H.R. Giger's Sublime Nightmares

Doc profiles the late surrealist artist


It's the most famous piece of modern horror art: Necronom IV by H.R. Giger. The spindly, eyeless creature became the defining image of the surrealist artist's career: sinister yet sensual, the epitome of the ethos that became known as biomechanical. It haunted a million dreams as the inspiration for the titular creature in Ridley Scott's Alien. Yet Belinda Sallin, director of documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World, refutes the idea that the creature is monstrous. Like much of Giger's work, it is too elegant, too mournful, to be written off as simply a beast. "Monster?" she wrote from Europe. "Are these the hands of a monster?"

For Sallin, the provocative and pioneering Giger is the dark star. She first found herself in his orbit in the early Nineties, when she met his partner and assistant, Sandra Beretta. But it wasn't until 2011 that she finally met the man himself, and that meeting convinced her that he needed to be the subject of her next documentary. Yet the artist was clearly in failing health, and that shadow hung over the production. Sallin said, "We all knew there was only this one take, no retakes, no discussion, no direction."

Giger's work has been called morbid, making it all the more poignant that he was so close to his own demise. Sallin said, "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."

Wheezing and waning, Giger is shown as a man of few words, but the silence was not a byproduct of his failing health. He was just like that. Sallin said, "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."

The narrative climax of the film is the artist's final trip to the H.R. Giger Museum in Gruyères, Switzerland. Yet Sallin shot most of the film in the ultimate expression of Giger's work: his home in Zurich. Outside, it looked like an ordinary house; inside, it was part gallery, part workshop, part mortuary – his sanctum sanctorum. His most profound and disturbing work is a few feet away from the dinner table on which he shares meals with friends and business partners. The experience of seeing so many of his paintings in such close detail changed how Sallin interpreted his creativity. She said, "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 interdependent."

During shooting, Giger's ill health had unfortunately slowed his work down to a shadow of his former productivity. He had given up his beloved airbrush, and is only caught on occasion sketching in pencil. However, Sallin suggests that he was still engaged in his final masterwork, and the film is as much his creation as hers. She said, "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."


Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World screens at the Alamo Ritz, May 23-26.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More H.R. Giger
Adult Audio Coloring Book Sampler
Adult Audio Coloring Book Sampler
A look back at illustrated album covers old and new

Michael Toland, July 29, 2016

Setting the Table
Sci-Fi Art
Oversized books

Richard Whittaker, Dec. 3, 2010

More by Richard Whittaker
New Road Trip Drama Travels into <i>No Man's Land</i>
New Road Trip Drama Travels into No Man's Land
The filmmaking Allyn brothers see Mexico through a new lens

Jan. 22, 2021

Austin-made <i>Walker</i> Debuts Tonight
Austin-made Walker Debuts Tonight
Tune in to the CW as Jared Padalecki steps in Chuck Norris' boots

Jan. 21, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

H.R. Giger, Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World, Belinda Sallin

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle