By Elias Savada.
You may not recall who the 20th President of the United States was. Or the name of the British Prime Minister in 1980. But mention the name Hans Ruedi “HR” Giger and one word immediately comes to mind: Alien.
As Dark Star: HR Gigers Welt (expanded in the subtitled translation to Dark Star: HR Giger’s Universe, but being advertised for its current U.S. release as Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World) begins, with a slow, stealthy approach to Giger’s overgrown, vine-covered lair, Swiss director Belinda Sallin’s dotes on the late artist’s cat, much like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) did over Jonesy in the first two films of the Alien series (with a reboot-extension planned for next year from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp). The camera follows a barefooted figure (human, fragile, bear-shaped) up the creaky stairs. The aging, white-haired body of Giger is at work in his disheveled home filled, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, with unearthly relics. Dark creations, moldy books, aging magazines, innumerable knickknacks, lots of dust, and – for good reason – more than one fire extinguisher.
Sallin keeps the entire film subdued and personal, having built a trust with the family that allowed her and the small crew to following the maestro and his numerous hangers on. Shot between June 2013 and March 2014 (Giger died two months later), the film has dialogue in Swiss German, German (both English subtitled), and English.
The painter-sculptor-visionary shuffles to show the audience a human skull he received at age six from his father. It scared him at the time, “to hold death in your hands.” So despite his closeness to his mother in his later life, we have a father to thank for the son’s surrealistic genius. Talking heads include HR and his Spanish wife Carmen Maria Giger, who runs his museum and champions the depth and breadth of his nightmarish oeuvre and how it transports us into the deeper parts of our souls. The camera pans and scans about the room, occasionally passing by the Oscar he shared with four others for the visual effects in Alien. Friends, gallery owners, curators, book people, his agent, several dedicated assistants, his mother-in-law (“He’s just a normal guy”), who was also his part-time accountant/secretary, and others come and go, sipping red wine, munching on home cooked meals, and schmoozing about upcoming projects. Nice and casual.
It’s quite fascinating to catch a (too short) glimpse of the wondrously terrifying works by Giger, especially those that populate the claustrophobic area outside his home. That oasis stands mostly hidden from public view in a tree-covered lot in a bustling part of Zurich. There’s even a small track of miniature railroad running through it. (Yes, that’s conductor Giger riding his train through the underbrush near the end of the film.) This play-land is either a child’s funhouse or the kind of haunted, run-down edifice you might have had in your neighborhood growing up, where you’d dare a friend to go ring the doorbell on Halloween.
There are some dark, introspective moments captured for the first time, particularly HR describing his 9-year relationship with one of his muses, model Li Tobler. Their relationship ended with her suicide in 1975. Her brother, Paul, reflects of the emotional tumult in the family’s strict Catholic upbringing and the conflict and depression brought on with the Bohemian life she later accepted. It’s a remarkable sequence, particularly when we see a series of black-and-white photographs with some of Giger’s artistry body painted on his lovely goddess.
The film covers all the birth-life-sex-death inspirational tropes you’d expect. His morbid fascination with a particular mummy at the Raetian Museum, slowly overcoming his fear of the artifact, its obvious influence on much of his work, including, of course, the angry queen at the end of James Cameron’s Aliens. Some of his other creations were envisioned during LSD trips, although there’s no elaboration on which were good or bad.
Alien takes to the stage just before the film hits the half-way point of its 95 minutes. It’s a sly entrance for this portion. HR, sitting in a chair, sketching, looks down toward the camera, positioned on the floor. We then catch a glimpse of a scale model and the artwork for the alien pilot. More drawings are shown as the music, an unsettling semi-discordant organ score (music by Peter Scherer; sound design by Peter Bräker), welcomes HR’s ex-wife Mia Bonzanigo. The Hollywood connection begins. Cue the Alien featurette material, still chillingly revelatory after all these years. Yet, if you expecting a lot of behind-the-scenes info on the film, you won’t find it. The director wisely takes a passing shot at the film, then moves on. Too much to cover in too little time.
It was actually a chance meeting in 2011 by the director with Sandra Beretta, Giger’s well spoken former companion and assistant, that seeded this film’s genesis. Sandra talks in the last part of the film. “I was never bored. Life here was anything but normal. His socks and underpants were in the oven.” Books in the bathtub or on the stove. So Sandra “tidied up.”
In the Alien films, the primal, violence of Giger’s bio-mechanical creations cause people to run from the darkness. Dark Star: HR Giger’s World beckons you to embrace it, in its own darkly entrancing way.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.