Review: In Grim, Glacial Western GOLD, It's All Guts, No Glory

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
German director Thomas Arslan's first foray into historical period filmmaking is a methodical, glacial western, bereft of the rugged grandeur and macho posturing that one usually associates with the genre. While Arslan's story retains a certain mythological aspect that is largely associated with the late 1800s and adventure, his interests do not lie in rousing set pieces or harrowing escapes. Instead, he is interested in the moments of waiting and the moments of labored, intense, routine movement. Following a group of Deutsch expats in 1898 Canada on their way to the Klondike gold rush, he urges his audience to feel the grind of that routine; to become hypnotized and worn down by its myopic and increasingly insane fortitude.
As a filmmaker Arslan's temperament is perhaps nearest Jean-Pierre Melville's. It is calculating and removed, yet meticulous. His previous films, such as Dealer and In The Shadows, best known on the festival circuit and to some arthouse audiences across Europe, behave in a similar fashion. But these are contemporary films, often concerned with socially relevant and immediate subjects in urban centers. So though the lowly Berlin streets are now replaced with the wilds of Canada, the director's penchant for haunted people in transition remains intact and thoroughly fascinating. 

His subjects are archetypes of this period, and rarely elevated to flesh and blood status... at least by what's seemingly on the page. There's the pot bellied, shady businessman who convinces the poor, desperate, but hard working immigrants that his route to the Klondike is the best one. There's the timid and shy family man, the racist, scheming reporter and our heroine, Emily Meyer, an unconventional woman; IE a pioneer woman-in-the-making who (according to the older couple tasked with being cooks) is just bound to cause trouble. Emily's strong-willed, steel eyed, but kindhearted posturing might seem trite and ironically conventional (in movie terms at least), if not for being played by the esteemed Nina Hoss (whose star rose higher on the international arthouse stage last winter with Christian Petzold's masterful Barbara) who makes it all rather compelling and nuanced.

Indeed, if all the roles had been filled by lesser actors, Arslan's efforts would feel just poorly stilted, rather than carefully observed. As the timid, banjo plucking Rossmann, Lars Rudolph exudes a certain sad insanity. And while Marko Mandic's Böhmer looks the most like a proper cowboy out of all the principles, there is something ill fitting and forlorn about the way this Austrian packer wears his hat, and the way it hides his eyes. For as it were Arslan is making a film about lost people who are, slowly but surely, losing it even further. In this regard, Gold resembles another recent alt-western, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff. But while Reichardt's picture is at times eccentric in character and always uncannily fragile in tone, Arslan keeps a cool, steady pulse in check the entire running time of Gold.

The long shots/long takes of riders on horseback, ascending then descending, may feel too repetitive for some audience members, but this is Arslan's way of making us viscerally react to the moments when something truly extra-ordinary (often violent and unsettling) does happen. Dylan Carlson's scruffy, repeating electric guitar riff highlights this plodding march on the road to misfortune and desolation. The husky twang at first sounds like a melancholy anthem for our wary prospectors, then something of a mantra for survival, and soon enough a slow, bemoaning death dirge, till finally it is a vessel of the heavyhearted, and of hope.

From the very first minutes of Gold we know that this journey will not bode well for most involved, and like in a slasher film, we wait, expecting, one by one, the demise of each party member. If Gold were a film to be gauged on sensationalism and suspense this would mean a rather bland, and perhaps even derisive picture for the audience. But this is not Gold. Gold is a film told plainly, but not simply; a film filled with courage, but absent of grandeur and glory... and herein lies its challenge. It is a stark film, which is in no way a thorough character study nor deconstruction of classic archetypes, but rather a raw expanse of canvas cut from the loins of mother nature, for which all human things get swallowed up by. Whether we choose to go in fear, by greed, or with a resilient heart into this natural abyss is merely up to us to decide.

Gold was reviewed in relation to the German Currents series at The American Cinematheque at The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. It was released theatrically in Germany in August and is scheduled to play until November and Decemebr in some regions, click here for more info (in German). It plays at the Vancouver International Film Festival this Friday, October 11th. Click here for further information on VIFF.  
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