Station to stationary

TRANSFORMATION: Probing the extinction of history in Zürich as a railway station makes way for a deportation center.

Seven years in the making, shot entirely on glorious 35mm, running 131 minutes and boasting a «cast» of several hundred, Thomas Imbach’s Nemesis is a swaggering philosophical beast of a documentary which makes most other new productions this year—regardless of category — suddenly seem that little bit smaller. Filmed from Imbach’s own window in Zürich, it starts in 2013 with the demolition of the city’s much-loved 116-year-old freight railway station, the colossal Güterbahnhof. It concludes in January of this year with the building that controversially took its place — a bluntly blocky police/prison facility — nearing completion.

Macro to micro

Working as his own cinematographer and camera-operator, Imbach observes each stage of the transformation in a manner that combines god-like, detached surveillance — frequently taking a transcendently cosmic, panoramic perspective — with a very human, super-inquisitive nosiness. Life’s rich pageant unfolds before his, and our, eyes in ways that are often beautiful, cumulatively hypnotic, and which taken in toto feel strikingly original.

Having premiered at the online-only Visions du Réel in April, then enjoying public big-screen showings at Locarno in August, Nemesis now obtains its international premiere in the Feature-Length competition at IDFA. It also pops up in IDFA as one of five pictures in a section entitled «Tomorrow’s Classics». And, surprisingly, this boastful appellation does not in this instance feel like a hostage to fortune.

Just as he segues confidently between the jokey and the elegiac, and also between sped-up motion (a technique which in most hands seems gimmicky and silly) and brief interludes of graceful slo-mo, playful time-manipulator Imbach moves with virtuoso skill from the macro to the micro — in terms of what he shows us, and also via the themes he touches upon.

He daringly combines the personal, political and sociological, musing movingly on the circumstances of his own life (and those of friends, living and deceased) alongside individual testimonies from nine immigrants detained while awaiting deportation, prefiguring the plight of his future, incarcerated neighbours. On one level, a literally concrete depiction of toil and recreation (fluent montage edited by Imbach and David Charap) Nemesis also functions as an epic, inspiring rumination on grand concepts…liberty, responsibility, xenophobia, democracy, economic injustice — the fate and soul of a nation, perhaps even of a continent.

Nemesis-Thomas Inbach-MTR1
Nemesis, a film by Thomas Inbach

From the window

This is the second world-from-my-window opus from Imbach, following «autobiographical fiction» Day Is Done (2011), whose filming consumed a decade and a half. The Lucerne-born writer-director is better known for fictional outings like Mary Queen of Scots (2013), I Was A Swiss Banker (2007), and Lenz (2006) — the latter’s eponymous protagonist was played by Milan Peschel, who speaks Nemesis‘ diaristic, wryly perceptive narration.

Peschel’s compelling vocal contribution is one of three principal elements making up the film’s audio. There is much (perhaps a little too much) music: moody instrumentals by Kali Trio, and Americana-inflected Anglophone songs performed by Lukas Langenegger and the ‘Nemesis Band.’ The third element is perhaps the most fascinating: superlative sound design by Peter Bräker, whose credits here include Foley Artist. This is a job named after its inventor, Hollywood pioneer Jack Foley (1891-1967), who developed the art of additional sound-effects as a means to enhance cinematic verisimilitude.

Nemesis-Thomas Inbach-MTR2
Nemesis, a film by Thomas Inbach

Foley

Bräker’s mastery of sound design, in general, and Foley techniques, in particular, are subtly crucial in Nemesis‘ success. The impression created is that while spying with his camera, Imbach was also eavesdropping on them using powerful directional microphones. Some «natural» sound is doubtless present: the cacophonous clanging of heavy machinery seems emphatically real. But the marginally-audible «dialogue» of those being filmed, plus and a plethora of other tiny incidental noises, seems to have been largely crafted in post-production (end-credits reveal the «voices» were recorded in a Berlin studio.) Some may criticise this as incongruous artifice, but the filmmakers do amusingly «tip the wink» to the audience now and then, just to make sure we’re in on the game.

The current king of integrating Foley-work into documentary material is prolific Ukrainian maestro Sergei Loznitsa, who deploys the technique on archival footage (see Blockade, The Trial, State Funeral) with immersive, persuasive results. Loznitsa’s very first directorial credit was, perhaps not coincidentally, another window-shot study of an adjacent building’s creation: the 28-minute Today We Are Going to Build a House (1996), co-directed with Marat Magambetov. Did Imbach partly intend his two-hour monster to be on one level a tribute to a miniature by Loznitsa? If so, the latter should indeed feel flattered. Nemesis may or may not be a future classic — but, like the railway station whose departure it commemorates, it certainly feels like some kind of a landmark.

Neil Young
Young is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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