Mar 24, 2015
When it comes to Germanic nations, I am going to have to assume that the Netherlands is the country that is the least in touch with its ancient pre-Christian pagan roots. Indeed, it should be noted that Sicilian philosopher Julius Evola—a man that had a more spiritual as opposed to biological view of race who was once contracted by Mussolini to start a journal entitled Sangue e Spirito aka Blood and Spirit that promoted a ‘Roman’ approach to race theory that contradicted the supposedly ‘materialistic’ view of race espoused by the racial theorists in National Socialist Germany—once argued in his work The Path of Cinnabar: An Intellectual Autobiography (1963) using the Dutch as an example of a people that, although racially pure in biological terms, had become completely spiritually uprooted, stating, “I rejected the fetish of merely physical racial purity, on the grounds that the purity of the external race of an individual is often preserved even when his inner race has dimmed or deteriorated (a common example of this is that of the Dutch and Scandinavians).” While the Dutch tend to be obnoxiously proud of their rampant irreligiousness and nihilistic atheism, their rigid approach to moral principles that they had adopted from centuries upon centuries of Calvinism seems to have became an innate part of their collective character, so the last European country that I would think would produce films with pre-Christian pagan themes is the Netherlands, yet there have been a couple of such unlikely cinematic works that have been produced there over the past decade or so and luckily they do not wallow in new age buffoonery. Indeed, aside from graphic novelist turned cinematic auteur Guido van Driel’s darkly comedic arthouse gangster flick De Wederopstanding van een Klootzak (2013) aka The Resurrection of a Bastard—a work set in Friesland that makes reference to the sacred Germanic pagan tree ‘Donar’s Oak’ aka ‘Thor's Oak’ (which has been linked to the ‘world tree’ of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil) and the murder of the Christian missionary that cut it down, Saint Boniface—the Netherlands is also responsible for producing the ‘experimental Heimatfilm-cum-mountainfilm’ Winterstilte (2008) aka Winter Silence directed by video artist turned filmmaker Sonja Wyss in what would ultimately be her debut feature. To be fair, Wyss’ film is not as decidedly Dutch as some might assume as the director is actually a Swiss woman who has been living in the Netherlands for about the past couple of decades or so, not to mention the fact that the work was shot in a snowy mountainous region of Switzerland that hardly looks like the Lowland Netherlands. My interest in the film came upon researching it after it was recommended to me by a Dutchman and subsequently reading comparisons to the Nazi era work Der verlorene Sohn (1934) aka The Prodigal Son directed by Luis Trenker, who also played the lead role as a Tyrolean mountaineer who comes from a small Catholic village that, much like the one featured in Wyss’ film, still holds onto some of its pre-Christian beliefs, myths, traditions, and customs. A rare work shot on HD digital video that radiates a certain classic beauty and refreshing traditionalist perspective that makes one temporarily forget all the ugliness, deracination, degeneracy, narcissism, noise, phony post-Christian moral systems, and nihilism that plagues the largely irreligious (post)modern Occidental world, Winter Silence ultimately offers the viewer an all too brief return to rustic simplicity that does not revolve around cheap beer and cheap women.
Notably, Wyss stated after finishing the film, “In my previous work I had no interest in working with dialogue, neither was there, from my point of view, any need for it. In WINTER SILENCE the essential is told with an eye movement or the gesture of a hand. Adding even a single word would have destroyed the tension of the gesture. So not only did I not have a need for dialogue in my work, it was worse, I disliked it.” Indeed, with next to nil dialogue yet featuring a meticulously constructed sound landscape that is as bold, intimidating, and entrancing as the literally and figuratively cold mountain region where the film is set, Winter Light is an eloquently and obsessively assembled experiment in cinematic composition that offers more in terms of poetry than storytelling, though it tells a story and has a message that will certainly appeal more to members of the fairer sex, especially those that have had a more traditional upbringing that involved a father, a mother, and some sort of traditional moral compass. Set in a remote forgotten world where atavistic pagan instincts begin to slowly but surely thwart Nazarene abstractions, the film tells the shockingly transcendental story of a newly widowed post-menopausal matriarch who is reluctant to let her four adult-aged daughters flee the nest and begin living real lives of their own.
Winter Silence begins with a shot of a rocky snowy mountain juxtaposed with an inter-title featuring the following lyrics from Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” aka “Ellens Gesang III”: “Ave Maria! stainless styled. Foul demons of the earth and air, From this their wonted haunt exiled, Shall flee before thy presence fair. We bow us to our lot of care, Beneath thy guidance reconciled; Hear for a maid a maiden's prayer, And for a father hear a child! Ave Maria.” It should be noted that the lyrics were taken from Scottish poet/playwright Sir Walter Scott's once-popular six cantos epic poem The Lady of the Lake (1810). During the film, the mother character will ask for the intercession of the Virgin Mary after her daughters become the personal playthings of a group of mysterious deer-men who summon the girls at night in a fairly ritualistic fashion. Set in a small isolated Swiss mountain village during the beginning of the winter, the film immediately introduces the quaint morality of its characters near the beginning of the film when a young man playfully throws a snowball at a girl and she responds in an overtly flirtatious manner by slightly pulling up her dress to reveal a couple inches of bare skin on her calf. Ultimately the tiny isolated world of the central family is knocked out of equilibrium when the bearded patriarch (Werner Imhoff) accidentally slips and falls off the side of a snowy mountain and dies as a result, thus leaving his wife and their daughters to wallow in a sometimes nefarious nightmare of archaic superstition and folklore. Before she is even told of her husband’s accident, it seems as if the matriarch (Gerda Zangger) could sense that something had happened, just as she will later sense that a couple guys sporting cloaks and antlers are lurking outside her homestead and intend to inseminate her daughters with semen and a new-found sense of freedom. At the father’s funeral, a mysterious masked pagan female figure with a white festive suit covered with bells embroidered with flowers randomly appears as if to indicate that, with the patriarch no longer around to maintain order, the moral fabric of the family will be ripped to shreds and the four nameless sisters (Sandra Utzinger, Brigitta Weber, Katalin Liptak, Sarah Bühlmann) will enthusiastically succumb to their baser instincts, thereupon causing them to transform into independent women in the process. Indeed, it’s all over for the adult virgins when the ostensibly devilish deer-men cum.
After the patriarch perishes in a somewhat anti-climatic fashion, the somewhat overweight widow and her equally less than talkative and mostly homely daughters attempt to keep up appearances and go on with business as per usual, which includes things like killing, skinning, and eating rabbits, as well as regularly praying in an almost pathologically masochistic fashion. Indeed, while standing next to one another with their rosaries hanging from their hands, the girls and their mother collectively chant things like, “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…that I have failed to do good, and have done wrong. I have sinned in my thoughts, my words and my deeds. My thoughts, my words and my deeds. My thoughts, my thoughts, my words and my deeds.” The daughters also collectively knit together a large large white quilt featuring deer designs, but when a single drop of blood stains the cloth after one of the sisters pricks her fingers in a scene that could symbolize both menstruation and/or the breaking of hymen, things begin to get a little bit ominous around the small house full of assumedly horny and surely sexually mature yet sexually inexperienced young women who no longer have to worry about their father watching their every move. Of course, the seemingly all-knowing mother understands dark and potentially even demonic things are about to be unleashed on her humble abode, as she spots a band of seemingly menacing deer-men lurking outside her home while her daughters sew together the quilt, which may or may not have summoned the wild beast men, but she cannot do much in the way of defending her daughters aside from hailing Mary and treating her daughters like sacred porcelain dolls that must be guarded at all costs from being tarnished.
When bedtime arrives, a teenage neighbor girl arises from her sleep like a somnambulist and climbs out of a window where a mysterious owl had just been sitting previously, as if the bird summoned her to let her know that it is time for her to fly the coop. It should be noted that this scene is juxtaposed with a sorrowful folk song sung by a girl about a virginal Polish maid who kissed a “worthy cavalier” and ultimately paid for it with her life. The owl also later pays a couple visits to the widow as if to inform her that the time has come where her daughters must leave home. When the four sisters go to bed, one of them decides to look at herself in a mirror on their bedroom wall which is curiously covered with a piece of cloth, but when she takes off the cloth and proceeds to look at her reflection, she does not see her own face reflecting back at her but that of a young man that is about the same age as she is. Distressed yet seemingly equally enticed by the quasi-mystical experience, the girl decides to hide the mirror under her mattress and then proceeds to sleep with one of her sisters. Meanwhile, the mother goes to bed while holding a giant crucifix in her hands, as if it will protect her and/or her daughters from being raped by the deer-men. As the deer-men literally float across the landscape in an almost demonically poetic fashion in what is indubitably one of the most perniciously yet aesthetically pleasingly potent scenes in the entire film, two of the sisters decide to run outside as if lured there where they both meet ‘deer-men,’ though neither of them is wearing antlers and they are not beastly monsters but young men who the girls are quite happy to see. Needless to say, they have savage sex.
The next day as the sun rises, the entire lyrics to Handel’s “Ave Maria” are sung while one of the girls who got defiled by one of the deer-men smirks in ecstasy while her frigid sisters wash clothes in a rather robotic fashion. Indeed, it is quite obvious that the two girls that were deflowered by the deer-men have completely changed as a result of their erotic experiences, as they play around while doing their work and, unlike the other two sisters, actually smile instead of looking all morose and dead inside. When one of the sisters gets sick and vomits, it becomes obvious she is pregnant, so her mother decides to lock her in a barn where she cries and begs in vain to be let out. Meanwhile, the mother starts acting all the more eccentric and begins doing bizarre things like shaving flakes off of a ceramic Mother Mary statue and putting them into a cup of water which she makes one of her daughters drink as if to cure her of her undying thirst for cock and copulation. Of course, the mother’s efforts are ultimately in vain because by the end of the film, all four sisters are seemingly pregnant and locked in the barn, but they are certainly not sad. Indeed, not only do the sisters laugh amongst one another in an exceedingly jovial fashion, but they also use their bare feet to touch eggs that cover the barn floor that surely symbolize that they are gestating. Notably, the deer-men's antlers now lie on the beds where the girls once slept, thus reflecting that the sisters have finally left home, at least in the metaphysical sense. In a fairly happy flashback sequence that will certainly catch the viewer by surprise as it is quite unexpected and is in stark contrast to most of the rest of the film in terms of its wholly positive ethereal pulchritude, the widowed mother looks at an old portrait of her and her husband and remembers when she became a woman after her happy marriage to her belated spouse. In the end, the mother smiles after finding flower petals in the snow that seem to not only symbolize the changing of the seasons but also the new chapters in her daughters’ lives. In the end, each sister is depicted standing stoically on a different mountain while wearing a new fancy white pagan coat, as they have finally become ‘independent’ and are ready to lead their own lives and start their own families. Although paganism seems to prevail over Catholicism in the end, everyone is at least happy, including the widowed mother, who has also entered a new phase in her life.
Although a somewhat hermetic work that demands the viewer's undivided attention and really needs repeat viewings to be fully appreciated, Winter Silence, which might be best described as a ‘neo-fable,’ ultimately tells a relatively simple story in a exceedingly elegantly stylized and nicely nuanced way that is quite refreshing, especially considering all the static digital video twaddle that passes for European arthouse cinema nowadays. After all, nothing is more heretical in the contemporary Western European art and cinema world than works that attempt to establish a respectful link to one's cultural heritage and were the film directed by a man instead of a woman, I'm sure some sneering mainstream far-left film critic would have condemned the film for being ‘fascistic’ or something preposterous like that. Despite its sometimes dark and ominous themes and oftentimes strikingly foreboding tone, Winter Silence is ultimately a gentle and sensitive work with a discernible female touch that expresses a sort of sense of wonder that only women and children seem capable of. In fact, director Sonja Wyss’ own personal comments regarding the production express a certain childlike intrigue and rather refreshing lack of pretense, especially her remark, “The shooting period was nonetheless a dream which was being realised. Some people claim that it is better for dreams to remain dreams than that they become reality. In this case I do not agree. It was and is still terrific to see my story becoming reality. Sometimes magical moments occurred during shooting, where we, the crew, were spectators astonishedly looking at what was unfolding before the camera.” Indeed, I have no doubt in my mind that, in some sort of obfuscated way, the film is an expression of Wyss’ own transformation into woman, so it is only fitting that it was her first feature. Undoubtedly I think Wyss was being totally honest when she stated, “Trained as a visual artist, I've made one feature film and am working on a new one. I know where my strengths and talents lie, working in this medium that's new to me, but I also know my limits.” I can certainly see Wyss one day inhabiting a place somewhere in between Mai Zetterling and Leni Riefenstahl in terms of the great female filmmakers of cinema history, so lets hope that she maintains a sensible perspective regarding her strengths and weaknesses as a film director.
While one cannot be completely sure about everything, some of the pagan symbolism in Winter Silence is quite obvious, especially in regard to the deer-men, with many cultures having their own version of the man-beast with antlers, including the Pashupati of the Hindus and the Deer Kachina of the Hopi Indians, but clearly Wyss’ film is obviously in reference to a European spiritual tradition. Indeed, aside from the ‘Horned God’— one of the two primary deities found in the contemporary European neo-pagan ‘religion’ of Wicca—Europe also has the horned Gaulish god ‘Cernunnos’ aka ‘Hern the Hunter’ of Celtic polytheism. Like many deities of ancient pre-Christian European pagan religions, no one knows for sure what Cernunnos’ cult or significance was, but some have speculated that he is a god of nature and/or fertility. Of course, Wicca’s ‘Horned God’ was obviously influenced by Cernunnos and symbolizes nature, wilderness, sexuality, hunting, and the life cycle. Notably, Renaissance literature scholar Richard Sugg theorized that, in relation to it’s prominence as a recurring symbol in women’s literature, the Horned God is, in Jungian terms, a symbol of the ‘natural Eros’ and masculine lover that ‘subjugates’ the social-conformist nature of the female shadow, thus encompassing a combination of the shadow and animus. Certainly Sugg’s theory works in the context of the deer-men’s role in Winter Silence, though it might not have been a conscious idea on Wyss’ part. Indeed, I would actually find it more interesting if the film was more a product of Wyss’ collective unconscious than something she merely contrived by doing banal research. In terms of its mystifying, phantasmagoric, and slightly horror-tinged depiction of the female characters' bewildering transformation from virginal girls that are figuratively still attached to their mother's umbilical cord into grown women who have obtained spiritual and sexual womanhood, Winter Silence is in good company with Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973). In terms of its rarely sentimental but surely sensitive look at old pagan pre-Christian Europa, the film also makes a great double feature with Russian's Aleksei Fedorchenko’s rather underrated work Nebesnye zheny lugovykh mari (2012) aka Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari. While the work managed to earn a ‘Golden Calf’ (the Dutch equivalent to an Oscar) at the 2008 Netherlands Film Festival for sound design, it is doubtful that such a work would ever earn a large following in Holland or elsewhere, so Wyss might end up becoming an undervalued misfit of Dutch cinema like Victor Nieuwenhuijs and Maartje Seyferth, but I, for one, will certainly keep my eye on her already rather singular filmmaking career.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 7:29 AM
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