by Jasper Stratil — Freie Universität Berlin
June 13, 2016 – 11:15
35 years after the war, Jewish director Samy Szinglerbaum made his film Bruxelles-Transit, which follows the story of the emigration of his parents who came to Brussels in 1947, leaving their home Poland behind. The film is narrated by his mother in Yiddish and is thereby positioned within a Jewish tradition. This central element is combined with black and white shots of Brussels from 1980 – especially the area around the train station “Bruxelles-Midi”. By juxtaposing these images with the story of the travel through the post-war Europe the places become abstract: Bruxelles-Midi stands for all the stations of their travel.
This process of abstraction, the interrelations of different spaces and times, had become a crucial point of interest for me. I was interested in the affective quality of the spaces, which can be referred to Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “any space–whatevers,” and in the way in which the places filmed in 1980 transform in their resemblance with (filmic) spaces of the post-war period.
In early 2015 Bruxelles-Transit became part of a collection of films by the cinema Arsenal (“Institute for film and video art”) in Berlin that was partly restored and newly distributed in context of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. A seminar was held at the Freie Universität Berlin in collaboration with the Arsenal where the students would be actively become part of the project. I watched the film there and wrote a contribution about it for the catalogue “Asynchron.”
However, the film stayed longer with me – especially the question of how it can be determined as a remembrance of the Holocaust when the Second World War and even more the Shoah is not even mentioned in the film. I began to work on a paper on the melancholic aesthetics of the film. When I had the possibility to do a AV essay during my stay at the University of Amsterdam in a seminar with Patricia Pisters, I realized that this format would be an ideal tool to prepare and further investigate the film-historical interrelations and the embeddedness within film history.
So 35 years after the film was made, I revisited “Bruxelles-Midi” – to unravel different layers of history. The account of Szinglerbaums’s family history becomes intertwined with other histories: the history of the Diaspora, of the Shoah, of Brussels as a space of transit, and eventually of film history.
On the one hand, I understand my personal journey and my footage as the starting point of a further investigation of the past moving back into it and linking the images from 1980 with other “any space-whatevers” from post-war-films, e.g. from German Trümmerfilm, film noir, or neorealism. Their relations make different layers of Szinglerbaum’s film visible.
On the other hand, the essay deals with the specific space of the train station “Bruxelles-Midi” itself. I want to trace how moods of transit are still to be found in the area around the station by contrasting my own footage with Szinglerbaums’ from 1980. I want to expose a main idea of the original film, namely: the past inhabits the present. The melancholic look into the past of Bruxelles-Transit is in that way doubled and becomes identified as a perspective that is concerned with the respective present.
First of all I am thankful to Alisa Lebow and Franklin Cason for their helpful reviews. In reaction to their comments, but also after having finished my paper on the melancholic aesthetics of Bruxelles-Transit, I revised the audiovisual essay. The most important changes being a different title, a newly recorded voiceover, and a revised first section.
The original AV essay was done as a pre-study for a written paper and was conceived as an experimental workshop for some of my arguments in the way that the poetics of Bruxelles-Transit relate to different layers of history – especially to film history.
More precisely, this question can be addressed in Bruxelles-Transit by asking what kind of space the film creates. Szlingerbaum's 1980 released film was shot in Brussels and in his reenactments he makes use of the same train station where his parents arrived in 1947. However, the clothes of passersby and the interior of the lobby indicate that this is not an approach of historical accuracy reconstructing a past. Furthermore, the space of the train station becomes a substitute for all the stations that the parents passed on their way to Brussels.
The filmic space is neither a reconstruction of the year 1947 nor a representation of the actual non-place in Brussels. Beginning with the choice of black and white and the emptying of the place, this can be understood as a process in which the space of 1980 becomes an “any space whatever,” a space created within filmic experience. By this poetic process the film opens up a layer of virtual (film-)historical space. Through character movement, fixed camera, texture, shadows, the actress as a flaneur, and her relation to the surrounding emptied space, an affect of transit is created connecting the train station with different filmic images of the postwar period.
In my own journey revisiting the actual place, and by ending with some impressions of the present train station, I tried to emphasize the ways the melancholic poetics of Bruxelles-Transit could also be understood as a form of critique by bringing up the question of whether and how the past inhabits the present. In that way I would argue Bruxelles-Transit is concerned with present and past. The time-image of the 1980 train station is actual and virtual.
Gertrud Koch described the poetics of the film as a form of ventriloquism in which the son supplies the images to accompany the Yiddish narration of his mother. My intention was to keep the interplay between image and sound (the sound of the train is equally important for me), but to highlight the way the images themselves resonate with other film-historical images: the ‘echo of the past’ can also be found in the transition of images. My point is not to say that Szlingerbaum directly referenced these films. Certainly I could have chosen also other examples. (Also the influence of Chantal Akerman with whom Szinglerbaum worked before and who produced Bruxelles-Transit could be explored in more detail, e.g. News from Home (1977). However, I decided very early to incorporate her as a filmic catalysator for the part “spaces of resonance” and decided against an additional analysis.)
Rooted in a subjective approach, my AV essay was greatly informed by Deleuzian theory, hoping for intersubjective recognition and moving in its structure between commenting on and reenacting the film poetics of Bruxelles-Transit.
For Koch the film is an illustrative example of narration about the Shoah of the second generation. Her Paper is unfortunately only published in German. See Gertrud Koch: „„Being my Fathers’s father“. Generationenbezogene Erzählungen über den Holocaust“, in: Anke Henning, Gertrud Koch, Christiane Voss und Georg Witte (Eds.): Jetz und Dann. Zeiterfahrung in Film, Literatur und Philosophie, München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2010, S. 35-58.
Jasper Stratil, B.A. studied film, history and psychology at the Freie Universität Berlin and is currently working on his master thesis on video essays in film studies. From 2011 until 2014 he worked as a student assistant in the research project “The Politics of Aesthetics in Western European Cinema” at the Collaborative Research Center “Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits”. In 2015 he spent a semester at the University of Amsterdam where he created a first version of this video essay about Bruxelles-Transit. His research interests include film aesthetics, film theory, genre and documentary. Besides his studies he is working as an assistant director on several documentaries for ARTE and RBB (e.g. on the financial crisis, The secret bank bailout).