One of my primary curiosities coming to Zurich—in addition, of course, to exploring the historic city and its surrounding natural wonders—was to get a better sense of independent German-language cinema beyond the more recognizable names circulated in international festivals. This niche is well represented here in the Focus section, which spotlights works from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, though oddly enough, a large percentage of the films competing in this sidebar are actually set elsewhere. Case in point: Berlin-based director Alexandra Balteanu’s well-meaning but interminable Vanatoare, a visually sloppy (lots of bumbling widescreen handheld work in low light) piece of Romanian miserabilism that’s as much about a rundown, puddle-strewn highway underpass in perpetually overcast Bucharest as it is about any of its interchangeably down-and-out characters.
Another example is Europe, She Loves, shot in Dublin, Thessaloniki, Tallinn, and Seville, but directed by Zurich native Jan Gassmann and funded by local currency. A seeming passion project with the scattershot quality of an omnibus film, it hops around between different young couples in these disparate locales—all heterosexual, which is worth noting given that the film argues for a unified Europe—while binding their vignettes of economic hardship with B-roll of cityscapes and countrysides set to snatches of radio transmissions detailing the recent collapses of the EU in the realms of social freedom, immigration, policing, and more. These interstitial tableaux represent a strenuous thematic overreaching that only leeches specificity from the people whose problems Gassmann seeks to illuminate, making Europe, She Loves feel like not only a conceptual miscalculation, but a film that could have been set anywhere where hurdles stand between young adults and personal fulfillment (so basically, everywhere).
More content with staying local are Hans Haldimann’s Einfach Leben and Lisa Blatter’s Sketches of Lou. The former, set deep in a mountain range three hours south of the festival center, documents the goings on at a self-sustaining co-op committed to living off the land, while the latter hangs around Zurich itself to observe a few episodes in the life of Lou (Liliane Amuat), a free spirit in her late 20s with a traumatic past. Haldimann’s film is possessed of a modesty that renders it a breath of fresh air in spite of its shortcomings (such as its lax sense of structure), and the fact that its crude digital photography shortchanges the grandeur of the region actually feels apropos given that the film is less about the idyllic beauty of rural living as it as about the irritating toil of it. Blatter’s maudlin drama, meanwhile, has a comparably polished look, and yet it puts across little of the distinctive character of the city, which is frustrating since the story’s focus—Lou’s on-again-off-again relationship with jealous stud Aro (Dashmir Ristemi, sculpted like Zeus)—is hardly unique enough to disguise the under-ripe sense of place.
Meanwhile, a vivid sense of place is often the saving grace of the rambling Austrian-German indie The Eremites, centered on a derelict cottage in the bitter-cold mountains of Tyrol and the equally icy family members who keep the hearth crackling. Director Ronny Trocker has transparently studied up on his austere European-arthouse staples: There are plenty of Béla Tarr-like tracking shots of characters trudging through mud, wood-chopping scenes laden with pregnant pauses, symbolic uses of color in an otherwise ashen wasteland, and even a truncated appropriation of the long traveling sequence that first takes Stalker‘s characters into the Zone. Trocker has an eye, but he never finds a story to tell within The Eremites‘s simultaneously cluttered and diffuse tapestry, which juggles a lament for the dying of ancient labor traditions, a dispiritingly black-hearted family drama with vague mystical overtones, a workplace quasi-comedy (Trocker’s protagonist is employed at a stone quarry down mountain), and a tentative romance subplot.
Also Swiss-made but screening in competition is Fulvio Bernasconi’s Misericorde, the only relatively conventional genre piece I caught at the festival. Graced with the sturdy narrative architecture and local color of Coen brothers thrillers like Fargo or No Country for Old Men (though lacking either’s sense of humor), it relates the tale of Thomas (Jonathan Zaccaï), a Geneva man vacationing in Quebec who discovers the body of a young boy on the side of a woodsy two-lane highway and resolves to tracking down the truck driver who fled the scene of the crime. The boy, he finds out, lived in a nearby Native Indian reservation sequestered away from the largely white, French-speaking population of the region, and as Thomas’s own troubled recent past comes to light, Bernasconi’s overarching theme of atonement—which the title, translated as “mercy,” is a little blunt about—takes on an unmistakable political and historical subtext. The film’s moral conviction is reinforced by a running visual interest in unseen or distant violence: a deer dies off screen and shows up clinging to a truck’s shadowy gears, an older man beats a young boy in the blurry background, and Thomas’s own act of violence remains a potent structuring absence.
A woman at the film’s Q&A made a point to press Bernasconi on the degree to which his thriller employed members of the community it depicts (some crew came from the local pool, he assured her), which illuminated just how prevalent questions of ethics in production have become among contemporary audiences. It’s something of a badge of honor, particularly within a certain arthouse-inclined festival sphere, to direct a film using nonprofessional actors in their indigenous locales, the assumption being that heightened authenticity will organically emerge as a result—though we rarely talk about how substandard acting is also a likely side effect. According to this criterion of value, Emiliano Torres’s El Invierno should expect no shortage of plaudits, as it commits fully to on-location shooting in a remote region of Patagonia without running water, electricity, or WiFi and features in its supporting cast several grizzled farmhands with no prior screen experience.
Yet another work that worries over the clash between agrarian models of sustainability and new money and technology (a marked trend at least in my screening schedule here in Zurich), the film vacillates between longueurs of solitary drudgery at a secluded sheep farm and plotty intimations of encroaching capitalistic forces aiming to seize the rugged land, though its pulse rarely rises above a flat line. The cast is certainly not the stumbling block: Alejandro Sieveking, playing an elderly worker recently fired by his company because of alleged pressures from new property investors to downsize, is blessed with the faded majesty of late John Wayne, while Cristian Salquero, playing the younger body who takes the old one’s place, excels in a taciturn role that might have been occupied by Gael García Bernal in a less verisimilitude-conscious production. Rather, El Invierno‘s crutch is how soberingly reliant it is on its stark locations and textured faces to carry interest; as a result, it’s unsatisfyingly adrift in a middle ground between ethnographic portraiture and a more politically urgent thriller piece.
Unlike Trocker, who films his own off-the-grid milieu at askew angles and in expressionistic tones, Torres is a fairly classical image-maker, rooting his characters firmly in their environment through balanced 2:35:1 compositions, but his respectable craft stops short of any risky narrative maneuvers. We’re left to watch the whisper of a conflict laboriously emerge in between ponderous observations of the daily grind. With that said, the film does build to a tragic climactic act staged with poise and patience on snow-covered slopes, a scene powerful enough to retrospectively inscribe significance to seemingly inconsequential gestures from earlier in the film. Having watched El Invierno on an evening after my fourth spell of crippling jetlag-induced insomnia, I wouldn’t be surprised if I lost something.
Such are the hazards of festival-going, which requires one to do all kinds of damage to the body clock by teasing sunlight for brief spurts of time in between prolonged immersions in darkness. Thankfully, I was able to scare away some free time for feng-shui realignment one afternoon when I travelled by train to the Canton of Appenzell, an hour east of the city, where I sat in the hills of Urnäsch alongside grazing sheep and drank a local beer overlooking a panorama worthy of Bruegel. It was in this moment that I realized none of the films in the Focus section, for all their merits, captured this particular Switzerland. Where’s the Apichatpong Weerasethakul of the Germanic grasslands? If he eventually emerges, let’s hope the sharply organized and attractively staged Zurich Film Festival can be his home base.
The Zurich Film Festival runs from September 22—October 2.