For the seventh Seuls film night, Sabzian will show Bruxelles-transit (1980), the only full-length film by the Belgian screenwriter, actor and filmmaker Samy Szlingerbaum (1950-1986). The film tells the story of his parents’ arrival in Belgium in 1947. They were Polish Jews who had spent ten days travelling across Europe by train. Samy was born two years later. The film, spoken in Yiddish, is his mother’s story of their journey and narrates the attempts of the family to build a home, the struggle to find illicit work and their efforts to integrate into the country of their exile, without papers or any knowledge of the language. Szlingerbaum began his career as a filmmaker by co-directing the 1973 film Le 15/8 with Chantal Akerman. He shot two short films of his own, followed by Bruxelles-transit. Szlingerbaum died at the age of 36.
With an introduction by Nina de Vroome
Seuls. Singular Moments in Belgian Film History is a series of film programs accompanied by the publication of unique texts by Belgian filmmakers and writers on Sabzian’s website. It is often said that cinephiles don’t know or are rarely appreciative of their own national cinema. Film critic Adrian Martin “observe[s] a very intriguing dimension of cinephile thought: namely, the usually feisty way it negotiates a fraught relation with the cinephile’s own national cinema. Indeed, I sometimes think I can spot a cinephile by the intensity of their hatred for their national cinema.” With this series of film evenings, Sabzian aims to chart the wayward landscape of Belgian cinema with images, sounds and words, by means of an affectionate countermovement.
Brussels Transit is Samy Szlingerbaum’s only full-length film. It tells the story of his parents’ arrival in Belgium in 1947. They were Polish Jews who had spent ten days travelling across Europe by train. Samy was born two years later. The film, spoken in Yiddish, is his mother’s story of their journey and narrates the attempts of the family to build a home, the struggle to find illicit work and their efforts to integrate into the country of their exile, without papers or any knowledge of the language.
“Samy Szlingerbaum – who died in 1986 at the age of 36 – was an autodidact in matters of film. He cooked in sleeping trains, worked in a cinema ticket office; he spent four years in Israel and one in New York, where he took a course in photography. He collaborates with Chantal Akerman, shoots two shorts of his own (including Second-Hand in 1975, the description of an appartment discovered by a young couple), then his only full-length film, in Yiddish, Brussels-transit. It tells the story of his parents’ arrival in Belgium in 1947, Polish Jews who had spent ten days travelling across Europe by train. Samy was born two years later. The film is his mother’s story of their journey to Belgium, their attempts to build a home, the struggle to find illegal work and their efforts to integrate into the country of their exile, without papers or any knowledge of the language. This is the threnody of rootlessness and marginality, set in the neighbourhood of the Brussels Midi Station. ‘their area, their burrow, their kingdom – today I still have the impression that they are camping there’ (S. Szlingerbaum).
The 80 minutes of the film avidly probe this past of his mother’s memories via the voice-over, songs, whispered confidences and a handful of fictional scenes also in Yiddish, ‘a language which is dying out as its last speakers are lost in the city,’ in the words of the director. Anonymous images of trains, stations and streets – long, incantatory static shots – and long, Akerman-like tracking shots lift the everyday from the realm of the banal and transcend the minuteness of the budget with a visual sensibility close to Vigo.”
“Loosely based on his parents’ own experiences, Szlingerbaum set his film in a time of displacement after World War II but did not shoot it as a period piece. A rare specimen of Yiddish cinema, it traces the dislocation and relocation of a young East European Jewish family. In content and in its measured, unsentimental, recitative style, it resembles some of Akerman’s work, both her ‘Brussels’ films and her various explorations of exodus and transience in the context of Jewish diasporic identity, such as the fictionalized Histoires d’Amérique(1989), the documentary D’Est (1993) and News from Home ;(1976), in which random images of New York accompany the voice of Akerman’s mother recounting family news from Brussels to her expatriate daughter. Szlingerbaum had earlier been an assistant to Akerman (who was executive producer of Brussels Transit) and to Boris Lehman (who plays the father here), with whom he forms a trio of filmmakers deeply concerned by their Jewish identity and memories of their Brussels upbringing.
We do not see any stage of the family’s journey to Belgium, we only hear about it in the voice-over narration by Szlingerbaum’s mother. This narration in unscripted Yiddish is the core of the film’s emotional and historical resonance, and the visual images exist in counterpoint to it. (...) By displaying a preference for long takes, frontal shots and sound-image disjunctions, Szlingerbaum further distances the film from conventional fictional forms. Reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the narration, some images match it, others do not. These images have a meditative quality, depicting specific incidents but also dwelling on the monotony of daily routine. For instance, as the mother recalls the journey from Poland to Belgium, the director slowly intercuts shots of the three refugees arriving at the Gare du Midi in Brussels with obliquely related shots of passing trains, the station, and its immediate surroundings.
Szlingerbaum’s gentle, cadenced montage of the station interior and of trains at night has a hypnotic, oneiric quality often found in the canvases of fellow Belgian artists Paul Delvaux and René Magritte (and of de Chirico, too). Like these painters, Szlingerbaum defamiliarizes the station and its surrounding area in order to reinvest them with the emotional value of a dreamscape, a locus of enigmatic hopes and fears, of strange journeys, long waitings, and brief encounters in silent, empty, timeless space.
Though these sites are recognizable to those familiar with them, Szlingerbaum carefully ignores any identifying signs, futher allowing him to abstract his geographical context. By shooting entirely on location in Brussels, using simple dress and plain interior decor and employing no archival footage, Szlingerbaum frees his film from any tendency to represent a historical spectacle. He concentrates instead on giving expression to subjective memories of a period’s impact upon a close-knit group of individuals – and, by implication, upon all families, Jewish or otherwise, fleeing from the devastations of war. The film becomes a loose dramatic reconstruction of events recounted by the mother and interpreted visually by her son. However, this double play of memory is not personally synchronous, since the boy we see arriving in Brussels in 1947 is Szlingerbaum’s brother, the filmmakers having been born two years later. The continuity of Szlingerbaum’s own living memory is thus limited to a period after the events shown in the first part of the film.”
In his video essay Revisiting Bruxelles-Transit: Moving through spaces of resonance (2017), Jasper Stratil contrasts personal footage of the Bruxelles-Midi station with Szlingerbaum’s footage. And, interspersed with these are clips from various films: including Europa 51 and Germania anno zero, The Third Man, L’Eclisse, Riffifi, Nuit et Brouillard and Toute une nuit.
- 1. René Michelems, “Bruxelles-transit,” In Marianne Thys (ed.), Belgian Cinema/Le Cinéma Belge/De Belgische Film (Gent: Ludion, 1999): 645.
- 2. Philip Mosley, “Reaction and Revival 1975 –,” Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001): 185. And Philip Mosley, “Anxiety, Memory, and Place in Belgian Cinema,” In Janelle Blankenship and Tobias Nagl (eds.), European Visions: Small Cinemas in Transition (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2015): 120-122.