In 1990 the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman set out on a trip across the former Soviet Union to do research for a movie about the poet Anna Akhmatova. She said “it was almost like home, or close enough.” Akerman’s Polish-Jewish parents had both immigrated to Brussels from Eastern Europe some fifty years before. Her mother survived Auschwitz, where her own parents were killed. In her 2013 memoir Ma mère rit, Akerman remembered that in her old age her mother would sometimes announce out of the blue, “without anyone having asked,” that she no longer remembered much Polish. Wherever Akerman went during that first trip, she found “the same food on the table that my mother always made.”
But the movie she shot when she returned to the region in 1992 made no reference to Akhmatova and didn’t mention her family background at all. Filmed in Russia, Poland, and what had just ceased to be East Germany, From the East is elliptical and radiantly cold. It consists entirely of shots, often long, of landscapes, interiors, and the people who inhabit them: snowy roads and sidewalks, tenants sitting in living rooms or watching television, middle-aged women cooking, dancers taking to the floor in a gloomy recreation hall, a pianist rehearsing at home, a cellist playing onstage. No one speaks.
Akerman committed suicide in 2015, when she was sixty-five. Since her death, retrospectives of her more than forty films—documentaries, fictions, essay films, musicals, and somber elegies—have passed through New York, Los Angeles, Berkeley, and, most recently, Paris, in an exhaustive season at the Cinémathèque Française. Like much of this elusive director’s work, From the East sounds dreary in description but plays out in a hypnotic, exacting rhythm onscreen. Each shot gets enough time to ripen, then cuts off just before the viewer’s impatience sets in. It was as if Akerman had decided that invocations of her own life and that of her family could be powerful sources of energy for her movies as long as she scattered them widely, covered them up thinly, and let them glow through their concealment.
“I don’t have an idea,” Akerman told Gary Indiana in a 1983 interview. “I have a feeling that I try to express.” But to be expressed in her films, feelings often had to first be chiseled down or left to chill. At the end of her early feature Je tu il elle (1974), which she made in her mid-twenties and in which she also starred, she used a static, detached shot to show her character making love with an ex-girlfriend for ten unbroken minutes. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the dread-filled masterpiece for which Akerman remains best known, centered on a widowed single mother—her sister lives elsewhere and her parents, we learn, both died in…
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