I FIRST VISITED the filmmaker Chantal Akerman in 1989two years before I was named director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolisto propose that she document the seismic changes taking place in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the imminent dissolution of the Soviet Union. I wasn’t interested in journalism’s objective pose so much as in the close intertwining of the personal and the political found in Akerman’s films, such as her influential three-hour-and-twenty-two-minute Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Since intimacy was at the center of all her films, despite the distance imposedand disinterestedness presumably engenderedby the medium shots she preferred, I imagined she could make a work that gave this unfolding history the peculiarity and texture of a diary. By locating meaning in the smallest details of those repetitive acts and patterns that constitute a woman’s day, Akerman had turned the mundane into an epic of heartbreaking tenderness. I thought she was courageous in both what she filmed and how she did it. When I discovered that the budget for that masterpiece had been $120,000, I immediately booked a flight to Paris.
Akerman listened, squinting at me through a haze of cigarette smoke. She was seductive without being glamorous; the absolute absence of pretense and the febrile abundance of ideas were what drew me closer. Soon after our meeting, she outlined her nomadic intentions: “While there’s still time, I would like to make a grand journey across Eastern Europe. . . . [I’d like to film] countries that have shared a common history since the war and are still deeply marked by this history, even in the very contours of the earth. Countries now embarking on different paths.”1 I’m not certain exactly what Akerman feared she would miss, but since both her parents were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, it’s likely she had been considering how best to halt, at least for the length of a feature film, the erosion of the telling specificity that makes history memorable. While she fully understood the barbaric sweep of World War II, she tended to focus on quiet but telling particulars, such as the way her parents, like many of their generation, hesitated to explain the numbers tattooed on her mother’s arm. Their taciturnity proved a generative yet punishing and enduringly melancholy force for Akerman, who opens her film Histoires d’Amérique (American Stories, 1989) with the refrain “My own story is full of missing links, full of blanks, and I do not even have a child.”2 She sought to make pictures that would stop any discussion of evil from becoming an academic argument based on circumstantial evidence rather than on personal experience. The slow-moving, almost amatory pace of her films suggests she was prepared to use her camera to patiently probe every crack in modernity’s facade, looking for ways to stop the loss of memory that accompanies the inevitable unspooling of time or, more tragically, the willed repression of individual and collective memory. This was the emotional terrain she proposed to traverse.
Making D’Est (From the East, 1993), as her film would come to be titled, Akerman knew early on to focus her lens not on change but instead on stasis, on states of being shaped by the resignation she observed, despite the promises of glasnost, across East Germany, Poland, and the USSR. Her gaze is sympathetic but unrelenting; as the nebulous light of late summer fades into wintery clouds of frozen breath, she continues to track slowly past groups of people doing the same thing over and over or waiting in endless lines. Everyone looks weary, emptied of private wishes and desire. There are scenes of women stooping to harvest potatoes by hand as their ancestors had for centuries. They are old or at least appear so; it’s as if the labor their survival demands has extinguished all distinctions and drained away even the faintest expression of youthful insouciance. They are suspended in time. A six-minute tracking shot of people waiting at night for their tram is interrupted only by an occasional burst of Russian words or the crunch of snow underfoot. A woman, participating in an ad hoc open-air market where any personal goods that could be spared are for sale, offers a piece of sausage so small it wouldn’t stave off hunger for long. Families, bundled up against the cold, wait for their trains in a once-grand Moscow station; there are no smiles.
“Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est,” the director’s first museum installation, was realized over a six-year period. When the commission was completed and installed at the Walker in 1995, it occupied three contiguous but distinct galleries. The viewer, like the artist, commits to a long journey, stopping first to view the entire 110-minute, 16-mm film (with ambient sound but no dialogue) projected on a large, freestanding screen; then wandering among a maze of eight sets of three monitors placed on waist-high bases, each machine playing a different four-minute video excerpt of the film, thus spatializing the technique of cross-cutting; and, finally, sitting in a small room lit only by a monitor on the floor displaying a murky video image of streetlamps at night. We hear (but do not see) someone reading in Hebrew and French the second commandment, which prohibits making graven images, as well as notes that guided the making of D’Est. This layering and looping of divine and secular incantations, without beginning or end, is accompanied by the Kol Nidre, music that is repeated three times to welcome those who arrive late for the service on Yom Kippur, when Jews ask forgiveness for their sins and mourn the dead. We come to realize the voice belongs to Akerman.
In this dark and introspective setting, one feels as if one has entered in the midst of an argument the artist is having with herself. Akerman was only too aware that the prohibitions of the second commandment engendered a self-consciousness that, in easily sliding into censure, complicated the way forward for Jewish artists. Similarly, Adorno’s thoughts on the blankness brought about by the impossibility of making poetry after Auschwitz seem to me inextricably linked both to the reticence born of the survivor’s guilt experienced by those, such as Nelly Akerman, who endured the ceaseless horror of Auschwitz and to the fever for stories that unspoken history left in children such as Chantal. So, while it’s not hard to imagine that Akerman found momentary comfort in the writings of those rabbinic authorities who believed the second commandment allowed for the creation of incomplete images of the human form, her explanation of the fragmentary nature of all images was based on her belief that they were never able “to say what the people [depicted] have gone through.”3 This suggests she imagined that her films, like her life, were full of blanks and, consequently, wanting. Sadly, the answers she provided herself, composed equally of the philosophical and the personal, did not relieve the doubt, hesitations, or pain. Indeed, while she described the multiple viewpoints contained in “Bordering on Fiction” as freeing her from the tyranny of the screening room, it is impossible not to recall her explanation of Jeanne Dielman as “a film about space and time . . . and about how you organize your life in order to have no free time at all so that you don’t let anxiety and the feeling of death come in and submerge you.”4
Time stopped on October 5, 2015, when the artist took her own life shortly after releasing the morosely titled No Home Movie, a tribute to her dying mother made with a consumer-grade digital camera that sometimes captured only the blurry, pixelated shadow of the protagonist as she talked to her daughter on Skype. The film is composed of everyday conversations on topics ranging from anti-Semitism to whether it’s best to remove the skin of potatoes before cooking them. Perhaps Akerman was preparing herself for the impending loss by memorializing both large and intimate details of a mother and daughter’s communication. But she knew better than anyone I can think of that any film is finite and only a partial story; no life can be restored. Shortly after her mother died, Akerman mourned the loss of her sense of home as well, a loss that gave her peripatetic ways an awful permanence.
In 2004, the artist Christian Boltanski, in favorably reviewing the D’Est installation, wrote, “Chantal Akerman is a woman who is compelled to make the dead speak and she does it through art.”5 While she has left us behind, we remain listening and looking, waiting to fully understand Akerman’s work and words as they continue to speak to us. Now we understand that the title No Home Movie has at least two meanings, depending on where the emphasis is placed. Despite its domestic frame, this film is not a home movie. Most poignantly, this great artist felt homeless, unmoored. I only wish we had been able to replace her doubled negative with a collective yes, signaling our devotion and, perhaps, a way home again.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and a box set comprising five of Chantal Akerman’s early films (Chantal Akerman in the Seventies) are available in the US from the Criterion Collection.
Kathy Halbreich is associate director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I am very grateful to my collaborators Catherine David, Michael Tarantino, and Bruce Jenkins, without whom “Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est” would likely have remained unfinished. Their writings on the artist prompted important memories as I wrote this.
3. “On Absence and Imagination in Documentary Film: An Open Discussion with Chantal Akerman” (lecture, European Graduate School, Leuk-Stadt, Switzerland, June 2001).
4. From the chronology to Jenkins, Bordering on Fiction, 69.
5. Christian Boltanski, “‘Histoires d’Amérique’ et ‘D’Est’,” in Chantal Akerman: Autoportrait en cinéaste, ed. Claudine Paquot (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma/Centre Pompidou, 2004), 202. Translation by Martin Perdoux.