As a nonfiction portrait of an artist, Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World splits the stylistic difference between a standard informational art-appreciation documentary and a more observational film like Corinna Belz’s Gerhard Richter Painting. Thus, in Belinda Sallin’s film about H.R. Giger, best known for designing the villainous creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien, stretches of talking-head interviews delving into his past and influences alternate with fly-on-the-wall sequences that follow the German artist basically living a settled life in his Zurich home just before his death last year—and mere days after this film wrapped up shooting.
Perhaps the most immediately startling revelation of Sallin’s film lies in just how normal Giger seems. For an artist who made a career out of tapping into the most forbidding corridors of the human subconscious, he comes off as remarkably humble and soft-spoken when interacting with people (whether close relatives and friends, or devoted fans at public events), exuding few of the neuroses one would expect based on his work. And yet, his work is everywhere in his residence: his drawings plastered on walls, his sculptures all over his backyard amid the green overgrowth, and even a railroad track running through his residence along which he himself sometimes rides. The effect of seeing the quiet Giger amid this backdrop of baroque, unsettling clutter suggests a man who has long made peace with the darker side of humanity, continuing to live quite functionally even with this knowledge.
To some extent, Sallin echoes this fascinating contradiction in her filmmaking. The opening sequence outside of Giger’s residence is shot and scored like something out of a haunted-house film: insinuating panning and dolly shots; Peter Scherer’s evocative low-end electronic droning; a slow zoom into a door that suddenly opens into a darkly lit interior. But one later shot in the film, in which the camera gradually rises high above Giger’s home to take in aerial views of the glittering Zurich metropolis that surrounds him, suggests the wider perspective the film offers regarding Giger’s life and work. Beyond such occasional bits of visual invention, Sallin’s most interesting formal characteristic is its relatively freewheeling structure: Dark Star weaves through past and present, memories and reality, analysis and history, like a mercurial mind reminiscing seemingly at random.
The results of Sallin’s multi-pronged approach, alas, end up being mixed at best. Some of the anecdotes Giger and his relatives offer are genuinely revealing. His current wife, Carmen Maria Giger, recounts a childhood memory her husband once told her about how his sister brought him to the basement of a museum and spooked him with the sight of a mummy; later, though, he would return to that basement every Sunday in an attempt to conquer that fear—an insightful window into Giger’s own obsessive creative process. And there’s poignancy in seeing Giger’s regretful demeanor upon recalling the suicide of his first wife, Li Tobler, as he wonders whether there was more he could have done to help her.
But there are many other moments that suggest a hagiographic bent to Dark Star: glowing anecdotes about Giger’s generosity from collaborators like his metal-musician assistant Tom Gabriel Fischer; didactic moments intended to emphasize the same interpretive line about how Giger’s forbidding art forces us to confront inner violent/sexual desires and taboos; scarcely enlightening observational sequences that simply follow Giger on a press tour for a new book about his Alien creation. When Mia Bonzanigo, Giger’s second wife, is interviewed, Sallin seems not at all interested in why the pair ended up divorcing—as if finding out the answer to that would puncture the celebratory ivory tower she’s trying to erect for him in this film. Such missed opportunities suggest a reticence that, in the end, makes Dark Star less insightful and well-rounded a portrait than it could have been.