The Gold Standard: Thomas Arslan’s Transcultural Western
The MoMA Berlin School series is a solid mix of older and recent titles, some of which have already received significant exposure in New York. As I mentioned in my previous article, having the chance to revisit some of these key films in the context of the “movement” (however problematic that concept may be) is reason enough to include films like Benjamin Heisenberg’s very fine The Robber, which was featured in the 2010 New York Film Festival and subsequently released by Kino Lorber; or Christian Petzold’s two most recent films, both of which received U.S. distribution. But then, it’s difficult to say just how much exposure is enough for a film to gain real traction in a cinematic landscape crowded with objects of potential interest. Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness is not only one of the very finest films of the Berlin School, but of recent years. The film, an indictment of both the neo-colonial logic of Western NGOs and the psychology of male fecklessness, was selected for the 2011 NYFF and received distribution in Canada through Ron Mann’s Films We Like company. But despite generally strong reviews, no one took the bait in the U.S.
Thomas Arslan’s last film, 2010’s In The Shadows, fared even worse in this country. After world premiering at the Berlinale, it got very little festival exposure and languished with no distribution. It’s not even available on DVD, unless you buy it as an import. As I noted in the previous piece, this has happened to a number of fine Berlin School films, and In The Shadows did end up playing in New York earlier this year, courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look series. (I wrote about the film here.) But it’s odd that what seemed, on its face, to be one of the most accessible achievements from this allegedly alienating strain of art cinema somehow missed its chance at finding the audience I’m confident would have embraced it. If evidence were needed that Arslan is every inch the master that Petzold is, In The Shadows provides it in spades.
MOMA’s  Berlin School series offers New Yorkers the local premiere of Arslan’s newest film, Gold. A German-Canadian co-production, about 75% German, 25% English, this picture represents a bold new direction for Arslan. In the simplest and most immediate terms, it’s a Western: a group of recent German immigrants have come to British Columbia in order to follow Mr. Laser (Peter Kurth), a possibly dodgy German-Canadian prospector, up north into the unsettled Klondike region to look for gold. The arrival by train of an unaccompanied woman, Emily Meyer (frequent Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss), marks the completion of the expedition group, who will face numerous challenges – those posed both the elements and by human nature – as they journey into the wilderness on horseback.
Initial reviews of Gold have been mixed, and I can see why. This is an exceedingly strange film, but in continually fascinating ways. Arslan makes directorial choices throughout the film that signal a desire to throw the spectator out of the viewing process, away from any narrative absorption and back onto the generic and historical valence of Gold. But this is not accomplished through the now-standard Brechtian distanciation maneuvers: direct address, violent ellipses, textual inserts, and the like.
Instead, a film-savvy viewer will initially feel awkward while watching Gold, wondering why Arslan made it, or at least made it this way. For instance, the plot mechanics, involving Laser’s leadership hinging on pretending to know his way around the uncharted land of First Peoples, and leading his party into dead ends and dissolution, almost exactly mirrors the premise of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, made just two years ago. (The emerging prominence of a woman in the group, played by Michelle Williams in Meek’s and by Hoss here, is also a strong parallel, although the characters themselves are quite different.) Similarly, Gold makes use of a spare, solo-riff rock guitar soundtrack by Dylan Carson as a transition between scenes. In its function as well as its immediate sound, this accompaniment is extraordinarily similar to that Neil Young provided for Jim Jarmusch’s neo-Western Dead Man.
So what is Arslan up to? Once an attentive film viewer notices these similarities, it begins to feel as though Gold is some sort of crypto-remake or pastiche of extremely recent films, or even a kind of postmodern duplication of them analogous to Sherrie Levine’s infamous re-photographs of classic works from the modernist canon (“After Edward Weston;” “After Walker Evans”). This is, I think, partly the case. After all, there is nothing unusual (or so we’ve been led to believe over the years) about German films, or French or Danish or Chinese or Korean films, being virtually reproduced in English (or in Hindi). It’s only the fact that Arslan has reversed the terms of the “agreement” (and done so with the Western, that echt-American genre) that makes Gold’s immediate familiarity seem bizarre.
What’s more, an interest in genre, and film history more broadly, has been increasingly evident in Arslan’s work, a concern he shares with his colleague Christian Petzold. While his first few films have played, much like Angela Schanelec’s, as urban character studies, with In The Shadows he very consciously turned to the existential crime cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville as a template for the exploration of fate and the rapidly dwindling choices one faces in the “prosperity” of the Merkel era. Although discussions of the Berlin School tend to emphasize the break with German cinema of the past, favoring quite apposite comparisons with Pialat, Eustache, and Garrel, the fundamental importance of Fassbinder for these directors cannot be overstated. And like Fassbinder, Arslan has recently chosen to adapt earlier cinematic modes and gestures to his own ends, and In The Shadows bears traces of Fassbinder’s Love is Colder Than Death as well as The American Soldier.
Like Fassbinder and Melville, Arslan treats genre as a plastic object, something to manipulate to his own ends. We see this in Gold, and not only in the fact that Arslan’s Western operates in part like a simulacrum not of classical Westerns but of other contemporary neo-Westerns. As the film progresses, we can observe certain mutations of purpose. The seven travelers struggle to find a route up through the wilderness to a town called Dawson, many days away from their starting point. Along the way, the group is beset with all manner of calamity: wagon failure, dead horses, broken bones, treachery and madness. Over the course of the journey, the party is winnowed down to a final survivor. [SPOILER AHEAD.] It is Emily who emerges as the “final girl,” as if Gold, from Point A to Point B, had evolved from a Western into a horror film.
But in fact, Gold entails many different generic overtones in the course of its running time. Naturally, it is a road movie, although there is no “road” to speak of. It contains elements of a film noir, in the sense that power struggles, deception and betrayal continually bubble to the surface of the group during moments of encampment, usually in the dark of night. And, slowly but clearly telegraphed throughout the course of Gold is a tragic love story between Emily and the horseman Carl Böhmer (Marco Mandic), whose courtship begins, as per Shakespearean convention, with sparring and trading of insults.
None of these aspects of Gold are mutually exclusive to the generic conventions of the Western. However, by the film’s conclusion, Arslan has brought us to a tipping point of sorts. The final thirty minutes of Gold quite explicitly transgresses certain fundamental assumptions about the genre. Rossmann (Lars Rudolph), the kind-hearted but somewhat cowardly family man, typically is given an opportunity to prove his bravery (thereby transitioning into “appropriate” masculinity). But Arslan provides Rossmann with an altogether more modern fate. Overtaken by exhaustion and the stench of death, he begins to see evil signs in the forest. (Fig. 1) In the end, he strips naked, wanders off and disappears.
It is notable, however, that Arslan pointedly refuses to show Rossmann “going native” or becoming frightened by the various emblems of the British Columbian First Peoples whose tribal lands the party has crossed. The refutation of these xenophobic reflexes, however, is to be expected in the contemporary revisionist Western. What Arslan emphasizes instead is the pull and the power of the land itself, an untamed wilderness that has its own material imperatives and a sense of the sublime.
In this regard, Gold is highly distinctive because it is a very Canadian film. The visual treatment of the Northern B.C. landscape owes much to the early 20th century Canadian painters known as the Group of Seven. These artists gained notoriety for their devotion to creating a Canadian vernacular modernism, achieved by paying specific attention to the still-untamed wilderness. In particular, Gold draws on the work of B.C. artists Emily Carr and Tom Thomson. Carr’s Forest, British Columbia, 1935 (Fig. 2) offers a glimpse of the mysterious curvature of trees and rock formations analogous to those that Arslan shows creeping into Rossmann’s troubled consciousness. Meanwhile, Thomson’s 1915 In The Northland (Fig. 3) displays the thin timber and fragmented light that we observe in the later moments of Gold’s difficult journey (Fig. 4).
So indeed, Arslan has made a Western that breaks the rules, that occupies the genre in order to turn it inside out. (As with Rossmann’s failure to achieve, we can also point to the fact that Böhmer never faces his enemies in a gunfight, or that Emily is the sole survivor riding off to complete the trek alone.) But more than this, Gold is a film that establishes numerous points of reference in order to continually reorient them, resulting in a highly refracted viewing experience. It is a new film that observes old rules in the same manner as other slightly less new films, only to slide imperceptibly into other sets of less obvious rules. But perhaps most radically, Gold adopts an immediately apparent gesture – providing a German riff on the most American of film genres – only to slyly reveal a different approach. Arslan’s film, to its bones, is secretly Canadian.