Applying her minimalist approach to the changing reality of Eastern Europe, avant-garde director Chantal Akerman’s “From the East” is one of her most demanding “semi-fictional” documentaries. Even by standards of her own work, the utterly wordless film is one of Akerman’s least accessible. At the same time, pic is a must-see for cinephiles concerned with the unique language of cinema.
Taking her relentless cameras from East Germany to Russia, Akerman delivers an impressionistic report from the new front. Displaying her distinctive visual style, influenced by structuralism and minimalism, her journal unfolds as a procession of postcards that record empty landscapes and people positioned against them.
Akerman’s dialectical strategy consists of a series of oppositions, including the seasons and time of the day. Spanning summer to winter, docu chronicles the countryside of East Germany, the beaches of the Baltics, the traffic of Poland, the snowy streets of Moscow.
Alternating a studiously static camera with lengthy tracking shots, and using no dialogue or commentary and very little music, Akerman captures the essence, if not the historical particulars, of a region on the move. The dominant visual motifs — people marching and people waiting in large train stations — reinforce the sense of uncertainty in the face of continuous change.
As with every Akerman work, the new film is as much about a specific subject as about the relationship between narrative, space and time. However, this may be one of her few films without astute consideration of gender or discussion of women’s role in modern society.
As a filmmaker, Akerman is full of surprises: Those who thought that her work would become more “commercial” after “The Golden Eighties,” a satire of musicals with plot and fast pacing, or “Histories d’Amerique” will be disappointed. Befitting the film that received the most walkouts at the Toronto fest, some viewers will complain that it’s a boring, meaningless minimalist exercise. Akerman’s fans, however, will be awed again by her visual aesthetics and consider it a footnote in the career of a truly innovative artist.