Switzerland (2016) Dir. Tobias Nölle
Probably not the best way to start a review but, I cannot lie – I didn’t have a clue what was going on most of the time in this film. Aloys, the second film from Swiss newcomer Tobias Nölle, is a psychological reality bending drama dealing with grief and isolation with strong arthouse leanings and an oblique refusal to throw anyone not on the director’s wavelength the occasional lifeline.
The title refers to the main character Aloys Adorn (Georg Friedrich), a private detective working alongside and living with his father (Karl Friedrich) who has just passed away. Spending his whole life behind a camera whilst trailing suspects Aloys has little interaction with the outside world, even filming his neighbours and studiously watching the footage back.
One morning after a night of hitting the bottle, Aloys wakes up on a bus to find his camera and a small collection of tapes are missing. He gets a phone call from a mysterious woman (Tilde von Overbeck) who will only give the tapes back if Aloys joins her in “phone walking”, a Japanese invention that allows the shy to use their imagination and enjoy a different endeavour whilst talking to another person.
Keen film fans will have noticed this plotline shows hints and reference towards other surveillance-based outings such as The Lives Of The Others and The Conversation, with the end result revealing a slight smattering of Inception thrown in for good measure. Yet these are fleeting comparisons thanks to Nölle giving this is fresh twist to make this a unique – if baffling – experience in its own right.
This is a very quiet and sterile film in the early going, due in part to Aloys’ inherent stoicism and insular demeanour presenting us to a central figure that is neither likeable nor unlikeable – he’s just, there which is a boon for a private detective trailing people. Aside from a cat he illicitly kept from a case and with his father now passed on, Aloys rarely speaks and when he does it is in brief monosyllabic bursts.
It is one thing to be committed to your job but Aloys takes this to the enth degree with his intense viewing of his collected footage and in case he misses anything, he has a camera set up at the peephole of his door by way of recognising his neighbours. The theft of his camera and tapes is actually, the most exciting thing that happens to Aloys, the quest to identify the mystery woman at least gets him out of the house and talking to people.
After some misleading clues we discover this woman’s identity and, without spoiling anything, she isn’t a stranger to Aloys, yet no reason is given as to why she would help him. If she is attracted to him, why not try the traditional method and talk to him? She appears more outgoing and personable than Aloys, unless she too is trapped in isolation and can only communicate from a distance, which is remotely inferred and not implied.
Having said that, the concept Nölle employs of “phone walking” is easy to follow once Aloys gets the hang of it and the juxtaposition of Aloys and the woman in their fantasy world against them in the “real” world explains this clearly enough. Aloys’ real world is one of drab colours, silent austerity and a strict, almost clinical routine like existence; his escapist world is vibrant, alive, bursting with colour, energy and tangible experiences.
Perhaps again this is me missing the point but the surreal party scene featuring all the people Aloys had interacted with thus far (all six of them) feels like a left over scene from a Roy Andersson film. Is this deliberately obtuse because of Aloys possessing such a complex and insular personality that it would be no ordinary party and this is his way of cutting loose? Or is it that often hard to digest European leftfield sense of humour at play again?
This is one of the troubles with arthouse films: directors don’t feel obliged to make their intentions clear enough that their work remains too arcane for idiots like me, thus we are left to feel stupid for not getting it, while reciprocating this apparent spite by calling Emperor’s New Clothes on their output.
If Nölle is guilty of anything it is more stretching what would have been a bemusing but curious short film into 90 minutes, and for this writer it felt like 90 very long minutes. It’s an analogy I’ve used before but this was another example of film that is akin to a jigsaw puzzle where not all the pieces are available, and the gaps are crucial to completing the picture.
On the plus side the photography from Simon Guy Fässler is stunning, a polished mix of stark melancholy and chimerical fancy, captured through a pin sharp lense. The precision of the shot compositions often fill in the gaps left by the non-linear narrative and lack of exposition, flitting between coldly distant and intrusive intimate.
Austrian actor Georg Friedrich has quite the CV of films made across Europe so a Swiss language film is just another notch on his belt. He inhabits the skin of Aloys with alarming comfort, and is canny and experienced enough to keep Aloys’ unique qualities consistent while undergoing such radical personality and emotional changes in what is essentially a one-man show.
That is not to undermine or undervalue the promising performance of debutante Tilde von Overbeck as the mystery woman, and unlike Aloys she is a curious character to get a reading on. Von Overbeck has a familiar looking face but has a presence about her that should be harnessed and exploited in future roles.
Maybe I am too thick to understand or fully appreciate a film like Aloys when it should be right up my alley, but I can recognise that Tobias Nölle is definitely a filmmaker to watch out for.