According to Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), the past there is “both spiritually active and physically invisible” (The New York Review of Books, 28 June 2018, p40).

After her encounter with Isaac Bashevis Singer and her re-reading of Kafka (a Jew whose Jewishness was similarly almost completely suppressed), Akerman’s later films were able to focus more directly on her “cultural” inheritance, though far removed from any religious feeling or doctrines. Between 1968 and at least 1993 she was able to explore the way in which culture in modern life is often bland and flavourless (the 62-min silent Hotel Monterey from 1972 is one of my deadpan favourites) while burying, but always inadequately, all outward vestiges of the culture that has been suppressed. This, it seems to me, has been the history of African-American cultures, particularly evidenced in jazz, not to speak of New Orleans voodoo*.

We can find parallels in another lecturer I met in Saas-Fee: Claude Lanzmann, who died earlier this year at 92. A teenage Resistance fighter in the Massif Central, Lanzmann became a film chronicler of the Shoah against Jews and other unwelcome minorities during the Third Reich. Lanzmann, too, refused to restage the scenes of slaughter and oppression in Poland from 1940 to 1944 or to reproduce the few photos available of concentration camps. He filmed only the achingly beautiful scenery of today that covers the past century’s fields of horror.

Both filmmakers have given us a reminder that cultures are not as easily obliterated or forgotten as dictators and oppressors would want to believe. Nor does it require visual evidence to move us. What survives, triumphantly, is Chantal Akerman’s exemplary recording of the banal and unremarkable vestiges of culture in a history that, however fragmentary, once discovered, can never be unlearned.

The Criterion Collection offers a number of Chantal Akerman’s films, including Jeanne Dielman.

Update

  • For a more positive view of the local response to cultural repression in New Orleans, see Gary Wills’s brilliant New York Review of Books article in the 4 April 2019 edition. [LINK]

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