XYZ Outlet #2: “Port Bou: 18 Fragments for Walter Benjamin”

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XYZ Outlet #2: “Port Bou: 18 Fragments for Walter Benjamin” | A film by David Harding and Ross Birrell, 2006 (Duration: 33 min) | Tuesday December 21st, two screenings at 20.00 & at 20.35 | Perdika 8 & Achileos, Metaxourgeio

The Film

The film was shot on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of Walter Benjamin’s death. It is structured in 18 fragments which mirror the 18 fragments of Benjamin’s Thesis on the Philosophy of History, the manuscript of which Benjamin carried in his briefcase across the Pyrenees. The film is shot on mini DV camera and all images and sound is from this footage. There are three main parts which are woven together.

The Events

During the film you will see a sequence of short dramatic re-enactments of Benjamin’s arrest at the Railway Station at Port Bou and his suicide at the Hotel Francia. This ends with the recital of a poem by Fernando Pessoa. The language of these events is mainly Catalan and has been left untranslated.

The Walk

As an integral and structural component of the documentary, I traced the final walk that Benjamin took across the Pyrenees into Spain. For Benjamin this was an arduous task, he was asthmatic with a heart condition and had to stop every 10miniutes to rest. He was wearing light shoes and clothing. His going was so slow he had to spend a night on the mountain open to the elements.

I do not view my retracing of his walk as a re-enactment. Possibly, with reference to the Keynote delivered by Mark Neocleous at last years MRG conference, Grave ReMarx: The Accumulating Dead, the walk is an act of redemption.

The Monument

Benjamin was buried in the small graveyard on top of the cliff above Port Bou. Hannah Arendt, who followed the same route across the Pyrenees some months later, and who sought Benjamin’s grave in vain, wrote of the scene: ‘The cemetery faces a small bay directly overlooking the Mediterranean; it is carved in stone terraces, the coffins are also pushed into such stone walls. It is by far one of the most fantastic and beautiful spots I have seen in my life.’ (Cited by Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, p. 283)

In 1995 a monument to Benjamin was created by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan just outside the graveyard at the edge of the cliff. In David’s absence I would like to read a short passage from his notes from April 2005:

'I have visited and documented public art works all over the world including several by Karavan… In June 2004 I went to visit the monument.  I had heard that there was a memorial to Benjamin there but had not seen photographs of it and thought that it might just be a plaque. I wanted, in any case, to pay my respects.  What I found stunned me.  The memorial work is in several parts.  There is firstly the sculpture itself, ‘Passage’ and below the exit end of it the seas waves and rocks; an olive tree; the old stone tablets that marked his grave; a platform; the grave itself in the cemetery.  It is called, ‘Passage’ and this is literally what it is.  A corten steel covered passageway that cuts through the edge of the cliff and ends 50’ or so out over the sea.  The end of the passageway is open to the sea and, but for a sheet of thick glass three quarters of the way down the 100 steps, one could fall/jump out of the end into the sea. This a major work of sculpture literally and metaphorically embedded in its location, in the tragedy that it incorporates and the call for tolerance and understanding across borders.'

[Excerpts from Ross Gainesville’s introduction to the film]