Thursday 20 August 2015


(Thomas Arslan, 2013)

The first scene depicts a group of prospectors in a canoe, then trekking along trails through dense forest before they pan for gold in a creek. The lighting is dark, the palette a collection of rich muddy browns and deep greens. Trees and undergrowth dominate each of Arslan's precise, patiently gliding shots. We see barely any sky and the prospectors are faceless, hunched, their hats obscuring their features. This land has almost swallowed them, it seems.
This sets the tone for the rest of the film, which focuses on the ways the landscape drains and breaks down a group of Germans on an exhibition up the Klondike in Canada in the late 18th century, in search of gold. Among their party is Nina Hoss, as usual communicating oceans of emotion with the tiniest of facial adjustments. The group is riven with tension from the start, and as the road gets more difficult, that worsens.
For a film about process, what it is perhaps best at is interpersonal relations; the way the group falls slowly apart, the way certain people try to dominate, the way others allow them. It is also excellent on landscape, using the wild Canadian expanses partly for their beauty but mainly as a sort of claustrophobia trigger. Arslan makes sure to film the party moving, on horseback, with the entirety of the background entirely composed of woodland, and he does this over and over. This makes the forest seem threatening and malevolent, an impression only echoed by Daniel Carlson's (Neil Young in Dead Man-style) guitar-playing.
There is little tension, no humour and only one spurt of action, but this is still a sort of slowly hypnotic experience, and brilliantly made.
That is not to say there is no incident - the repetitive nature of shots of the characters on horseback beating on through the wilderness are broken up by uncomfortable conversations, failed hunting expeditions, accidents, improvised surgeries (a memorable scene), encounters with Indians who are characterised as cynically though understandably doing everything for money, and the odd random encounter with other prospectors. The scene where a man wanders through their camp without a word at twilight is haunting and beautiful.

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