In search of lost culture

Chantal Akerman

By Peter Hulm
This article was written for Global Geneva's autumn/fall 2018 edition on cultural genocide. The career of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, I suggest, points to the unusual ways that culture can survive the worst oppression, even when all we have left is an absence and the sense of loss of a community.

I was shocked to learn that the film director Chantal Akerman had killed herself in 2015, dying in Paris at the age of 65, after being hospitalized shortly before with depression. Though I didn't know her well at all, even as an acquaintance I felt I had failed to be a good enough friend to her.

Not that it would have made any difference. 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.

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

The Varda/Akerman magic

In truth, I would love to claim to have been her friend. She taught a couple of classes I took at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee at the beginning of the century. But Chantal Akerman was one of those people who have the gift of meeting you at whatever level you approach 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 as a creative genius. The first film-maker of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda, whom I also met briefly at Saas-Fee, possesses the same magic and indeed makes films as unclassifiably personal and documentary in her "fictions" as Akerman’s.

I got to know Akerman while taking a Ph.D. at the European Graduate School as an ageing journalist who had finally determined to confront all the challenges of postmodernism and postmodernists. Akerman confessed she could not give us theory. She insisted on her instinctive approach to film-making, as she elsewhere explained: "I don’t have an idea," she said in 1983. "I have a feeling that I try to express."

To be fair, I’ve hardly seen a tenth of her 45 films, not even the movie that made her famous and even notorious 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 "first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema" and 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 including 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 sympathetic critics have noted, though descriptions of her films make them sound boring, they are unfailingly full of "tension, vigour and purpose" (Max Nelson in The New York Review of Books, 8 June 2018). 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.

The earliest full-length study of Akerman I know, by Ivone Margulies, is entitled Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (1996)*. For me, that misses the point of Akerman’s 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 Chantal Akerman focuses on the destruction and boredom of the cultures in which we live. She told me Jean-Luc Godard turned her onto making films, and her first movie Saute ma ville (1968), filmed when she was under 18, has Godard’s 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 From the East/De l’Est (1992) 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-German culture that nevertheless 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 "that I think bring a sort of peace". Jeanne kills to restore her safe, dead world of ritual, just as the East Europeans of From the East bury their disturbing past.

"I never set out to film anything related to the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe," she said. "But once I finished editing, I realized that 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 of this happened, somehow, in the work. I didn't intend it, but it's there."

Writing in 1997, Forward magazine described De l'Est 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 reason," wrote the uncredited critic in the 21 February 1997 edition. "Occasionally," the author 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 at the same time," she told the Forward. "In my home," she explained, "we ate the foods 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

I am reminded by From the East of a fellow Belgian’s words on China after the Cultural Revolution. Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) said: "The [...] past is both spiritually active and physically invisible" (The New York Review of Books, 28 June 2018, p40).

Akerman’s later films, after her encounter with Isaac Bashevis Singer and her rereading of Kafka (a Jew whose Jewishness was similarly almost completely suppressed), 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.

We can find parallels in another lecturer I met at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee: Claude Lanzmann, who died in July 2018 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, and do not require visual evidence to move us. Chantal Akerman's exemplary recording of the banal and unremarkable vestiges of culture tell us that history, however fragmentary, once discovered, can never be unlearned. Destroying Buddhist statues does not make the world secure for fundamentalist Islam. If anything it suggests intolerance from fear rather than strength.#

* This phrase reappeared in a different form in my doctoral dissertation on atrocity and celebrity, but with reference to W.H. Auden’s declaration that "poetry makes nothing happen". My emphasis was on the nothing that was made to happen, as in funerals, ex-President Reagan’s in my text, where his abuses of power were airbrushed out of the picture, and John Kerry’s Presidential campaign video that obliterated his first wife from official memory.

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