Kenyon College
 

Evaders

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Evaders, 2009.
Edition 1/8.
HD film for dual channel projection (color, sound) 14:44 minutes.
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection.

Walter Benjamin’s hotel room is as still as a tomb. He is hunched and motionless, moments from death. Not even the curtains flutter, and if not for an occasional flash of light from beyond the window, the scene might be mistaken for a photograph. Instead, Evaders is Gersht’s first dual-channel film, which recreates the German-Jewish philosopher’s journey across the Pyrenees, in search of asylum from VichyFrance. Equipped only with a light coat and a satchel, believed to contain a precious manuscript now lost, Benjamin weathered the route. He survived, only to be detained by border guards in Spain. He was granted a single night of respite before being forced to retrace his steps, and there, in a hotel in the small town of Portbou, he committed suicide.

Projected onto two screens, Evaders establishes a tension between experience and remembrance. The film has no documentary aspirations, and it deliberately refrains from retracing Benjamin’s steps. Instead, it occupies what one critic has called “the ‘no man’s land’ between official histories and the vernacular of collective memory.” On the left, a man portraying Benjamin struggles forward against a bitter, howling wind, which here reverberates through the viewing space. As majestic landscapes loom on the opposite screen, saliva accumulates in Benjamin’s beard. On the right, a camera follows Benjamin from behind. Interspersed with sublime shots of rivers and mountains wreathed in colored mist, we see Benjamin slowly trudging through a snow-covered forest. On the two screens he alternately approaches and recedes. We are left to navigate between them, attempting to reconcile the immediacy of his experience with the legacy of his memory.

The film opens with a passage from Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, reflecting on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. As if foretelling his own journey, he describes an “Angel of History” looking to the past: “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead.” But the storm of progress “propels him into the future to which his back is turned.” Benjamin ascends a narrow stair toward a pure, white light, his face turned from view. When we return, at the end of Evaders, to the hotel room in Portbou, Benjamin is just as we left him—hunched, shirtless and still.

–Virginia McBride ’15
Gund Gallery Associate

 
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