Bernard Zelechow: "The Formalist Film-Maker with a Subtext"


Despite the exteriority of Akerman's narrative technique her text allows for decoding the repressed material. Anna Silver, the heroine of Les rendez-vous d'Anna is a cinema director on tour flogging her most recent film. Doing some minor calculations, we can extrapolate that the heroine and her ex-fiancé Daniel were born in 1950, children whose parents were displaced persons who had become very intimate friends in Belgium. They have been engaged twice to each other but are incapable of making the commitment to marriage and family despite their professed mutual affection.

The film's narrative occurs in 1978 somewhere in Germany, on intercity trains between Cologne and Brussels and Brussels and Paris. Akerman focuses markedly on the naming of the geographic locations along the route from Germany to France while intentionally avoiding naming the German city in the film's opening segment. That episode begins with a long shot of the platform of an unnamed train station followed by the station seen from the hotel window. This suggests an unidentified German everywhere.1 Later a long sequence from a window of a moving train -- the most extended segment in the film -- evokes a landscape of desolation and eerie bleakness reminiscent of Chirico. The passing scenery plots a technological industrial nightmare punctuated by endless rows of railway boxcars. And everywhere visions of train tracks accompanied by the sound of the train rhythmically and relentlessly marking time.

Chantel Akerman's camera creates the illusion that it records just what there is to see. And the silent visual communication registers tropically the holocaust. But, can we be sure that the holocaust is the spectral image looming over Akerman's cinematography? What are the clues? Recall, the heroine's name is Anna Silver. Her ex-fiancé is Daniel. Are these Jewish names? Perhaps, but we cannot be certain. None of the protagonist mentions the word Jew. And there is only the barest of hints of the shoah. Anna, like Akerman, is a passive receptor for just what she hears and what attracts her gaze. So, it is mostly from others that we might learn what is going on. And it is from her intense inability to respond that we learn of the raw wound of the shoah thirty years after the event. Displacement, psychological and geographic in relation to identity is the recurrent motif of the work. Beneath the cool surface of postmodern affluence the Jewish trauma controls the film's narrative without the word Jew or holocaust or survivor ever being uttered.

Comments about language and its implied link to being give the film its haunting tenuous coherence as a holocaust narrative. And it is in these explicit, albeit offhanded remarks about language facility and appropriate accents that reveal the lost and splintered identities of most of the actors. Akerman equates the formation of the abandoned self with linguistic inadequacy, perceived or real.

Anna's meeting with Daniel's mother Ida in the Cologne railway station provides the occasion for an exchange pointing to the dislocation and simultaneously the long term psychological scars resulting from the war time experiences. Ida's superficial composure belies the underlying insecurity and anxiety she feels. She expresses this in metaphors of linguistic confusion. Ida, although Polish by birth, a resident in Belgium for twenty-five years, a returnee to Germany in 1975 speaks German to Anna. She says that she never mastered French and she learned to get by in German. It was a necessity. Unease and the edge of the abyss are Ida's existential condition. The return to Germany was economic, and as she says, "you never know what awaits us around the corner". Her husband, we learn from her account, has bouts of rage directed at her because there is no other person or group to focus on. She understands the rage. It comes from the experience of the camps and the war overall. Ida says the abuse is better than having a silent husband. He is all she has. Daniel, her youngest lives in Paris while her oldest son has emigrated to America with his family and vows never to visit his parents while they live in Germany.


1. Even the singular clue, a visit to Bottrop, tells us merely that the action takes place in North West Rhein-Westphalia. Bottrop appears to be something of a film centre. [RETURN]

Page - 1     Page + 1

AS/SA Nº 8, Article 4 : Page 3 / 8

© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

E-mail to the editors
Pour écrire à la rédaction