Alpine Fire

April 18, 2011

Alpine Fire is as heady and intoxicating as the thin mountain air of the Alps in which it takes place. The entire film is set far above the rest of the world, and the isolated location influences both the characters and the film style.

The exact location is a lonely home pitched on the side of a mountain. Communication with neighbors is done with signs and binoculars; other people may be miles away, on the slope of the next Alp. The time is the present, but the home has no television or telephone, and it seems remote in many ways.

In this house live the elderly parents (Rolf Illig, Dorothea Moritz) and their two children: a daughter, Belli (Johanna Lier) and a son (Thomas Nock) called simply the boy.

The boy is deaf, temperamental and stunted in his learning. The early part of the film details his struggle with the world, and his fascination with ways of seeing; he uses mirrors, binoculars and various looking glasses to examine the silence around him. He becomes enraged when he spots his sister moving to the sounds of a transistor radio, which he immediately finds and destroys.

The girl is more conventional, but as winter approaches and the boy passes through stages of puberty, they both feel stirrings of sexual feeling, intensified by the cabin-fever situation.

Swiss filmmaker Fredi Murer draws the film into the realm of tragedy with muted, careful strokes. Murer’s style has some of the starkness of Swedish cinema, but without any stumbling symbolism.

Murer is remarkably good with the young actors, who hit no wrong notes. Lier is deeply attractive as the girl, Nock is so convincing that you can’t imagine him in any other role; I actually checked the press notes to find out whether he was really a deaf actor. (He’s not.)

Murer’s transparent images remain filled with the strange, persuasive light of the mountains, even as he leads his film into incestuous and murderous territory. But the final light is reserved for the ending, as quiet as snow, which surely qualifies as the eeriest fade-out in recent movie memory.

First published in the Herald, December 28, 1986

This is indeed an amazing movie, a haunting mountain film and more or less a one-off. Fredi Murer has made four features since Alpine Fire, but only the most recent, 2006’s Vitus, got anything like U.S. distribution, and it was a well-made if entirely conventional story (with a pleasant role for Bruno Ganz). The two young actors had four or five credits apiece, and then nothing. I realize my description of Johanna Lier as “deeply attractive”‘ does not sound like the most rigorous critical stance, but see the movie, and you’ll realize I’m not only right but also speaking to the point of the film.

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