There is an eerie uncanniness underlying daily routines in a sanatorium high atop the Swiss Alps in Thomas Mann’s literary classic The Magic Mountain. Its protagonist Hans comes to visit a relative and, his own health failing with a lung ailment, ends up staying for many years. As the residents cocoon, feverish, from looming mortality, time and a sense of reality bend, and an outside world lurching toward war recedes. When the book came out in 1924, the locals of the resort town were less than happy about it, we hear an art museum guide explain to visitors in Davos. They were tired of being known as a retreat for ill people, and publicity around the novel only reinforced that image. The documentary by Vienna-based filmmaking duo Daniel Hoesl and Julia Niemann has its world premiere in Visions du Reel, a Swiss festival forced online by the world’s current lung disease crisis.
A century on from Mann’s novel, the town of Davos now has a new claim to fame. A popular ski resort, it is also the annual host venue of the World Economic Forum#, a meeting place for the most influential of global leaders and business elites. But who gets to define the essence of a place — those who can import an event and attract the most media fanfare through money and power, or those who subsist there year-round? And is Davos really, as the WEF’s organisers would have it, where the globe’s good work gets done and its newest wars averted, or is it still in its way an out-of-touch bubble of creeping malady, where something’s not quite right?
It’s instructive to watch Davos in counterpoint to The Forum, Marcus Vetter’s Swiss-German take on the World Economic Forum, which opened DOK Leipzig in 2019, to reflect on just how different two documentaries inspired by the same phenomenon can be. To some extent that has been determined by access. The WEF sessions are invitation-only, their attendance strictly controlled to satisfy security, discretion, and an air of exclusivity. Vetter’s was the first independent film …
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