H. R. Giger, the Dark Star
Full Q&A with documentarian Belinda Sallin
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Sat. May 23, 2015
In The Third Man, Harry Lyme infamously said the only thing Switzerland gave the world was the cuckoo clock. What would the 9-year-old H. R. Giger have made of that?
At the age of 6, the young Hans Rudolf Giger (H. R. to his fans, Hans Ruedi to his friends) was dragging a skull through the streets of his native Zurich. His fascination and fixation with what lies beneath the skin became a formative component into his evolution as arguably the last great surrealist master. From film monsters to album covers, his biomechanical style was both erotic and disturbing, dreamlike and nightmarish.
New documentary Dark Star: H. R. Giger's World finds the man at the far end of his life, sick and old, surrounded by the artworks that have disturbed a million dreams. Before the film opens at the Alamo Ritz for a four day run, director Belinda Sallin talked to the Chronicle via email about filming the artist in his final months, and his artistic and cultural legacy. She also picked out a few of her favorite of his works, to explain what his art meant to her.
Austin Chronicle: Dark Star, rather than being a history of Hans Ruedi's career, is very much a portrait of him in his declining years. What made you take that path?
Belinda Sallin: It was not my intention to create a conventional biography of H. R. Giger. You can read that on the internet or in his numerous books and publications. It has already been done.
What hasn’t been shown is the world in which he lived: his extraordinary houses, the way that he literally lived in his art – with all that entails. What hasn’t been shown is the way that Giger made himself a home in the uncanny, the sinister, and the scary, remaining a very charming, funny, friendly man. I wanted the film to be an honest portrayal of Hans Ruedi Giger’s work as well as an honest portrayal of Hans Ruedi Giger as a man.
I gave a lot of thought to fact that we started shooting late in H. R.'s life.
At the beginning of the film, Giger shows us his first skull, he dragged it through the streets of his hometown on a string at the age of six, when other children are still hugging their teddy bears! Almost 70 years later, he chose not to withdraw from the film despite his weak health – which is quite a provocative decision in a society that is obsessed with youth, beauty, and fitness. In my opinion, by participating in the film, he made himself conspicuous in the eternal cycle of birth, life, and death. He became a part of his work, it was his last performance. He knew this from the beginning of the shooting. He knew exactly what he was doing.
AC: His art has become almost ubiquitous, not least due to Ridley Scott's Alien. When did you first become aware of H. R.'s work?
BS: I have known Giger's artwork since I was young. I saw his work in shared flats, comic shops, and bookstores. Probably the first image I saw by him was Brain Salad Surgery, the album cover he did for the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I remember the posters Birth Machine and Li I and of course, the one Alien. Whenever I saw his artwork, I was disturbed and fascinated at the same time. I've never forgotten these images. Giger’s work is very distinctive.
When I met Sandra Beretta, a former life companion of Giger’s and his assistant in the early Nineties – as well as the person who introduced me to him – all these images rushed back to me. A short time later, I started to explore the work of Giger in a deeper and more thorough way. It was a great experience: there was so much to discover.
AC: He's arguably one of the most important artists of the 20th century, and hugely influential internationally. But what do people think about him in Switzerland? Are most people even aware that he was Swiss?
BS: Of course. Everybody in Switzerland knows H. R. Giger. He is world famous and he is famous in Switzerland. But this doesn't mean that he was accepted by the Swiss art institutions or by the art establishment. A lot of people in Switzerland refused his art – and have been refusing it until now. It's no secret that Giger wanted to have a large solo exhibition in Zurich. Shockingly, except for a small exhibition in the foyer of the Kunsthaus Zurich in 1977, it never became a reality. Maybe Giger, who broke so many taboos, was too provocative for the reserved Swiss people.
Unfortunately, he didn't get the acknowledgment he deserved. But the advantage of that situation was that he could live in peace here in Switzerland in his house at the border of the city of Zurich. Nobody disturbed him. He could have lived anywhere but he really loved Switzerland. He would never have considered moving away, not in his wildest dreams.
AC: When did you actually first meet him, and how would you describe your relationship during the shoot?
BS: I first met H. R. Giger in the fall of 2011. It was at this very first meeting that I decided to make this film. I was completely overwhelmed when I've entered his house and I was very surprised when I met H. R. Giger himself. He was such a nice, charming, friendly man! I experienced him as a very considerate person, right till the end. You could tell from his manners that he came from a good, middle-class home. He was the complete opposite of a lout, the complete opposite of what one would probably have expected. I liked that.
I visited H. R. and his wife Carmen many, many times since then. Our relationship was characterized by mutual respect; we always got along very well. We were on the same wavelength somehow. Don’t forget that H. R. was a very humorous person, we laughed a lot during the visits and the sessions of filming.
AC: H. R. is silent for much of the film. Clearly, his health was poor and declining during shooting. How did that illness and that silence effect the filming and how you edited the end result that we see on screen?
BS: Yes, H. R. is silent for much of the film. But he never liked speaking about his artwork. He joked once that he never would’ve gotten very far on his ability to talk alone. Upon meeting him, I immediately accepted the fact that the word wasn’t his medium and that I’d have to use other ways and means to realize the film. I think H. R. was pleased when he realized that I understood that. We were on the same wavelength somehow, and didn’t need to speak much between us.
Because of his illness and his poor health, I found shooting with H. R. to be very special. He was only available for very short periods of time. I had to carefully consider what I wanted from him and decide which scenes definitely needed him to be there. I discussed each scene in great detail with the crew beforehand, sometimes even acting them out on camera. Interestingly, despite these preliminary talks, the scenes took on a very documentary, very authentic feeling once they had happened. We all knew there was only this one take, no retakes, no discussion, no direction. I give H. R. a lot of credit for almost always conforming to my wishes. He often dutifully did his part in order to make this film a reality.
I often felt a kind of finality sneaking up on me while we were shooting. For instance, when we were up on the Alp Foppa, somehow I just knew it would be the last time H. R. would return to that place of his childhood. But I never dreamed he would visit his museum for the last time with us. Actually, he didn’t really feel like going to Gruyères. After all, it was pretty taxing on him. It took a great deal of persuasion on my part. In the end, he only spent a short time in the museum. We managed to film him in his beloved Spell Room for a few minutes. These scenes are very precious to me.
Even when we were aware of Hans Ruedi’s health issues, it was sad and shocking that he died in the middle of editing. It wasn’t easy to get back into our work rhythm. At first, we were practically paralyzed. But it didn’t have much influence on the production side of things. After all, we’d already finished filming. We even managed to do the photo-shoot for the film publicity just five days before his death.
AC: His work often dealt with death and morbid imagery. Did he, or those around him, talk much about his imminent mortality?
BS: Neither he nor those around him talked much about it. But of course everybody was aware of it. It was a fact. When I talked with him about death, he was very calm and somehow prepared. He told me that he didn't want to live too long with his health issues. As he says in the film, he had seen enough, done enough and he was very satisfied with his life. It’s a beautiful statement.
AC: The house is as much a character as H. R. himself. The building itself seems so conventional from the outside, but the inside, and the garden, are a reflection of the artist. What was your experience of shooting there?
BS: Yes, the house became a protagonist, a character. When I entered Giger’s house and garden for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the incredible richness of details. These are very important for the film, because they show a part of the inside of H. R. Giger. The house seemed to me like a living organism, a lot of things in the house changed all the time because of exhibitions or similar projects. I tried to include this in the film.
I really liked to work there, but it was not easy all the time: We didn't have a lot of space, so we didn't work with a tripod, but with an easy rig. This made us a bit more mobile, a little anxious but also curious. We didn't have a lot of light, and I didn't want to destroy the atmosphere with too many spotlights (and in any case, there wasn't a lot of space to put them!) So we used a camera that's very sensitive to light.
AC: There's a difference between seeing an artist's work reproduced, and seeing the original. Recently in Austin, we had an exhibition of Frank Frazetta's work, and seeing it in person was quite astounding. What was your experience of seeing his original work?
BS: It was great! You see all the details much better than in the reproductions; you see the striking colors in his work; you see that H. R. Giger combined the airbrush work with paintbrush work. I hope you can see a few of these details in the film.
It was a great experience to study certain images intensely. There is no end to the details to be discovered.
I also found it interesting that some of Hans Ruedi’s work would change after I looked at it for a while. Suddenly, the creatures that seemed evil at first glance didn’t seem quite so evil anymore. They looked more helpless, lonely, pitiful, or beautiful and elegant. I think it’s extraordinary how Hans Ruedi could depict the duality of existence: death and birth, Eros and Thanatos, everything being one, everything being inter-dependent. When you are in his museum, for example in the Spell Room, you can see it in a very concentrated way. You become part of the artwork.
AC: During the signing at the Museum in Saint Germaine, there's a moment when one of his fans is clearly on the verge of tears at meeting the artist. But there's also discussion about how H. R.'s commercial success meant that he was taken less seriously by the art establishment. What do you think his legacy is?
BS: It's undeniable that H. R. Giger was an exceptional artist. He was unique, unmistakable and he had tremendous international charisma. He touched countless people all over the world with his art.
Giger stood and stands between the genres. Even when he is placed in the categories of "Surrealism" or "Fantastic Realism," that doesn’t address that his relationship to pop culture is undeniable – his tools included film, comics, album art, music videos, advertising and design. In the Seventies, this was quite new within the art world. We could call Giger a transmedia pioneer. To him, different media were equal. His art always remained unique and unmistakable across the different vectors. When he won an Oscar in 1980, it must have been a scandal for the art establishment at the time. So yes, he was taken less seriously by the art world than he deserved.
I am absolutely sure that will change over the years. It already began in the last years: For example in 2004 Hans Ruedi Giger was awarded "La Meédaille de la Ville de Paris", the Paris medal of honour. He has also had great exhibitions in France, Austria, Germany, and more.
Unfortunately, H. R. Giger cannot experience this change firsthand, a fate he shares with many, many great artists. It is consoling that H. R. was no longer interested in that discussion. I didn't detect any hint of bitterness when he said to me, "They don't show my work in the art institutions of Switzerland." Maybe his composure came from the fact that he knew he didn't need the establishment to enjoy worldwide success. Who needs institutional approval when you've already reached countless people all over the world with your art?
Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World screens at the Alamo Ritz, May 23-26. Click here to purchase tickets.