Heinz Bütler and Manfred Eicher
With Erland Josephson as Herr Geiser, Sophie Duez as Corinne, and Elevezia Barzan as Eine alte Frau
Music by J. S. Bach, Béla Bartók, Jan Garbarek, Paul Hindemith, Keith Jarrett, and Dimitri Shostakovich
Premiered in August of 1992 at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize
Produced by filmedition suhrkamp
Release date: October 30, 2009
Man alone is familiar with disasters, should he survive these; nature knows no disasters.
Based on Max Frisch’s 1979 short story, “The Man in the Holocene,” Holozän is among the most poignant studies of solitude committed to celluloid. Manfred Eicher’s only foray into filmmaking put the ECM Records producer in collaboration with director Heinz Bütler. Eicher co-wrote script and compiled the music for this experience, the rewards of which are manifold.
It comes as no surprise that Bütler studied languages and has a degree in translation and interpreting, for his directorial style is a master class in inflections and retellings. We see it in the opening shot of water as strains of Bach waft through the air. The juxtaposition is more than coincidental; it’s inevitable, for the music of Bach is equally timeless, as much a repository for chronologies as the oceans themselves. We’re then faced with the Ticino mountains, their skin a yielding sponge for sunrays. It’s as if the landscape has been folded in half, the crease between them an uneven horizon.
Such quietude makes for artful contrast, and expresses the balancing act of life between sinking and floating. The low strings that follow with their grave tone seem to dig a grave in and of themselves: a pit of darkness wherein all beginnings must end. Herr Geiser (Erland Josephson) walks into his house, as if the mist congregated and pinched him out of ether. The interior walls are a gallery of curios: fragments of text, pictures torn from natural and unnatural histories alike.
Although his name connotes a geyser, nothing could be further from his temperament. He cuts up encyclopedias and history books, saving some and burning others in a fireplace, speaking more through the rasp of scissors on paper than the push of lips over esophageal air. He contemplates the emptiness of that which has been committed to external memory, piecing together a new narrative via pre-established ones. A thunder storm rumbles outside his window as he shifts through their psychological echoes.
That very sound hints at one of the film’s leitmotifs: namely, water in various states of unrest. Whether hanging like a curtain, collected in stagnant pools, or covering roads and less manicured paths, it’s both comfort and threat. For indeed, while he has taken refuge from that storm, the deeper one raging inside has real power to thrash him.
He is losing his memory, and collects things as if the words of others might be pieced together to mimic his own. He finds companionship in the vestigial, but seeks encounters insofar as he is able to from his melancholy perch.
The landscape harbors quiet menace in the eyes of this man, who looks with binoculars to be closer to it without actually being so. Even when a salamander wanders in from the rain, Geiser puts a magnifying glass up to it. The limpid gaze of this animal is the film’s only direct regard of the viewer, and shows the rudiments of Geiser’s intermediary technologies in making sense of nature.
He studies a map, knowing he’ll never place his feet along its paths, and at one point must open the balcony door and shout his name into the mist, lest he forget it. In response, the mist enters the room in confirmation of his flesh.
Fatigued by the cold, damp air, and by the menial chores demanding his attention, he creates others of circular purpose. He builds a house out of crackers, even as he eats its raw materials, destroying while creating, as if turning away from God’s generative almightiness. His almost-perverse interest in the journals of Sir Robert Scott of the British Antarctic Expedition, who along with his men died close to a supply depot when insurmountable weather prevented them from reaching it, betrays a butter-knifed masochism. He falls to the floor as images of natural disaster flicker on his TV, aware that the world might tear him apart at any moment. He exerts himself, doing exercises and limber moves, proving he still has a flicker of youth, but this only depresses him more. Physical memory, it seems, isn’t the same as mental.
That said, there are two other people in the film: an old woman who prays through her rosary, and Geiser’s daughter Corinne. We see the latter driving up the mountain with Keith Jarrett’s music as her fuel. The mountain looms in her window. Upon arrival, she sifts through his things in his absence, as he is climbing. She reads the words on his wall to glue his memory, and with it lights a shriveled torch in her own. She watches the mist. Meanwhile, her father is alone in the wilderness, alive with strains of Jan Garbarek. He wanders at night with a flashlight, seeing only the details of his focus as all else recesses into darkness.
Corinne reads from the same expedition journal. The end cannot be far. She fears for him. He falls asleep in a dilapidated building, only to awake at daybreak to find it was an old stone church. With a Paul Hindemith solo viola sonata brushing under her feet, Corinne talks with the old woman to find out where he went. He starts to make his way back, but stays to ponder among the rocks.
Eicher’s indebtedness to Andrei Tarkovsky is indelible in almost every frame of Holozän, and it’s by no coincidence that Josephson made The Sacrificewith the Russian director. And not only for the mist, cautious regard of faces, and slow pacing, but also for the ambience. One can almost hearthe mist, leaves, and air. The creak of footsteps, click of stone against stone, whispers of water in various collective states: these are a language of foley, of the interim. A space where space itself is a soul turned inside out.