Landscapes of The Soul By Maria Kornatowska

in 29th Montreal World Film Festival

by Maria Kornatowska

The films selected for the competition of the recent edition of the Montreal World Film Festival were, in general, interesting from a formal as well as an intellectual point of view. They were, in my opinion, meaningful and representative of an image of today’s social, moral and ideological reality. The feeling that a certain era, certain system values and ideas are coming to an end is evident. Many films from different cultures and countries are raising dramatic human themes like death, loneliness, the emptiness of life, meaningless of relationships and so on.. Many films underline the negative aspects of global consumerism – the new, winning philosophy of life, the philosophy of the market.

Among these films, one of the most accomplished artistically was Ultima Thule: A Journey to the Edge of the World (Ultima Thule: Eine Reise an den Rand der Welt) by Swiss director Hans-Ulrich Schlumpf. It is a film d’auteur, deeply personal, and strongly visual with metaphysical tones. The story is seemingly very simple. Fred Bohler, a successful Swiss businessman, lies in a coma in intensive care after a serious car accident. His body is lifeless, but his spirit takes an introspective journey. The journey to his inner self to the borders between death and life. This strange, painful journey passes through cold, empty, glacial landscapes of Alaska, landscapes of terrifying Baudelairian beauty reminiscent of Murnau’s films or Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. Real, palbable but also symbolic and expressionist. Hans–Ulrich Schlumpf shows us in an original, inventive and very cinematic way that beneath these white (in Japan, the color of death) icy landscapes there is still life. Behind death is perennial life.

Struggling with death, Fred tries to find the meaning of his existence, to find once again all the forgotten paths of his past. In the name of a successful career, money and family, he gave up his earlier passions and less profitable ambitions of becoming scholar. This inner journey is then a return to Fred’s youth, the journey of memory. It is a reflection on choices he made, on the true sense of his life.

Ultima Thule combines essay and story, philosophical meditation and psychological analysis. It reminds me of The Magic Mountain, the great novel by Thomas Mann. But Schlumpf creates his work not with dialogue but with powerful and unique images. The cinematography of Pio Corradi and Luc Jacquet creates large open spaces in eternal movement, contrasting the natural cold light with closed, tight, claustrophobic rooms (the hospital and Fred’s home) with artificial light. Fazil Say’s impressive music supports the metaphysical tone and rhythm of the spaces created by director. This is a beautiful, mature film which connects with our own inner world, with our soul.