May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 10, 2009
D’Est is Chantal Akerman’s wordless winter travelogue from East Germany, through Poland and the Baltic states, into the inner belt of Moscow and its cavernous central stations. Filmed on the heels of the early 1990’s collapse of the Soviet empire, it is her attempt not simply to document an alien standard of living with her typically forthright gaze, but to memorialize a certain mode of life that few outside the grey orbit of the Soviet bloc have the fortitude to endure even when edited down to a series of lengthy tracking shots.
I recently watched the new Icarus Films DVD release of this underseen classic with a growing sense of dread. The film begins with a series of shots in late summer, as people are enjoying their last chances to enjoy the beach or a few beers on a bench somewhere. But winter looms. I spent a bit of time in Moscow and areas north about seven years after this film was made, and the first few tracking and interior shots began to rehash many of the things that made that trip so difficult. The long lines of anonymous people, the general pose of resignation, the endless cold, etc… Akerman simply pans her camera in straight lines across hundreds of yards of this, the monotony broken up every now and then by a terse conversation and the stamp of frozen boots. Interspersed throughout are small domestic shots of people slicing bread and sausage, listening to music – settling into the warmth of their aging flats.
But the initial dread I felt was that of the tourist, discomforted by an unexpected climate, a different way of negotiating crowds, or making it across town. The squat architecture of Moscow lends itself to a certain mythic eeriness in the winter months. As the film slowly moves towards Moscow, these milling groups of people Akerman are filming start to become denser and less interested in her tracking camera. The lines become longer even if the railway stations look grander. Towards the beginning of the film, cars and trucks swept past static shots of country roads in the blink of an eye. Now they lumber behind her vehicle mounted camera through unplowed streets, some without headlights. The faster ones have brighter, more modern lights.
All this maneuvered my dread into wondering if Akerman really is presenting here an alternative history of the Soviet bloc. This one has to do with tough physical routine, as this interminable waiting and traveling is cold and redundant on both a personal and political scale. Towards the end of the film there is a long sequence in a dance hall that seems to be cadged out of a structure that at one point was ornately officious. There is a lot of this crappy, liminal grandeur still standing that far East. This cuts to another long pan over a crowd of people standing, sitting, waiting. It is yet another queue in D’Est that we assume has to do with transit, even though we never see anyone going anywhere. It is as if to say: Here is an entire civilization waiting in an ideological train station for the next call to board.
Call Akerman what you want, structural, difficult, academic. D’Est is a very lyrical work of historiography.