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A tree is turned into planks and those planks are then transported halfway around the world in Walden, the striking debut feature from Swiss-born documentarian Daniel Zimmermann. What’s both odd and entrancing about the documentary is that the tree that’s felled grew in Austria and is subsequently transported to the Amazonian jungle, from a heavily industrialized country to a place where nature still seems to have the upper hand. Composed of just 13 rotating shots, this is a formally impressive rumination on subjects such as globalization and nature versus man that uses camerawork and editing to turn the film into something almost as surreal as the subjects it explores.
Walden finds itself clearly at the more challenging end of the art house spectrum but deserves to be seen on as wide a screen as possible. It won the Special Jury Prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and will travel to other film showcases and should find small but welcoming pockets of admirers in German-speaking territories and major cinephile burghs such as Paris and New York.
Walden’s title is of course a reference to Henry David Thoreau’s eponymous work, which celebrated self-sufficiency and nature, though it also brings to mind the German word “wald,” or forest. Both are turned somewhat on their heads here, as Zimmermann contrasts the heavily mechanized way in which trees are cut down and transported with the wondrously rugged world of nature. The world of gigantic cargo ships and goods that are transported and sold globally is of course the polar opposite of Thoreau’s vision of intimate tranquility, making the title at once melancholy and ironic.
Each of the film’s 13 shots consists of a single rightward pan that continues until the camera has turned 360 degrees on its own axis. The film starts in a dense, Mitteleuropean pine forest — actually shot in the woods of Admont Abbey in central Austria — where the relative peace and quiet is finally disturbed by the sound of a chainsaw, which cuts down one of the large trees. (There is no music at all, though some Foley work augments the diegetic soundscape.)
This first shot is already remarkable for its precise choreography, with the viewer initially drinking in the forest’s luscious brown and greens and the way the trunks of the vertical trees create a visual rhythm within the horizontal widescreen frame as the camera glides past at a steady pace. It is clear there’s an element of careful staging involved, as a truck only comes into view during the second half of the shot before a man with a chainsaw finally does his job and the tree comes crashing down right in front of the camera.
The dozen shots that follow are all similarly rigid in their rightward panning and 360 degree rounds. Pallets of “Schnittholz,” or lumber, are thus packed onto a train at Admont station; a truck carrying lumber is stopped on the highway and pulled aside for a check during a serious downpour and a Chinese cargo ship passes on a major waterway whose banks are dotted with factories, both in old-fashioned brick and more modern steel.
Greenery is present in all these shots, though there is a progression from the woods to civilization as trucks, railroad tracks, highways and heavily industrialized inland ports start to appear. The voyage of the planks is but a small element of each shot, almost functioning as an excuse to take the time to drink in the world we live in. This kind of unfiltered, full-immersion and minutes-long view gives the viewer the time and the space to contemplate the details of the environment and to try and make sense of the connections between the shots. For example, a pan of several minutes across the side of a mountain that’s covered in protective netting isn’t just a record of what that particular place in the world looks like but suggests how man tries to dominate nature, from felling a tree to create lumber for construction to protecting mountain roads from falling rocks with nets.
This level of attention, without any commentary or other contextual material besides what is in the shots, will come in handy around the midway mark, when massive cargo ships are unloaded in an industrial port where all the signs are suddenly in Portuguese. Though it’s not otherwise made explicit, we are suddenly in Brazil, where the lumber slowly winds its way from the inland port of Manaus into the heart of the jungle for a mysterious building project.
A dilapidated tennis club provides an especially eerie sight because there is a sense that the nearby jungle could devour it and make it disappear in no time, starting with a brave little songbird that hops into a changing room at the start of the shot. Compared to the organized chaos of Europe — where things might be very busy but there’s a sense people have organized and shaped each part of the space they live in — there is a different kind of chaos at work in Brazil. The chaos is not man-made but natural, as shown by the way in which small canoes have a hard time to try and navigate a way over an expanse of water full of trees and plants.
The film thus invites the viewer to meditate on how humans organize the spaces they inhabit and the means they have set in motion to distribute the materials available to them on the planet, with things constantly being transported from one place to another. The surreal idea to transport Austrian lumber into the Amazon is of course not even half as surreal as the processes, in place for decades now, that allow this to happen for millions of objects and materials in a globalized world.
Zimmermann and cinematographer Gerald Kerkletz, most famous for his work on Cannes competition title Michael from Markus Schleinzer, enforce their rigid formal choice throughout, which imparts a sense of detached and almost objective calmness. Each thing caught by their camera is given equal weight as it moves in and out of the frame, suggesting nature’s indifference to man even as the cumulative effect of the editing seems to suggest man might end up destroying the planet. This is most obvious in a pan across a group of Amazonian natives in Western clothes, listlessly standing on the bank of a river, almost as if they are witnessing Western progress destroying the habitat and way of life they once had.
Zimmermann, whose formally impressive 2012 short Stick Climbing played Sundance and Berlin, is clearly indebted to other German-language documentary makers. The interest in how humans treat the planet, its natural riches and the workers who inhabit it echoes the work of Austrian documentary director Michael Glawogger (Workingman’s Death), for example. The film’s uncompromising and steady gaze is closer in spirit to a work like Our Daily Bread from Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter, as is the quantity of work the audience has to put in to get something worthwhile out of the experience.
Production company: Beauvoir Films
Writer-director: Daniel Zimmermann
Producer: Aline Schmid
Director of photography: Gerald Kerkletz
Editor: Bernhard Braunstein
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
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