Austerlitz’s time

What is Austerlitz’s time, and where do I get this from? Well, I didn’t expect my wanting to write a blog post about Jacques Austerlitz when I picked up W.G. Sebald’s magnificent book Austerlitz. It’s Sebald’s last novel, published in 2001, and focuses on a man who is simply called Austerlitz most of the time in the book. Austerlitz is haunted by a past he doesn’t know. For most of his life he had ignored where he was from. Or rather, he frankly didn’t know. His memory blocked a very essential part of his life, his childhood, but this blockage was the cause of his being haunted by a past he could never clearly see. For him, as he says, “the world stopped for me at the end of the 19th century.”

At some point in the book, when Austerlitz meets the author again and continues telling his story or his accounts of fascinating historical facts or architectural designs, Austerlitz makes a couple of remarkable statements about the subject of time. Overall, there is so much you can take from this book that it has become, for me at least, one of the best books I have read in my life.

Austerlitz proposes the thought-provoking argument that “time is of all our inventions the most artificial one”. This might sound strange at first, but it sort of accompanies what I had been writing about on this blog in the early days regarding time, as we know it, as an artificial construct that has nothing to do with nature. What Austerlitz describes here, without directly mentioning it in the paragraph that follows, is man’s invention of the mechanical clock that divided a day into 24 equal hours, each hour into 60 equal minutes, and every minute into 60 equal seconds. Before the invention of the mechanical clock, people lived according to the natural cycle of the sun. That was especially true for farmers who got up when the sun rose and stopped their work when the sun set. I strongly believe that was also true for cave men who ventured out in daylight to hunt (another vital factor here is the aspect of darkness as posing a threat to man, which changed when street lamps were introduced much later).

I also remember Lav Diaz saying that life in the Philippines changed drastically when the Spanish colonisers introduced the mechanical clock. All of a sudden, time was linear and not, as the Chinese, for instance, believed, a river with many different arms and therefore directions, waves, and ripples. Time became a constantly progressing entity that, as you might also remember from my writing, becomes completely obsolete when someone suffers from PTSD. It is PTSD that disrupts the linear time we have created with the invention and introduction of the mechanical clock, but I wonder whether it’s not this concept of linear time that reinforces this traumatic stress because it is expected of us (and time) to persistently move forward. So if a person is stuck in the past, or if the past repeatedly resurfaces (because this is how life is anyway – a mixture of past and present that leads to the future), then this is not an acceptable development. (NB: My PhD thesis explores the themes of duration and time in the context of post-trauma in more detail.)

The mechanical clock turned time into something that can be measured, that can be divided, and that only ever follows a linear progression. Austerlitz continues, “if Newton really thought that time progresses like the current in the river Thames, then where is its origin and which sea does it flow into?” But Austerlitz isn’t done. He asks, “everyone knows that a river has two shores. But what are, then, the two borders of time? What are its specific characteristics that correspond approximatively to that of water, which is liquid, pretty heavy and transparent?”

I don’t have an answer to this question, but I marvel about it and have been thinking about it since the first time I read it. It all makes me think of Chinese philosophy again, and its perception of and approach to time that differs so greatly from our Western standards. In particular, the idea of time having different speeds, different directions – simply put, varying and various characteristics – is something that pops up in my head over and over again when I read about prisons and the concentrationary system in which the concept of time is used as punishment and torture. What happens in those circumstances, especially in solitary confinement, is that people are taken “out of time”. In some cases, imprisonment becomes a place where the linear progression of time no longer applies, but where time instead becomes an utterly confusing, anxiety-inducing construct used for the sake of extracting information from prisoners. This “being out of time” is also mentioned in Austerlitz’s monologue, but in a different context.

He argues that despite our lives being seemingly governed by the mechanical clock, it is and remains the cosmos that really structures our lives, an “unquantifiable vastness” that does not comply with linear progression but that progresses more in the form of swirls, precisely what the Chinese proposed centuries and centuries ago. Time is not linear but circular. This, Austerlitz says, is what governs life in “lesser developed countries” but also exists in large metropolitan cities, such as London. “Aren’t the dead out of time? Or the dying? Or those who are sick and confined to their bed in hospital?” Time stops for them, or progresses differently than the way prescribed by our mechanical clock.

The question I pose (more or less to myself) is to what extent film can help us understand this, can help us see that time is not a linear progression or that there are several people who live “out of time”? Can film, as a time-based medium, do this at all, or will it always fail because film, just like time, is an artificial construct?

Austerlitz – Sergei Loznitsa (2016)

I wasn’t prepared for this film being a slow film. Of course, I expected Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz to be slower than the average, but I didn’t expect the film to fall into my category of Slow Cinema. It does, however, and it’s a film that poses so many questions; questions about how we remember, how we deal with the past ethically, and whether we are still acting ethically in the ways in which we remember the persecution and attempt at total extinction of the Jews in Europe.

Austerlitz is set in the grounds of two concentration camps. If you hadn’t read about it before, you would notice this only in the third scene of the film. Loznitsa doesn’t make it obvious from the first frame where we are. Instead, we see people looking at something we do not see. Loznitsa is careful not to show us what they see. We do not get point-of-view shots. It is not that kind of film. What is important in Austerlitz is the study of people visiting former concentration camps that have been turned into museums. The film is not about the extermination of Jews. It is not about showing the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. On the contrary, Austerlitz is about how we today, in the 21st century, decades after the end of the war, deal with this part of our history.

Loznitsa uses a static camera throughout. A flow of people walks past, looking around, taking pictures. Yes, what the film is about is looking. It is about seeing. It is about what the French would call the éthique du regard, the ethics of looking, of watching, of internalising memory. The director stands back from what’s happening in front of the camera. It seems as though he simply put the camera somewhere and the rest unfolded by itself. And as such, he couldn’t have created a more interesting portrait of how modern society deals with a part of memory that it so important to keep. Two people that stood out for me right at the beginning where this young man wearing a t-shit saying “Cool Story Bro”. I’m not sure there could have been a more tasteless shirt for an occasion like this. Then there is a young woman who entertains a group of people by putting a bottle of water on her head while a guide is explaining the uses of prisons in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Loznitsa’s film shows the gulf between the second and third post-war generation. In several instances, his camera records an indifference of the latter. But it’s not just them, though. People of all generations take selfies in front of one of many infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gates. People with selfie sticks are everywhere. They do not look at the remnants of the past; they merely record it with their phones. The culture of smartphones has changed the way we deal with the past. We take a picture of everything, regardless of what the photograph shows. People take photos first before they help other who’ve been in an accident just because.

I would say that we’re living in a click-culture, which is at odds with memory. Photographs do not help us remember. They help memory to fade. What is important is that we see things with our own eyes, only then can we feel what it means to be at a certain place. If anything, concentration camps (I’ve been to one) are about the experience of being at a place haunted with death. What Loznitsa shows is that, today, it seems to be about going there, taking selfies, and posting them on social media. Is that how we remember today? Is this how we can stop the past repeating itself?

In all of its long takes, Austerlitz shows that sites of memory are no longer used only to remember. The sites are consumed. They have become part of our devastating consumer culture, which makes it so difficult to make people to experience something for longer than just a few seconds. It often appears as though the visitors cannot grasp what happened at the time, yet the reason is very simple: time. Loznitsa takes the time to observe people not taking their time to observe. They take a photo and continue their way.

At the same time, there is something ethically questionable about the film itself. Several shots are beautifully framed, such as the one around half hour into the film. We see a group of people huddled into a small room, most of them trying to take pictures like paparazzis. The shot is beautiful. It’s simple, a white wall and an open door. Nothing but that. How do you frame death, or the present absence, in concentration camps? Should a director make his shots aesthetically pleasing in such a context while at the same time pointing to the malady of contemporary society to simply take nice pictures at a place of death? To pose at places of death? It’s something that I haven’t come across yet in reviews of the film, and it might be worth looking at the film from this angle, i.e. from the possible implication of the director in what his film seems to criticise.