Whether he is working in the so-called documentary or so-called fictional mode, with 16mm, 35mm or high-8-video: for Pilz the central issue is our perception and the film or video is a disposition, a condition for the temporal and spatial organization of a reflection. This refers in the first instance to the mere listening and observing, but also to an intuitive sense for encounters with people, for their ways of dealing with the space within which they move and the things that surround them. This sense of perception permeates his entire work.
The first DVD release dedicated to Himmel und Erde’s director Michael Pilz was a pairing of his 1987 short Parco delle Rimembranze and 1996 feature-length video documentary Facts for Fiction put out by the Austrian label Index in 2006. Its accompanying booklet contained a brief biography for their maker which I’m going to quote in part as it hopefully demonstrates just how difficult a filmmaker Pilz is to pin down, but also because he may not be the most recognisable of names, especially here in the UK:
“Since 1954 photographic and film experiments. […] Growing interest in various ways of expressing the subconscious on film. […] Since 1976 also producer. In the 1970s TV-documentaries. Since Himmel und Erde free-lance film artist (author, director, director of photography, all-rounder). Since 1983 engaged in delivering occasional lectures and holding workshops on aesthetics and experimental filmmaking. […] Various festival participations, installations, performances, single and group exhibitions.”
Admittedly this touches only on certain cornerstones, yet it does express some of the range. And if we look at the three Pilz-connected works to have been released onto DVD prior to Himmel und Erde we perhaps notice this all the more so. Parco delle Rimembranze was a 14-minute single-take on a Venetian phone booth, a film that, in Pilz’s own words, “offers us the opportunity to reflect, to observe and to listen”. Facts for Fiction was a fascinating piece in which filmmaker and his video camera sit in a taxi cab, observe New York cabbie Jeff Perkins, and somehow manage to bring to mind a whole series of allusions, from W. Somerset Maugham to Abbas Kiarostami. The third film, John Cook’s Langsamer Sommer, which Pilz produced in 1976 as well as co-writing, co-shooting and acting (as himself) in, was a home-movie/home-fiction of sorts that has been variously compared to early John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke’s ‘beat’ dramas, Allan King’s emotionally honest documentaries and Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain.
In other words, three films connected by the same name amongst their credits, but on the surface very little else. More importantly they are also three films which nestle inside a much larger filmography and so questions as to how representative they may or may not be of Pilz as an artist and filmmaker overall are difficult to answer. Such is their diversity that it perhaps matters not if we approach Himmel und Erde with little or no knowledge of its maker and no experience of having seen some of his works. After all, will this particular title not simply offer up something entirely again?
To an extent this is certainly true. At almost five hours in length, Himmel und Erde is undoubtedly a much bigger work in comparison to these three other examples; the 14-minutes that make up Parco delle Rimembranze’s duration positively pale when placed alongside. Furthermore, the approach and subject matter - an epic study of the mountain village Sankt Anna and its inhabitants, filmed over the course of three years - similarly feel more significant. And in terms of critical reception Himmel und Erde also exists on a slightly higher plain. Following its premiere in September of 1982, the film went on to enjoy a very healthy showing on the festival circuit, stopping off at Berlin, Vienna, Rotterdam and Edinburgh along the way. If Pilz’s filmography must contain a key work, then Himmel und Erde is undoubtedly a major contender.
The result, therefore, is a film that exists perfectly well as a standalone venture because of its size and stature, and indeed as a perfect introduction to its maker. However, having previously seen those three examples mentioned above before experiencing Himmel und Erde thanks to their respective DVD releases, a number of connections between them did become apparent, especially in light of this five-hour epic, some of which prove integral in understanding what Pilz is trying to achieve here. The key element, above all else, is that of observation. As with Parco delle Rimembranze’s single-take, not to mention the level of intensity created by Facts for Fiction’s confined shooting space, the demand on the viewer is that we pay attention. In the case of Himmel und Erde this is provided not only by the lengthy running time, but also the time Pilz himself put into filming his subjects. Three years in the space of nearly five hours is an intensive experience - such time-spans immediately announce that this is not a film to be taken lightly.
Moreover, what we also see throughout all of these works is a willingness to play with the documentary form. In Langsamer Sommer we have the home movie rendered as fiction, albeit to what extent is never made entirely clear - just how much is real and how much is David Holzman, as it were? When reviewing Facts for Fiction a few years ago I found myself faced with similar questions. At times the situations and the characters just seemed too contrived or too dynamic to have appeared out of thin air, whilst the title itself plays on such ambiguities, whether they ultimately exist or not. And what is Parco delle Rimembranze if not a documentary told in the most explicitly experimental form? That Venetian phone booth may not be the most obvious, or indeed immediately rewarding, choice of subject matter, yet those 14-minutes contained so much more, easily transcending its potential banality.
Himmel und Erde plays off the documentary form in different ways. There’s no flirtation or affiliation with fiction, in fact it goes for the complete opposite. This is a film which has chosen to eschew narration, either in the form of a convention voice-over narration or in structural terms. There is no story to tell, and by that I mean one with a beginning, middle and end; after all such considerations would get in the way of that simple request to simply observe. Yet if this suggests that Himmel und Erde is therefore some kind of endurance test owing to its length and nature, the reality of the matter is quite the reverse. Rather Pilz asks us to look at his material from a fresh perspective and to forget any preconceived notions as to how and what a documentary should be.
Having made such claims, it is no doubt necessary to explain a little about Himmel und Erde’s approach. As already noted Pilz spent three years compiling his footage, a situation that allowed him to integrate himself within the community he was filming. As a result he was able to see the bigger picture of their existence and understand what it was that made them tick. There is no attempt to tease out stories and subplots from his material, but instead an engagement with the very essentials. As a predominantly farming community, work understandably plays a massive role in their lives and, accordingly, Himmel und Erde itself. Pilz watches on as a pig is slaughtered, fields are ploughed, trees are chopped down and seeds are planted. The farmers are effectively self-sufficient and so each of these acts is integral to the village’s survival as a whole: the pig will help feed the populace for several months, and so on.
The overall sense is that Pilz didn’t make any editorial decisions when putting Himmel und Erde together, rather it appears as though the facts and rhythms of that which he captured provided the answers. This heavy emphasis on work is no doubt a true reflection of just how important it is within the community. Similarly the stoic nature of Sankt Anna’s inhabitants - the fact that they only speak to Pilz and his camera when they feel like it, not as a result of him imposing anything onto a given situation - feels absolutely right. Perhaps this even explains why it is that the men and children figure so heavily whilst the women have a tendency to disappear somewhat into the background. It is, once again, a mirror of these peoples’ existence. Of course, the presence of the working males and their children points up some other areas too, most notably the sense that each generation repeats that of its ancestors. The kids will become the future farmers and tenders of the land and so the cycle will continue. Pilz also hints heavily at such underlying currents when he uses footage from a school lesson in which two of the children perform a role-play as adults. The mock pipe which one of them creates from a pencil echoes the genuine ones smoked by many of the village elders - it’s an association that is hard to miss.
This integration of film and community brings to mind some British productions that were made either side of Himmel und Erde’s filming period. Peter Hall’s Akenfield, also set within a farming village, attempted to capture everyday life by casting its inhabitants in similar roles to those they held in real life and thus bring a certain realist edge to proceedings. Admittedly this was a work of fiction and was set in both the present day and the past, yet such techniques undoubtedly added to proceedings. Similarly the Amber collective when they moved from straight documentary into more dramatic forms would also cast locals in films such as Seacoal, constructing scripts around their own lives and experiences. Again we are not dealing with pure non-fiction here, but this meshing of film and environment is immediately apparent and produces incredibly rich results.
Much like Seacoal, Himmel und Erde exists within a very harsh landscape. The work is hard, the people are tough and the climate is unforgiving. At times Sankt Anna looks like the most beautiful place imaginable, as when we see the village church shrouded in mist or note the snow covered mountains that surround its worshippers. Yet the bleakness is written on the face and hands of everyone of them, all those years working out in the harsh conditions having left an indelible mark. Indeed, maybe there isn’t any need for them to speak to camera too much as their bodies do the talking for them. And this is certainly something Pilz recognises. When he goes for establishing shots of his subjects it is always the hands then the faces which earn the close-ups.
This contrast between visual lushness and earthy reality is one that exists throughout Himmel und Erde. The very title, which translates as Heaven and Earth, indicates as much. For every shot of a seemingly idyllic mountain slope, there is one in which we see the almost perverse actions of the farmers attempting to man a tractor or a horse and plough on these steep gradients. Similarly, the division of the film into two parts - the first entitled Die Ordnung der Dinge (The Order of Things), the second entitled Der Lauf der Dinge (The Course of Things) - allows Pilz to emphasis this dual reality. In the first part we are effectively presented the village and its inhabitants and given time to assimilate their lifestyles. It shows us how things are and addresses how things were. We pay witness to the spirituality of Sankt Anna’s inhabitants and their old superstitions, as when a tree stump is shown to reveal a cross that was carved many years previous in order to ward off evil. (One wonders, in such circumstances what Werner Herzog would have done with such material, especially in light of such ethnographic exercises as the Ten Thousand Years Older segment for Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet.) Part of the effect is reminiscent of other documentaries such as Graham Coleman’s Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy or Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence, in other words a look into a world that had never previously been recorded onto film and which many of us perhaps never even knew existed.
Having laid down this groundwork, however, Pilz proceeds to reveal some of its cracks in the second part. Here we begin to note the changes and are made more aware of the poverty that exists amongst the people of Sankt Anna. We hear that 35 farms in the village have become abandoned as their previous owners could no longer cope with the harsh environment. One of the farmers compares his existence to that of a factory worker and vice versa, the latter preferring his more concentrated work hours to the less time-specific lifestyle of the former. We also see that traditions are beginning to erode: once it would have been the case that the eldest son would inherit the farm from his father, but only if he chose the “right” girl (which would appear to be another farmer’s daughter), yet this is no longer the case. And so we wonder as to how long this community can survive - will the cycles that seemed so apparent throughout part one eventually be broken forever? Are the external realities just too strong a force for such an existence to be maintained?
As should be expected Pilz doesn’t provide any answers. He does offer a narration of sorts, albeit one that is drawn heavily on quotes from Taoism and the Bible. The words float around the images, offering up ideas and thoughts intended to provoke interpretation on our part as opposed to concrete facts and proclamations. “In the mountains you are closer to heaven, but also closer to death” is a key quotation, one that sums up the almost bittersweet nature of Sankt Anna’s existence. It suggests that, 28 years after Himmel und Erde was released, the village as it once existed no longer survives, or at least has changed beyond recognition. And yet through Pilz’s respectful documentation here it remains on film carefully preserved for future generations.
Himmel und Erde has been released by Edition Filmmuseum as a two-disc set with each DVD-9 housing one of the film’s two parts. The standard definition transfer has been approved by director Michael Pilz and maintains the original 1.38:1 aspect ratio and monophonic soundtrack. Technically there are no problems to report. Himmel und Erde was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, the resultant footage - and indeed these DVDs - demonstrating the expected grains and textures without any evidence of dirt or damage. The soundtrack is similarly clean and comes with optional English, French and German subtitles, though note that some of the more impenetrable dialects have been left without translation, no doubt intentionally. The discs are region free and come in the PAL format.
There are no extras on the discs themselves, though the film is accompanied by a 32-page bilingual booklet contained a newly commissioned essay by critic Michael Peklar, a brief piece by Pilz in which he reflects on the film 28 years after its completion, and full credits.
Himmel und Erde is available to purchase to through Edition Filmmuseum. Those wishing to sample some of Pilz’s other work are advised to check out the Filmmuseum’s John Cook double-disc set which includes the Pilz-produced Langsamer Sommer amongst its inclusions and the disc from Index which paired two of his directorial efforts, Facts for Fiction and Parco delle Rimembranze.
Anthony Nield, Home Cinema, 17.12.2010