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Dramatizing Austerlitz


When the BBC recently announced that it was going to air a radio “dramatisation” of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, I am afraid I shuddered.  Dramatizations (I’m stubbornly sticking with the American spelling) almost always go badly and if any author’s works seemed wrong for dramatization, those of Sebald seem seemed extremely wrong.  In his prose fictions, Sebald filtered everything and every person through the singular voice of his narrator.  Austerlitz, which actually has a plot of sorts and a handful of characters, is nevertheless told exclusively through one voice.

The BBC dramatization, which is credited to Michael Butt and was directed by John Taylor, has a cast of twelve that includes three different voices playing Austerlitz at different ages.  There is background music to set the mood and there are plenty of sound effects to underscore the text.  Sebald’s book has been taken apart, abbreviated,  and remolded into a 90-minute radio play that at times is indistinguishable from a soap opera.  The narrator is positioned as writer looking for a new project before his eyesight gives out and when he meets Austerlitz he realizes he’s found his ideal subject.  And Austerlitz…well, there’s the rub.  Much of the commentary that have been made by those that have listened to the play have focused on poor radio-Austerlitz who, I dare say, Sebald would not recognize.  Here, Austerlitz is played as an extremely tentative, over-anxious, insecure worrier.

I happen to be a big fan of well-narrated audio books.  Listening to a narrator who reads well and who does not try to act can often be just as good as reading the book silently to one’s self.  (John le Carré, for example, is one reader I enjoy.)  Sebald himself recorded the “Max Ferber” section of The Emigrants in a German-language audio CD in 2000, using a voice that scarcely moves beyond a clearly-enunciated monotone.  It’s almost hypnotic to listen to him.  Dramatizations, on the other had, almost always seem to be for lazy readers who need to hear cell doors slamming to know we’re now in a prison or who need to hear sobbing when someone dies.  I’m sure there are some who might make the argument that a dramatization is a way of making fiction more accessible and thus opening it up to new audiences.  Perhaps many people will have heard about Sebald and Austerlitz for the first time through this BBC radio broadcast.  My problem with the BBC dramatization of Austerlitz is that it could have been done in a way that remained true to the intent of Sebald’s complex exploration of memory and identity.  This is a dramatization that belies Sebald’s original from start to finish by drowning out the text in a miasma of ambiance, never permitting Sebald to try to win over readers on his own terms.  The radio play conceived by Butt and Taylor is mainstream, unimaginative theater that doesn’t attempt to capture Sebald’s idiosyncratic form of narrative.  They would have been much better off to let the narrator (well-played by Stephen Greif) to carry the entire production single-handedly.  Instead, Sebald’s text was sacrificed so that the BBC’s audience wouldn’t have to.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. As I mentioned on Twitter, the introductory narration led me to have high hopes right at the outset, but then things quickly and disappointingly went downhill. I do believe that Sebald’s text is adaptable to other media under the right conditions, but this attempt seemed to be a case study in how a Sebald adaptation should *not* be done.

    December 20, 2012
  2. Tomasz #


    December 21, 2012
  3. Not sure I agree with you, but then you probably know more about the novel than I do. I reviewed AUSTERLITZ on

    December 21, 2012
    • It has been very interesting to read all of the comments as they come in. I agree with Laurence that a dramatization should be evaluated on its own and not solely in comparison to its literary source. I tried to listen to the radio play of Austerlitz with open mind and, in fact, it got off to a very good start. But as the radio version progressed I found myself resisting its interpretation as it repeatedly tried to unseat my private notion of what the characters were like – especially Jacques Austerlitz. This is clearly my “fault,” as it were. I could not, at least at that moment, give up my deeply-held sense of the character of Austerlitz and I really came to dislike the radio version. So, in that sense, I’m probably too close to be an independent judge of how this comes off as a piece of audio drama. In some ways (I can’t believe I’m saying this) I think Austerlitz could be better made as a film than an audio drama. The audio drama puts too much emphasis on plot line and the differentiation of characters, whereas Austerlitz is a highly visual book in some respects and cinema has better ways of cutting across time and space. -Terry


      December 21, 2012
  4. odp #

    Usually I’m not interested in adaptation (for cinema, theater or radio) of novels that I’m particularly fond of.
    But it seems to me unfair to judge these adaptations comparing them to their source: they must be judged as standalone works of art; in this respect I’ve really appreciated the dramatization of Austerlitz: it is obviously light years away from the complexities of Sebald’s text, but it manages to convey some of its key themes aptly using its medium.

    December 21, 2012
  5. I agree with this comment – I think adaptations are not to be compared with their source-texts in value-laden ways.

    December 21, 2012
  6. Miroslav Kirin #

    Hi Terry!
    If you or anyone else still wants to download Austerlitz, here’s the link (just a few downloads left):


    p.s. did you get the mail I sent you a few days ago?

    December 21, 2012
    • Greetings:

      Any chance for a possible download at this point? I am a little late getting this.



      January 3, 2013
      • Miroslav #

        I’ll do something about it.

        January 6, 2013
      • Miroslav: Thank you kindly – please send info to


        January 7, 2013
      • Miroslav Kirin #

        Hi! I’ve just uploaded the file for you to download it. I hope it will work.


        January 8, 2013
      • Thank you so very much!

        Worked perfectly


        January 8, 2013
      • Greetings:

        Miroslav, I was out of the country when this radio play was posted. Is there any chance you could re-upload the file again? If so, please send info to



        January 23, 2013
  7. I really enjoyed the radio broadcast, had me hooked and regard it as an object in its own right, based on etc. I defer to the immensely more knowledgable folk here, i’ve never read a word of Sebald and now hold him in high regard, even if the r.broadcast was possibly a thin watered-down version. I’m okay with what i heard, i appreciate the effort that was put into it, far less cringe making than many other radio things I’ve heard before (….. thank goodness).

    I can see no advantage in cinema for this.

    It worked for me.

    December 24, 2012
  8. -ization is not the American spelling, but the OED spelling.

    June 22, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Sebald was more interesting than the husband: Austerlitz and l’effet du réel | Helen Finch

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