Cyrus Frisch and Roeland Fernhout in a dazzling embrace.
We weep not because we are sad; we are sad because we weep. William James
The land resembles a Big Mac, composed of layers of earth from Namibia, Spain and a few other desert regions. Between them some tough vegetation, trimmed by a broad road. On it, a splendid American limo of uncertain age flashes forward out of the distance, as if from a fata morgana. It dashes past us with a roaring din like a passing jet plane. The old tin beast is not completely without elegance, so that it is some time before we realise that the car is nothing more than a sick, blundering body, a piece of wounded game running hunted into the bush. It keeps on re-emerging far away in the locale, and it keeps on rattling, rumbling, ticking and clattering past us. Apparently, it is a clear warning of what is to follow.
Yet as the head of the driver then comes into the picture, we are actually still not ready for what is in store for us. The desperate traveller’s week-end beard is still tentative, it can still be shaven off, as if his fate is not yet quite sealed. Only when a woman suddenly appears at his side without really anything changing, do we realize that salvation is no longer possible.
The traveller is then already condemned to himself, he has become a Persona, a mask. The commonplace traveller appears to have become a Traveller. The director of the film is also powerless before this change. The Traveller is a sun worshipper, he continually gazes at the sun directly, with his classic National Health specs as intermediary. One glass is focused; the other, almost transparent, glass works as camera, telescope and binoculars at one and the same time. For the moment Frisch’s optical material is not really working for him, although really everything can be discerned on the Traveller’s countenance. But the subtly exploratory camera gradually does obtain insight into the quirks of mystical fate written upon it. How, to compensate for initiation into the secret of the Sun, he is felled by blindness and the blackwater fever.
An initially malevolent entrance that after all is said and done, we are to share, weeping, with him as a necessary rite-de-passage.
Timid, theatrical accents from the Hans Kemna school
In Blackwater Fever the cultured human being evaluates his ultimate status in nature or, for those who view the film more cynically, he returns to his primary condition. He is imprisoned in a road movie that refuses conclusion, is on the road in a landscape becoming increasingly arid and evolving into a barren desert. Everything is barren here, the landscape, the car, the driver, the images of war that now and again appear as if though a mist. Yet the filmic medium that chronicles all is equally barren. Often rough grained and speckled, turned to the sun, dazzled by a surfeit of life, and in its technical quality as changeable as the changing landscape remaining a landscape in spite of all.
Car, head and landscape: the splendid American Old Timer, the traveller and nature itself are three sickly apparitions that have come together in the hands of director Cyrus Frisch. Frisch primarily champions a revival of sixties minimalist art camera. Here not the dialogue but the silence is the primary drive; not the petrol but an exhausting, overwhelming sun is the primary energy; and not the emptiness of the landscape but the expressiveness of the driver’s face is the primary image. For the drama that Frisch has in mind is reflected in the landscape revealed within the driver’s head. He pushes him as if he was a contemporary Prometheus doing battle with the Sun. Hardly a scrap of dialogue and yet a Freudian drama of Greek allure, with Prometheus and of course with Oedipus for whom avoidance of his cruel fate is not possible–becoming blind.
Of course the road movie has always had religious connotations, for it was ultimately Christ who with his Way of the Cross divided into twelve stations, established its images right from the beginning. The first and still the best road movie ever, They live by Night by Nicolas Ray, hits the mark right at the start: contrite conversations in a car rushing ever onwards set the tone. So it is even more remarkable that there is hardly any speech in the road movie Blackwater Fever and there is no dialogue sending the viewer in any particular direction. It is the images themselves in their splendid montage that put us on the trail of Frisch’s moral intentions. Frisch has an ideal Traveller in Roeland Fernhout behind the wheel; he very precisely replicates a handful of mythic characters upon his head, without in doing so tying down Fernhout. Only he ensures he does not let him have his verbal freedom, and rightly so. For when Fernhout briefly opens his mouth it is instantly very telling as well: the timid, theatrical accents of the Hans Kemna school immobilises Frisch’s project for a moment – like a Brechtian intermezzo. Ellen ten Damme as Fernhout’s partner might well have wanted to move her mouth but she has been rapidly adapted to Frisch’s plan so that her white radiance forms a beautiful background to Fernhout’s bronze head above all.
Christ in his Agony meets a newborn Christ!
Blackwater Fever is a real film of ideas apart from a drama of Gesicht Und Gestalt. Although with a rather revolutionary approach, because there are no new ideas to be found. Or you would have to call the reintroduction of the old existentialist debate modern; the one that was relegated to the scrapheap forty years ago by structuralists and again by post-modernists more recently. Frisch once again takes the essential questions from the existentialist period seriously here, and in particular the legendary controversy between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Fernhout behaves like someone hesitating between the characters of Sartres Revulsion and Camus The Stranger. Does he resemble the arch pessimist and gloomy man Antoine Roquetin or does he have more in common with the depersonalized “stranger" Meursault? Frisch’s film looks as if he wishes to be associated with Sartre’s dark vision, and then Fernhout is reminiscent of Camus “stranger".
But ultimately Frisch surprises by giving a voice to the often neglected third party in the existentialist debate, that of the Christian philosopher Gabriel Marcel. For this is a film with a mission. More than an artistic road movie, it is an impertinent access to a mystical experience. Blackwater Fever is primarily a filmic essay agitating against the nihilist Fortuynism that in the Houellebecqse world view has more or less all the contemporary avant-garde in its clutches. Artistically and morally, Blackwater Fever is then a film of supernatural proportions. Frisch is no fundamentalist, no born again Christian, but he has an uncompromising morality that will not succumb to the conditions in the world. He looks in the mirror and sees a murderer, it is stated in the introductory monologue, and how can he live with that? He rebels against himself, and forces himself to make a film like this one in order to show us the world as it is. You just have to accept then that this is reminiscent of Christ’s Gospel and that you are seeing the history of Christian thought pass in front of your astonished eyes! Although it is anything but dogmatic, Blackwater Fever is an ideological, evangelical road movie that is reminiscent of the fate of the Christ. All Fernhout’s suffering refers unmistakably to His never forgotten Agony. Or rather Blackwater Fever is the latest of so many filmed versions of the Gospel of Jesus! With the necessary variation woven into it! For when at the end of the film Fernhout takes a baby into his arms which has been abandoned to its fate, no one misses the fact that we have the surprising image of a Christ at the end of his life taking the young, newborn Christ into his arms again. We had already guessed that the Mercy of God was resting on Fernhout’s shoulders, now we see a heretic variant of the Incarnation – formulated by Saint Augustine in church terms. Or as the minister in a simpler manner hammers into you Sunday after Sunday: Mankind is not able to come to God because of his sin, but the absolute, qualitative distance between God and Man is bridged by God Himself in the Incarnation. What a surprise: Saint Augustine and Gabriel Marcel as script doctors for an avant-garde film in which Incarnation and Reincarnation enter into a marriage.
That is what happens when a weeping Fernhout, as if in an oblique lament, surrenders to the baby with all his emotions. And drags us along with him so that we too know ourselves reincarnated in that tiny Christ. Frisch offers a “Reincarnated Incarnation" as the answer to all our questions about life. Yet here he does not in the least resemble that converted essayist Willem Jan Otten, who vents his hypocritical, Christianized chitchat in the monthly NRC magazine. In the twelve minute closing scene, we see the consequences of what blackwater fever can do to people, we shudder, but slowly the mood is transformed as it were into a vision of high expectation. Fernhout, by now himself infected, lands up in a reservation of plague sufferers. Miserable little huts must protect these pitiable, scarcely protected naked bodies a little against the sun. But, a miracle, - all these pathetic little bundles of human misery – like the ones seen in the propaganda for Charities – quickly turn out to trump Fernhout’s dusty apparition. You see how their sense of their own worth and pride quickly transforms their mutilated bodies into shining beings. They suddenly incorporate that pure atmosphere that you come across in the surviving images of ancient cultures. They are wonderfully carved statues that have come to life and radiate the power of an inner self not perceived.
Falconetti, Bas Jan Ader and the face of Roeland Fernhout
Fernhout’s face gains in the final scenes a tonality of classic allure, like the bearded countenance of Christ! Frisch and Fernhout both lay themselves bare, as if their dispute might be sublimated thus in a conciliatory scene. All the prior experiences unite here in a happening of abruptly remarkable absurdity, as old-fashioned as it is contemporary. In the barren desert of Namibia, with a few huts as sole protection from the sun –no more than a few poles with a roof of leaves upon them – here, the essence of life, The Life, has been portrayed. Here are naked, black people, in what must once have been a familial relationship but now split apart by the cruelty of man and nature. They each stand on their own island, thrown back on themselves in their total isolation. And between them Fernhout wanders like a lost, beaten and blinded tourist. We wander with him in his shadow, locked in the camera’s gaze as he is. And then that face, upon which we are increasingly deeply concentrated, can no longer bear it. Frisch’s camera has fulfilled its quest: the stoicism of this face that still knew how to give itself an attitude in spite of dust and misery and blindness and fever, breaks open and he bursts into tears on seeing an abandoned baby on the ground.
And in this crying we see something occur that makes the film the classic that it already now is. For an hour long, we have been kept in tension in an increasingly deepening impasse. And then there is the old-fashioned apotheosis, it is crystal clear. Up until now the most beautiful study in existence of a crying face was naturally the one that Carl Theodor Dreyer made of Falconetti in his film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. The mysticism characterizing a face so expressively there, obtains a moral variant here. Falconetti’s face speaks volumes. Fernhout shows an empty face. And because Ferhout can reveal no secrets that do not exist, Frisch can fill in Fernhout’s features according to his own ideas. For neither Dreyer’s religious-emotionalism nor Bas Jan Ader’s sentimental tone in his I'm too sad to tell you can be of service in this definitive portrait of the post-modern metrosexual, lost in his own moral desert. Frisch poses no verbal questions and does not wait for long drawn-out answers. The profusely flowing tears watering the moral desert of the existential human being have their own power.
Roeland Fernhout used to be nothing more than a face for childish films. Five years ago, that face demonstrated what Frisch must have had in mind truly precisely. He knew how to use this face in order to mount it among unforgettable images in the Pantheon of film classics. Now that point has come, yet Fernhout disassociated himself from his role long ago. Fernhout found the director an anathema, shocked as he was at how Frisch treated the local inhabitants in Namibia, the crazy way the director behaved. But although it has been five years since the shooting of the film, he has still been unable to make peace with the director. For he still does not understand that in Frisch, he had found his ideal director.
Does not Fernhout know of the existence of Antonin Artaud?
Artaud’s theatre of the plague
Whatever metaphysical interpretation you give it, and no matter what philosophy you think you can derive from this ethic-aesthetic expression, Fernhout’s wonderfully transparent fit of weeping is open to every interpretation. That fit of weeping is more than anything the weeping of the contemporary metrosexual. It is the ultimate fit of weeping in which he succeeds in attuning the viewers’ emotion to his own. An unimaginably intense “sur place' at the condition of matters in the world.
And at the same it is more than merely a filmic delight: this is more than the screen, for it embodies the poignancy and the true character of Antonin Artaud’s theatrical philosophy at the same time. An appallingly fascinating double ecstasy, both filmically and theatrically! Frisch has opened Antonin Artaud’s box of tricks in order to thus involve Fernhout in his madness. Frisch had evidently a typical drama in the Artaud tradition in mind, for which he simply took Artaud’s theory of the theatre of the plague literally. In Blackwater Fever the plague really is the plague, and the notorious blackwater fever does not only physically corrupt the local population, but also the traveller Fernhout. He is physically completely shaken and eroded. And discarded as empty. A spectacle wearing traveller who becomes a Blind Traveller.
It is quite phenomenal how Frisch has thus succeeded in transforming Fernhout, the-metrosexual-who-so-celebrates-his-liberty.
Blackwater Fever, Cyrus Frisch, The Netherlands 2008, colour, HD , 70 min.