Continuing her recent collection of film portraits, Tacita Dean’s Michael Hamburger is a moving portrayal of the poet and translator, a resident of Middleton in Suffolk and great friend of W.G. Sebald. It represented Dean’s first commission in Britain since 1999.
For its 28 minutes, the film quietly observes the poet in his study and among the apple trees in his garden. Sunlight dissolves the frames of the windows, the most insubstantial of thresholds between this home, only one-room-deep, and what lies outdoors; a rainbow marks its watery geometry in the sky; and the apples age upon the ground, shrunken, and yet somehow becoming more intensely themselves.
Although Hamburger is said to have despaired of reviews of his poetry which declared that he is ‘better known as a translator’, we might detect a similar deprecation of his self, by himself, in the film which shares his name. Unwilling, perhaps unable, to talk of his past and his migrations, most especially fleeing Nazism in 1933, he talks poignantly, instead, of his apple trees, of where they have come from, and of their careful cross-breeding. Purity is dismissed, and one senses with an awkward pathos that the poet is translating himself.