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Ballad in Plain D
16mm film transferred to HD video format
7:30 minutes
Ballad in Plain D
16mm film transferred to HD video format
7:30 minutes
English spoken with German subtitles

A film shot in two disappearing locations in Brussels, the Cité Administrative and the Greenwich Bar, temporarily emptied of inhabitants but full of specters and ghostly presences, suggested most directly by the entranced performance of actor Lucy McKenzie.  'Ballad in Plain D' takes as its source W.G. Sebald's Campo Santo, ruminating on the status of ghosts and unworldly beings, anxious visitors and exiles dwelling in extraterritoriality, in marginal and temporary spaces.  In Sebald's writing, these "fleeting transparent beings of uncertain provenance and purpose" metaphorically echo the fixed, quasi-transcendental gaze of actors within the motionless frame of early film, as well as popular beliefs about the presence and influence of the dead in the realm of the living.  Suggesting that Kafka's writing has the quality of noctambulism, or that Nabokov's appearance in evening dress in films shot in Berlin in the 1920s might both be understood as manifestations of wandering spirits dwelling in hazy or uncertain territory.

Camera: Claire Pijman
Performed by: Lucy McKenzie.

Film text excerpted from Campo Santo by the writer W.G. Sebald (1944-2001), a collection of his essays published posthumously in 2003:

Giving the impression that our worldly doings are being observed by some other species, not yet known to any system of taxonomy, whose emissaries sometimes assume a guest role in the plays performed by the living. Just as they appear to us, Nabokov conjectures, so we appear to them: fleeting transparent beings of uncertain provenance and purpose. They are most commonly encountered in dreams, in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence, and are silent, bothered, strangely depressed, obviously suffering severely from their exclusion from society, and for that reason, says Nabokov, they sit apart, staring at the floor, as if death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret.

Unexpectedly finding themselves on the wrong sides of the frontier, they are airy beings living a quasi-extraterritorial, somehow unlawful afterlife in rented rooms and boardinghouses. The strange unreality of such an existence in a foreign land seems nowhere more clearly expressed than in Nabokov's remark, made in passing, that he had appeared as an extra in evening dress in several of the films shot in Berlin at that time, which frequently included doppelgängers and such shadowy figures among their characters. There is no proof anywhere else of these appearances of his, so we do not know whether any of them might still be faintly preserved on a brittle strip of celluloid or whether they are now all extinguished.

Indeed early movies are ghostly in general, and not just because their favorite subjects included split personalities doppelgängers and revenants, extrasensory perception, and other parapsychological phenomena, but also because of the way that for technical reasons the actors moved in and out of what was still the completely motionless scene around them like ghosts walking through a wall. Most ghostly of all, of course is the quasi-transcendental gaze, cultivated by the male stage actors of the time, which found its ultimate expression in film, a gaze that seems to be bent on a life in which the tragic hero no longer has any part. Kafka, who often felt like a ghost among his fellow men, knew of the insatiable greed felt by the dead for those who are still alive. All his writing can be understood as a form of noctambulism, or the stage preceding it. "Walked in the streets for two hours, weightless, boneless, bodiless, and thought of what I have been through writing this afternoon."

W. G. Sebald, Campo Santo, translated by Anthea Bell, New York: Random House, 2005

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