aka: From the East
Belgium France Portugal (107 mi) 1993 d: Chantal Akerman Official site [United States]
With Chantal, everything seemed so easy. For D’Est (1993), we went from Brussels to Odessa by car. Sometimes we drove the whole day without shooting anything. Then, all of a sudden, she would say, “We’re getting out” and she would direct one shot. It is only now that I realise this. She used to say she was lazy. She had a joyous energy and a phenomenal capacity for hard work.
—Marilyn Watelet, December 9, 2015, With Chantal • Senses of Cinema
Chantal Akerman is Jewish, lesbian, a French-speaking Belgian, and a major artist, who among all things is totally anti-commercial, and defiantly so, where there are major walk-outs in some of her films, especially this one, as she refuses to conform to other people’s expectations. Arguably her best film, though never receiving anything like the critical praise for Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles (1976), which is decidedly more impactful and influential, but this film is completely original, where there’s nothing else like it, defiantly unconventional, made by a free-spirited artist, where it feels lightyears ahead of its time. In a hundred years, maybe 500, perhaps people will begin to understand. If an alien came down from another planet, nothing would explain what it is to be human any better than this film, which literally immerses the viewer in a sea of humanity. No filmmaker, from the Lumière brothers to today, could duplicate this film if they tried, as they could not capture the textures that Akerman creates, including a vividly expressive sound design that is a mix of what was captured live on the scene, but additionally music is superimposed over the track, interspersed throughout the film, some coming from outdoor speakers at beerhalls or an outdoor concert, but also a radio offscreen, a record player, or a television, adding invisible layers underneath. Notes Andréa Picard from Cinema Scope, Winter/Spring 2010, Columns | Film Art | Orphans and Maniacs: Chantal Akerman's Maniac ..., “A recent viewing of a gorgeous 16mm print of D’Est (1993) not only convinced me that it’s her greatest film, but that her love of the world and her ability to be moved (by faces, landscapes, movement, music, etc…) is itself heartrending, like a reflection of meaning that inheres in, but also gives generously to the viewer.” Shot after the fall of Communism, the Berlin Wall, and the breakup of the Soviet Union, when the Eastern bloc started falling apart, Akerman traveled through East Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Russia, eventually making her way to Moscow in three trips during 1992 and 1993, capturing life as it is lived, articulating reality and truth through a wordless photographic essay in the manner of Vertov’s cinema of truth, which later became cinéma vérité, comprised of a continuous montage of images and sounds from unspecified locations, like a symphonic construction, contrasting long and short sequences, street scenes and lone individuals, indoor and outdoor, day and night, from the end of summer to deepest winter, using fixed camera positions and what seems like endless tracking shots, along with silence, musical excerpts, and natural sound, becoming a personal as well as collective history, all without dialogue or commentary.
While my own favorite endorsement comes from Stuart Klawans, long-time film critic for The Nation: “If this isn’t a masterpiece, tear the word from your dictionary.” Listed as #3 on J. Hoberman’s Best Films of the 90’s, J. Hoberman's Top Ten Lists 1977-2006 - alumnus.alumni.caltech.edu, making Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 90’s list as well, Jonathan Rosenbaum's Top Ten Lists 1974-2006, the film opens optimistically from solitary images to the hustle and bustle of city streets in the afternoon sunshine, or patrons listening to blaring music while drinking beer at a seaside setting before the camera also curiously moves indoors to private moments of individuals alone, capturing small portraits, still life’s, resembling moving paintings, before day turns to night, returning back to vividly alive street scenes, with pedestrians, trains, and trolley cars, where offscreen sounds turn into an outdoor rock concert, with young kids dancing outdoors in coats, chantal akerman - d'est (1993) - lviv part - YouTube (6:22). While the film mainly consists of elongated tracking shots of waiting crowds, where hundreds of people are standing around, presumably waiting for a bus, but it would take dozens of buses to collect this many people, and the few glimpses of buses that we do see are packed tightly together like sardines, or Tokyo commuter trains. Presumably shot from a car, though always steady, slowly moving, where every single person in the shot has a relationship with the camera, some very agitated and disturbed, talking angrily, others offer only brief glances, like looking up from a newspaper, with some quickly moving out of the frame, though a few curiously follow the camera, even as it moves, while others boldly stare, for long periods of time, always viewed as a curiosity, like something out of place, as if an alien had just dropped down from the heavens. Most people walking normally move faster than the tracking speed, which allows the viewer a studious glimpse of each and everyone that appears before the camera, becoming a cavalcade of faces, voices, creating a kind of living art, like a painting that comes alive with people moving within their own environment, with the natural sounds creating circular layers on top of layers, continually filling up the empty space on a constantly evolving canvas. Easily Akerman’s most humane work, as it is literally inhabited by tens of thousands of anonymous people standing around waiting for something, like the ultimate Waiting for Godot film, with endless tracking shots of people huddled in the cold, wearing heavy coats and hats, whether inside or out, with so many scenes of people resigned to standing around in the dark waiting for a bus, or a train, who knows? It seems to represent a kind of human paralysis, a Russian population in stagnation, as if the world is standing still for a moment in time, where every shot becomes a living memory, D'est - YouTube (7:56).
Conjuring up a new way to see the world, we find babushka-wearing women in the fields picking potatoes, shot in real time, all in a row, working their way towards the camera, placing them in buckets they carry alongside with them, again startled that anyone would want to film them, yet their work is all part of a repetitious yet endlessly banal routine of human existence. Winter arrives, and the scene shifts to an empty rural expanse covered in ice and snow, where a line of four men carrying bags and suitcases are seen coming up over a hill on a solitary road, like a scene out of Béla Tarr’s SATANTANGO (1994), though that wouldn’t be made until the following year. More are seen walking across empty, snow-covered fields, where you can hear the crispness of the snow under their feet as we follow them across the landscape, perhaps on their way to work. These scenes lead into urban streets, where there is heavy pedestrian traffic mixed with cars and buses, where so many shots are framed with grey, colorless, concrete structures in the background, maybe 8 to 10 stories high, capturing the look of Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988-89), where residents must walk or travel great distances to get anywhere, while in the foreground there are bare trees, silhouettes in grey, reflecting little or no growth, as if they were simply planted that way and have remained looking like that long afterwards, another image of being stuck or frozen in time. The entire film is shot in natural light, where at night, only the street lights, the front and rear lights of passing cars, or lit windows in the nearby buildings provide any source of light, where one gets the feeling everyone is consumed in darkness, D'EST [Extracto] - YouTube (9:01). One wonders, who goes to Russia in the wintertime? Chantal Akerman, apparently, where there are as many as 12 lanes of one-way traffic on a city street at night, with lane markers obliterated by the falling snow, so it’s a free for all, with cars moving in all directions. Because the camera car is traveling so slowly, people honk, or express irritation as they quickly pass by. In the daylight, there’s even a toboggan slide for kids, basically an ice path down a small snowy hill, with that enormous concrete structure looming in the background, where no one has a sled or a toboggan, a few have a piece of cardboard, as everyone else just slides down by the seat of their pants. The enormous train stations are equally packed, many carrying packages in their arms, observing row after row of every seat taken, overflowing with people asleep on the floor, using any available space, with some families sitting with large bundles, like huge bags of grain, farmer size, as many as 10 or 12, as they sit silently and wait with the multitudes of others, all stuck for long periods of time trying to get somewhere.
There are glimpses of people in their tiny, claustrophobic rooms, one where a kid is listening to an authority figure on State TV while someone else is about 10 feet away playing the piano, both crammed together but sharing a common space. Another shows a woman in her kitchen cutting a loaf of bread with a giant-sized knife, where each individual slice must be carefully cut to size, while also cutting slices of salami, nibbling as she goes along, where putting them together is a meal, Chantal Akerman - D'Est - YouTube (3:58). One of the few sequences expressing any sign of joy takes place on the dance floor of a cavernous hotel, a sad relic from the Stalinist era, Chantal Akerman D'Est - YouTube (3:20), a stark contrast to a similar scene from Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2014 Top Ten List #2 Ida where they play the transcendently eloquent music of John Coltrane, IDA clip - Jazz - YouTube (58 seconds), both films where history and the Holocaust are only a backdrop to the story, and where Poland’s complicity is a key component. And let’s not forget, Poland became part of the Eastern bloc controlled by the Soviet Union after the war. This contemplative aspect of the film is elusive, yet it’s important to understand Akerman’s personal connection to the territory she traverses, as it replicates, in reverse, the direction Jews were transported by trains to the extermination camps. Akerman’s mother survived Auschwitz as a young girl, but most of her Polish family perished there. The endless lines of subdued citizens waiting patiently mirror the lines for the trains bound for deportation and death. The haunting silence heard throughout the film may be the collective voices silenced during the Holocaust, where the film is striking in the way it returns to the past, where memories are like buried ghosts, as there is otherwise no sign anywhere in the film of a Jewish presence. For instance, there are no synagogues, no cemeteries, and she does not return to the town where her family is from, believing little could be gained from that. It is through memories and lived experience that one accumulates knowledge of Jewish customs and faith, handed down generation by generation. Akerman identified her Jewishness through her mother and early childhood memories. Returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, evokes haunting recollections, while the land beneath her feet is the same turf she felt exiled from her entire life, where rootlessness is a common theme throughout her work. Herself coming “from the East,” a reference to the English film title, is a displaced kind of homecoming, as she no longer feels welcomed there, yet the film intensely studies the grim faces of the people who do live here, capturing random looks of people in transit, or in crowds, in their homes, or public places. We learn no one’s name or identity, and no one is asked about their religious or political beliefs. From the subjects of this film the filmmaker asks for nothing except the captured images, using her own artistic inclinations to turn it into a particular film aesthetic, where the conspicuous absence of any signs of Jewish culture is a daunting realization that silently haunts the film with a powerful emotional resonance. Quoting from Alisa Lebow, Alisa Lebow, ‘Memory once removed: indirect memory and transitive autobiography in Chantal Akerman’s D’Est‘, Camera Obscura May 2003 (pdf), “The victims of Stalin are piled on the corpses of the Holocaust… If not for the past, in which her family’s history is directly implicated, there would be no D’Est,” where the film serves as a kind of elegy. There is a brief musical recital late in the film by Russian cellist Natalia Chakhovskaya, who studied under Mstislav Rostropovich, a compatriot of Shostakovich, assuming his place as the director of the cello department from 1974 to 1995, teaching at the Moscow Conservatory after Rostropovich emigrated to America. With a dozen or so men offering flowers after her performance, you might think this would offer a beautiful and harmonious finality, but instead Akerman returns to the streets, capturing the hordes of people on their way to work in the morning, with this intriguing sequence shot in a luminous blue tone, feeling like first light just after dawn, Chantal Akerman - D'Est (1993) on Vimeo (5:15).