Unrequited in Leipzig

By Gregory Dart

Cities, stalking, surveillance: how a book became a film

My little book on unrequited love and stalking was all about obsessive passions, unfinished stories, and the peculiar combination of alienation and intrusiveness at the heart of modern romance. It had other elements as well but these I think were the things that Chris Petit was most struck by, and what encouraged him to think about turning it into a film.

He liked its interest in technology, its internality, and its sense of the distant geometry of desire; he also liked the fact that it was all about waiting, whether fearfully or expectantly, for something to happen. How then do you capture the impersonal poetry of metropolitan desire on film? “The challenge is to try and establish the idea of relationship without using reverse-angle”, he suggested, “and to see if you can tell a love story entirely in long-shot.”

I was a big fan of Petit’s work, and especially of films such as Negative Space, in which spectacular footage of Nevada, a laconic voiceover, extracts from interviews, clips from old films, and an exquisite use of split-screen had all combined to produce a highly suggestive and strangely moving composition about the relationship between film, space and death. And I felt confident that, whatever Chris chose to do with Unrequited Love, the things that he was most interested in were, in fact, the most interesting things in the book, and that he would remain faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original.

The book itself had been an essay-cum-memoir, set in London. It blended auto-biographical reflections with a brief history of unreflecting love in literature and then went on to speculate on the role and status of unrequitedness in modern metropolitan culture, and its increasing proximity to what is now called ‘stalking’. The last part of the book was located very specifically in Spitalfields. So, when the opportunity arose for Petit to shoot some scenes of the film in the former East Germany, it was clear that, in the geographical sense at least, the book would have to be left behind.

As things turned out, Leipzig was a revelation and brought the whole process of adaptation to life. My book had concentrated on what it feels like to pace the streets of a new city: the innocence, the expectation, the longing, and the extraordinary visual appetite of the stranger in paradise. But it was also about how quickly one can feel lost and exposed in a new environment, unsure of everything and everybody. If we had filmed entirely in London, Chris might have had to work harder to retrieve this knot of feeling, and to convey it. But with Leipzig it all came naturally.

We filmed using surveillance cameras in the Petersbogen shopping centre, and with a big zoom from the top of the University Tower. We filmed on trams and at the train station, and in a particularly Third Man-ish square at the foot of the Rathaus. Meditating on the links between stalking and terrorism, on stalking as the new religion of the urban agnostic, Petit had found himself increasingly fascinated by CCTV and surveillance footage. He had also become interested in mobile phone imagery, and the intimate, melting glare of Digi8.

Once completed, I feel sure that the film of Unrequited Love will be, among other things, a meditation on these media, on the poetics of the street camera in the 21st century. No sooner did we get back to Britain than the London bombings had taken place and security camera photos of the suicide bombers were appearing on television screens everywhere. The links with what we had been doing seemed powerful, but mysterious; not only connected with stalking and surveillance, but crisscrossed with the unrequited.

unrequited-love-chris-petit.jpgImages from Unrequited Love (work in progress)


“The opposite of stalking is not love. They have far too much in common for that. The opposite of stalking is flirtation a form of sociability which allows us to entertain the possibility of other people without wanting to fix their meaning. Flirtation means opening up a dialogue while still continuing to maintain a degree of distance. It is, as Adam Phillips says in his essay on the subject, a way of being promising without making any promises, a means of playing for time.

To some people flirtation is cruel, without conviction; but to others it is liberal and tolerant, without a desire to convict. Either way, stalking is at war with this principle, for stalking, in its purest form, wants nothing better than to move in and close the gap. Everything that is indistinct and undecided in our relations with one another, everything that is, in a sense, free, stalking thinks of as a kind of smokescreen, an obstacle to be surmounted, a lie.

Stalking is the erotic impulse pushed to the point of principle, with all of its delightful distractions and deferrals, all of its scrupulous fetishism, cast aside. Stalkers are impatient to rush to the end game, with no sense that once you reach the end, the game is up. The problem is that in conceiving passion in such polarized terms either she loves me completely or she has no feeling at all; either our life will be a heaven together, or I will make hers a hell they are always narrowing the distance between love and death. Stalkers leave themselves, and their victims, with no room for manoeuvre. They are the fundamentalists of love.

from Unrequited Love: on Stalking and Being Stalked (Short Books, 2003).

Gregory Dart teaches at University College London. Apart from his short book on Unrequited Love, he has written an academic monograph on Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism and edited a collection of Hazlitt’s Metropolitan Essays. He also reviews for the TLS and broadsheets, and writes programme notes for Covent Garden. His next book is on Romantic London in the early 19th century. Unrequited Love is currently in post-production. It is partly funded by Film London through their LAFVA scheme.