This is the diary Angela Schanelec wrote when she visited Marseilles in March 2002 in preparation to making her film Marseille, released in 2004. Originally translated and published as a complement to the fifth issue of Fireflies, which celebrates the cinema of Angela Schanelec and Agnès Varda.
Marseilles, 1-10 March 2002
My mood was free of all desire.
—Walter Benjamin, Hashish in Marseilles
Friday. Marseilles, Provence. At the airport you can choose your destination: Aix, Marseilles, the sea or the mountains. You can see the mountains, light and craggy, beyond the airfield. The highway passes through urban canyons in the middle of the city. The houses are the same colour as the mountains.
Le Corbusier’s Cité radieuse. In Marseilles there are innumerable buildings like this one, unit agglomerations designed with varying degrees of passion, each unit a cell housing life. The hotel is on the third floor, but is higher up than expected because there are stacked apartments below and the whole building stands on concrete pillars: supports five, six metres high that widen at the top and on which all life is propped up, unconcerned. Motorcycles are parked between them. From the reception you can see the sea; from my room, behind countless more skyscrapers, the mountains.
Saturday. Constant, barely perceptible rain. Walked for hours, towards the city centre, cours Julien, Vieux Port, Le Panier. Ate in Café des Arts, no menu and a single dish. Went back along the coast. Sat a long time under a roof on the beach, at that point the rain was stronger. Waited a long time for the bus back to the hotel.
Slept for two hours. In the evening, César Awards ceremony on TV, finished reading Young Once by Modiano.
Sunday. Sun. Walked to the sea, along a wall that unexpectedly opened onto a park: Borély. Families with rollerblades on their feet, kayakers, joggers, everyone out in the sun. Rode the bus to Madrague, lay on the rocks as the sun rose higher. Walked further along the coast, then rode the bus to Callelongue. Others drove there by car; just before the destination there were no parking spots left. Families with small children, couples, light, heat, time.
Only got back to the Vieux Port by five, waited for the bus, took photos; as dusk rose, rode to St. Henri along the new port, industry, highways. Got off too early. Walked up a mountain for a long time, across barren tracts, alongside fences and locked gates, up to a village, St. Henri, old and abandoned-looking, then further onto place Raphel, where the cinema was brightly lit up. But it was closed; two girls sat inside, one was speaking on her mobile and wagged her finger when I rattled the door. Adieu Philippine wasn’t screening. By then it was dark. Flagged down the bus in the middle of the road, rode to métro Bougainville; inside there were solely men wearing tracksuits and sneakers who jumped over the lockers and spat on the tracks. The train only started filling up at St. Charles. Back at the hotel shortly before eight. I left the balcony door open and now it’s cold.
Who actually lives next door?
Monday. Woken up by the sun, which reliably hits every cell. Footsteps next door, it must be a man, and he’s not wearing sneakers. When I go for breakfast I meet him in the square metre and a half that makes up our shared vestibule; Asian, my age, I think, that’s all a glance will grant, the space is too dark and too narrow.
Cells are for monks, prisoners, outsiders, the poor, the faithful.
Evening. Wanted to ride the bus to Canebière but got off halfway because the market was on. I can’t resist this market. Sneakers, jeans, soap, hair clips, toys, fruits, fish, bread, make-up. Everyone selling and buying, setting the tables up in the morning and taking them down again at noon, every day the same. Not that I wanted to buy something, but the fact that I could, like everyone else, made me less of an outsider. Took a right at place Castellane, boulevard Baille, then through Lodi, very pleasant, a French version of Mariannenplatz, all the way till St. Charles Station. Small station, remarkably clean and unassuming, construction work going on outside. Behind the construction site were the most squalid, dilapidated houses, fenced off with chicken wire; beyond, a narrow street that led further down and then back up; it looked frozen in the glare and I stared for a long time before I could make out the movement of people and cars. Kept going till Porte d’Aix, next to it a sloping square with brown benches that had notes stuck to them, wet paint. On the benches sat Arabic men, who certainly always sit there, and now someone had painted their benches. Wanted to photograph a bar, outside were only men, sitting next to heavy beams supporting the building’s façade; the beams were one with the old building, like the plane trees out front. Stood around, attracted attention, kept going. Rue d’Aix, cours Belsunce, Canebière until the seventh arrondissement; no more Arabs; there, it was the homeless who stood out amongst the fancy stores. In Marseilles’ nicest bookstore (according to Stadtbauweltmagazine) were numerous photo-books of Marseilles, Éditions Laffitte, and as I looked through them, my bag, with the photo and the video camera, grew heavy for the first time; I felt tired, because what I saw in the photos, I recognised, and yet did not recognise at all. Those photo-books make you feel miserably foreign, as if everyone else had found something that you will never find. And yet, I too have eyes, but that’s precisely it: they’re my eyes.
Rode the bus home. Smoke the last of my American Spirits as the final half hour of Missing plays on TV; Charles has been executed and Jack Lemmon asks what kind of world we live in, but by now the question had been expected for too long and the fact that there’s no answer has long ceased to matter.
Tuesday. As I left the hotel at ten, a strong yet warm wind; shortly thereafter, rain that wouldn’t stop. Villages, St. Loup, Valentin, industrial area, St. Rose, skyscrapers in between, they’re called residences and laundry hangs to dry in their winter gardens; rode the métro from St. Rose back into the city, although it’s all city. The métro travels above ground; view over the roofs of run-down villas, more skyscrapers, everywhere rectangular façades with rectangular openings to look out from but not to look into. Got off, walked back along boulevard de la Libération towards the Vieux Port, the bustle of a metropolis, shops that look like they’ve existed for an eternity, then on Canebière only squalor, exasperated, hopeless chaos. Was stuck in traffic on the bus, then it got dark.
Wednesday. Ask if I can have a double room; the double rooms are on the opposite side of the hall and give onto the sea. They can only tell me in half an hour. I would like to spend more time in my room and it would be nice to see the sea, or at least discern it, since today it’s not visible, there’s no longer a horizon. Would need a few voices or encounters, not just streets, houses, faces. Read Imre Kertész last night; he unexpectedly found himself in Avignon and Cannes, dulcet worlds of kitsch. What would he have written about Marseilles? It’s idiotic that what I see today appears more real to me than the blue-white splendour under the sun.
Changed rooms. Now it’s big, with a toilet and kitchen; the fixtures are all original but the furniture isn’t – after all, time didn’t stand still. The other room seems even smaller to me now, but that €37.50 actually justified making this trip in the first place. Ultimately, I have that which I call ‘no money’, which after four days has become relative.
In the supermarket queue in La Valentine an old man lets me go ahead of him because all I’m holding is mineral water and chocolate; seeing my camera, he asks if I take pictures, I say yes, and from his expression I can tell he was expecting a more elaborate answer. He’s sorry that the sun isn’t shining and I say, C’est pas grave, a line I’ve already used in the most varied situations since getting here, and he shows me all the things he’s bought: different types of meat, including mince. I want to say, You cook!, but I can only think of something like, Faire la cuisine, and I don’t know whether that’s correct, so I smile, then I pay, say goodbye and wish him a good day. A little later I wait at a bus stop, maybe twenty minutes, without being fully sure if the bus, which is supposed to bring me to the métro at La Rose, is even coming – although it doesn’t actually matter, since it’s a completely arbitrary decision, that of wanting to go to La Rose now. Then I suddenly see the bus. I jump up, run after my waving hand, the bus stops and the driver asks me if I just woke up. Maybe you can call it waking up; I had almost forgotten myself on that bus shelter bench, in the falling drizzle beside a shopping centre, after which there was another shopping centre, after which there were others still, all the way to La Rose. Between them fenced-off wastelands, abandoned construction sites, thoroughfares, small unadorned villas surrounded by narrow gardens, housing blocks, mostly from the seventies, and now and again a school, école maternelleor lycée, always with the same white sign next to the entrance that says, in washed-out red and blue lettering, Liberté, egalité, fraternité… France. Behind the walls, children’s voices.
Still grey, and whenever it’s grey, nothing is more difficult to imagine than sunshine; on the path that leads to the Cité, a man with an umbrella and a dog; here they all have umbrellas and most have dogs, also in front of the hotel room doors there are dogs waiting, for the most part mongrels, and if you look into the village courtyards there are dogs, sometimes also cats, but dogs always. Jürgen says this is well known, but I notice it, just as I notice all sorts of things, because I’m alone and somehow my thinking starts over from the beginning on these labyrinthine paths through the city. Inside the Catholic church of St. Loup, which is next to the bar that didn’t have milk for my grand crème, C’est pas grave, sat a boy, maybe sixteen; he wore a striped pullover and was holding his head, with its cropped dark hair, in his hands. Later he left without a word while I took photos: the altar, Mary with the child, the niches in yellow light, and the light grey daylight that fell softly from above.
And the film? Flori called the day before yesterday while I was sitting at a snack bar on the port; he’s ill and asked a little faintly whether the city is nice. Whether we would shoot here, he didn’t ask.
Plugged the Powerbook into the socket. Sparks. Regardez s’il vous plait, I say to the friendly man who prepares breakfast in the mornings wearing jeans and an apron and is standing at reception; he brings me a new socket that doesn’t shoot sparks. Finally discover the heating on the step that leads to the balcony. There’s also a mysterious regulator in the wall, a small brown fan inside a circular opening that gives out warm air. In any case, I’m not freezing anymore. Happy, I no longer want to leave this lovely room.
Did leave after all, as I wanted to go to the cinema, place Castellane, a really nice, not very big cinema; aside from Mischkathey were also screening Mathieu Amalric’s film and Mulholland Drive. The pictures of Mischka looked dreadful; I went in anyway, because there were so many people, young, old (and this in the middle of the day), but left again ten minutes later; awful camerawork, unbearable light, nerve-racking clamour. Thus back along the streets, rue de Rome and rue Paradis, which I already knew. How differently I had walked along rue de Rome on the first day; this time I took a calm, light stroll. Walked uphill at the end, towards Notre-Dame de la Garde, lured by the church, whose golden Mary, Mother of God can be seen shining from afar, rather than by the view of Marseilles, which I should have expected but left me completely stunned for a moment. The city by the sea was spread out so widely, all beauty. Inside, the church was ugly gaudiness and fug.
A quarter of an hour of steep downhill to get back to the port. Bought a newspaper, picked up my photos; back to the hotel, in my room, which is no longer a cell, more like an apartment in which one can be. Also no longer cold, as already mentioned. Would like to talk a little to someone and, for a moment, consider whether to go drink a coffee near the reception where a few people are sitting, but then decide to finish reading Imre Kertész, I – another, which I barely understand; he must not write for me, but I can still read him.
Thursday. Sun. Woke up at seven like every other day, for the first time the tables are set for breakfast; a table full of loud people, three women and two men, visitors from the provinces, I assume. The pudgy man in the yellow shirt at the next table looks at me and rolls his eyes; they bother him. They don’t bother me, and the whole time I watch as they get excited, interrupt one another out of a compulsive need to be heard and to be taken seriously; I ask myself what could bring them to silence, of what magnitude would a catastrophe need to be to make them shut up – only momentarily, of course, before they set off again, as if someone were chasing them with a whip. At the reception an old lady, very dignified and upstanding. Her bathrobe and slippers can’t damage her dignity. Went up to my room, saw her at the end of the hall, shuffling home in little steps.
Read the first scene: Sophie, Hanna and Ivan at noon in Hanna’s apartment, where Sophie’s gaze – due to discomfort and boredom, since her all-too-familiar discomfort around Ivan by now bores her no less than it tortures her – falls on a newspaper ad, apartment swap, Marseilles for Berlin. Probably expected too much from the scene – Sophie’s unrequited love towards Ivan, the relationship Ivan-Hanna, who taunt each other because they can’t leave one another – and yet I don’t want to explain anything, only report, like Walter Benjamin says: “present events, as it were, dry, draining them entirely of psychological explanations and opinions of every sort”. They should speak sentences like involuntary gestures, sentences that they know nothing about and whose sound, should they even become aware of it, would surprise them. But how should I describe this without knowing about it myself? I should let myself be written.
Read some more instead, looked for the streets from Myslovice–Braunschweig–Marseilles on the map, The Voyage of the Mascot, The Handkerchief, and because I was lying on the bed, I tentatively closed my eyes, which immediately resulted in sleep. Dreamt; I was in a large, beautiful store full of clothes and wanted to buy Agnes a dress and a pair of shoes. The clothes were hanging in complete disarray and Agnes sat on some kind of stool next to one of the racks; she had already tried on a dress, wide and floral, and now I was attempting to get her to try some shoes, light blue girls’ shoes made from soft leather with a perforated pattern; I showed them to Jürgen, who was there, standing a short distance from me. He agreed, yes, he also thought the shoes were nice, which validated my entreaty, so I continued to plead with Agnes while a saleswoman rushed past, watching us with uncomprehending eyes. Then Agnes went hiding amongst the clothes hanging next to her, as if behind a curtain, and I was supposed to look for her but couldn’t find her. In her place was a beautiful tabby cat with thick fur and I called the cat, Agnes, Agnes, but she ran off through the store and wouldn’t let herself be caught. I called her name again and again and suddenly there were many cats, all of them tabby, with an array of distinctive features, and I no longer knew which was Agnes; in a panic I realised that I had not taken notice of the characteristics of her fur, that I couldn’t describe it, even though I thought I knew it so well; I couldn’t find her. I kept calling, Agnes, Agnes, and all of a sudden it occurred to me, in a huge surprise, that I had given a cat the name Agnes, the name of my daughter. That was the end of the dream.
I could have kept sleeping in this beautiful place if only it didn’t make me feel guilty. Ate chestnut puree from the Petit Casino with one of the metal spoons from Le Corbusier’s original fitted kitchen.
Another futile attempt at going to the cinema; the Amalric film started so late that I wouldn’t have been able to pick up my photos anymore, so I slowly strolled down the rue Paradis, which, it became more evident with each step, fully lives up to its name with regards to the weakness I’d successfully suppressed thus far in Marseilles: Prada, Gucci, Miu Miu, Jil Sander, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester. In the first store the saleswoman was insufferable; in the next they had all the brands, and a rack at half price, but as always everything was too big or had golden straps. The saleswoman converted the price of a pair of Miu Miu trousers, which were perfect, from euros into francs; no idea what nationality she thought me to be or whether the concept of the single currency was completely alien to her. As I kept hesitating, she offered that I pay in instalments. I asked what time they closed, that’s always my farewell phrase so as not to deprive the saleswomen and myself of all hope, and then I left without the trousers, wearing my old APC cords; there’s always next time, I consoled myself, but I don’t actually believe it. Picked up photos, bought newspapers, took the métro back home.
Down in the lobby hang notes with ads, for the most part from people looking for apartments, specifying the type of apartment they want, and on every note is printed a picture of Le Corbusier, the man, the person. I rode the elevator with friendly people, mainly mothers and children, whom I could have spoken to – but I can’t just speak to strangers; I lack the words, and it’s got nothing to do with my French. And yet, I would like to know how they live, what they do… though maybe I don’t really want to know these things after all, maybe I just want to tell them that they appeal to me and that I enjoy imagining their lives, but what’s the point of saying that? Thus, as always, just bonjourand then bonsoir, and then on through the lovely apartment door, painted red, with a long vertical wooden handle and lit from above by the famous comma-shaped lamp, also red.
Friday. First coffee on place de Lenche. It was still early, walked through a narrow street towards a construction site that surrounds the cathedral, which only opens at ten. Would actually have liked to wait but, hesitantly, I crossed the street towards the port, and then kept going further and further, avenue R. Schuman, place de la Joliette – by then I no longer intended to turn back – boulevard de Dunkerque, where a police car and two others were parked on the side of the road and a heated discussion was underway. Five police officers – three men and two young women – and several men whose personal details were being taken down. They were wildly gesticulating and screaming at each other; one of the men was told to move his car; he got in, but instead of driving off he leant his entire upper body out of the window, repeatedly punched his fist into his other hand and didn’t stop screaming. I kept going, because the door of the car on which I was leaning suddenly opened, and inside there was a guy on the phone, he looked like Harun Farocki. View of the warehouses, the ships out at sea hidden beyond them.
Avenue Roger Salengro, simple rundown houses, lined up uniformly like the pearls of a necklace; Middle Eastern bars, stores with shoes and woollen blankets in plastic bags; bright sunlight that made the street seem oddly pristine and glassy. Place Bougainville, an Arabic man with his child under the trees in front of a bar; the highway passes above, shielding the square rather than ruining it; the child pointed at me because of the camera, the man laughed. Rue de Lyon, “the long rue de Lyon is the road Marseilles blasted through the landscape”, I read in the Walter Benjamin book published in 1930, but I saw nothing of what I had imagined – not in the small stores, not in the square in front of the church, not in the women, not even in all the damaged walls and poverty; only the eyes of the young men contained this hatred towards it all. Took the bus back, rode the métro to the old port; in front of me sat a man who didn’t dare look at me, whereas my gaze fell on his hands, whose skin was completely white, as if desiccated. They remained immobile the whole time. Café des Arts for the second time, Ça va?, I’m asked, and whether I’d like to eat something, Yes, and if not red wine rather than water, which they set on the table in a painted lemonade bottle. Through the seventh arrondissement; suddenly silence, languid midday; across place Saint-Eugène to a tiny port at the end of rue du Vallon, view of the Château d’If and, from the bus, the first sunbathers lying on the beach.
Saturday. Woke from fragmented dreams, including one in which I was standing with many others, all the familiar faces from Berlin, on a staircase, steep and stretching endlessly upwards; it was so bright, as if we were outside, and yet it was inside, because we all wanted to go to a cinema. At the foot of the stairs was a long list of films that we wanted to see and Christian came and forbade me to see his film, which apparently was also on the list. I asked him why but he merely repeated his prohibition. What could it possibly mean? I will ask him.
Worked; at three took an extremely overcrowded bus towards Canebière; at the Prefecture we all had to get off, Messieurs, une démonstration, said the bus driver, who an hour later almost ran me over on rue Paradis as I was walking on the street because there was no room on the pavement. ‘La Culture Tibetaine meurt’ was written on the banners, and slogans were chanted with great vigour by maybe a hundred excited demonstrators. Once again in the bookstore of the Laffitte sisters, to buy the map of Marseilles in book format; was sold out, nor did they have a small livre animéby Antoon Krings for the children – and not just that, such a thing never existed, claimed the bookseller. I must be mixing them up with the Mimi books, he said, which really annoyed me, because I bought one for Louis in Paris five years ago, but I should have written off this bookstore last time already. Then to the cinema for real this time, Le Stade de Wimbledon, Jeanne Balibar, wearing a lovely chequered coat over a differently chequered skirt, on the train to Trieste, then the train breaks down and she follows an Englishman wearing camo pants and a military cap across the landscape; from behind bushes, in the distance emerges the sea; then a train station, which they approach along the tracks. Free and effortless photography. The same is true of the narrative; she’s looking for a writer who has never written, and at the very end – a year must have gone by – she stands in the empty Wimbledon Stadium and looks down at the green rectangle; through her gaze it becomes the most beautiful place imaginable, because her quest has turned it into her goal. And you never want to see it any other way.
Sunday. A clear day, it’s going to be warm. I have to go.