Wednesday, August 12, 2015

GOLD (2013)

We've actually seen quite a few German westerns, so the novelty of Thomas Arslan's film is that it's a German northwestern, an exploration of the Klondike rather than a Karl May-inspired romp among the noble savages. Gold (the English word is the official German title) has inspired many comparisons with one of the best American westerns of the still-young century, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff. In part that's because Gold, too, has a female protagonist, but it may also be because some viewers ask, "Is that it?" at the end. Gold is no more about reaching one's destination than Meek's Cutoff was, but it's both more picturesque, within its budgetary limitations, and somewhat more existential than the American film. The poster art you see here has whitened the landscape through which the characters ride to better match the lingering popular imagination of the Klondike, but in the movie itself browns and greens prevail and the action takes place in warmer weather than we're used to seeing in this particular subgenre. If the absence of winter disappoints you you can always wait for The Hateful Eight, but Arslan and cinematographer Patrick Orth do nicely by their British Columbia locations, emphasizing wilderness rather than winter. There's no effort, as in Meek's Cutoff, to obscure the epic sweep of the landscape, but as in the Reichardt film a little band of increasingly desperate people of increasingly questionable competence subordinate the landscape to a human scale.

By the 1890s adventurers like Emily can reach the frontier's edge by train.
From there, things look more generically western, albeit further north.


Arslan follows a small group of German immigrants who've gathered for an expedition to the gold fields organized by Wilhelm Laser (Peter Kurth), an irrepressibly European figure who inspires little confidence, though his hired man Carl Boehmer (Marko Mandic) is more acclimated and more promising. A latecomer to the group is, unexpectedly, a single woman, Emily Meyer (Nina Hoss). More than the others, she seems to be going for the sake of going, more the classic western loner than any of the others. Boehmer, however, is another western archetype, the man with a past. Evocative of John Wayne in Stagecoach, he's a justified killer who has unfinished business, whether he likes it or not, with his enemies.

Things fall apart fairly rapidly once it becomes clear that Laser is a con man. Compared to other characters he gets off easy, if only because Emily rescues him from a sunrise lynching. Others drop out or die. One man (Lars Rudolph) most likely does both; driven mad by the horrors he sees, he strips naked and runs off alone. By that point, with Laser gone and another self-appointed leader done in by blundering into a bear trap, only Emily and Boehmer are left. Through luck more than anything else they end up in an outpost of civilization, only to find Boehmer's reckoning waiting for him.

Emily arrives alone and departs alone. Does she go on out of greed, for the sake of another, or is her urge to press on much different than the mania that sent her onetime partner running naked into the deep woods? For a film called Gold, this film isn't really about greed once the scheming Laser is out of it. A stubborn restlessness is the prevailing spirit, a determination to go one's own way, often against good advice, for the satisfaction of having chosen it oneself. The party seems doomed to self-destruction. They're the sort who are warned against doing something stupid and almost immediately walk into disaster. Boehmer seems more competent and thoughtful, and Emily less aggressively reckless, than the rest, but their mere presence in this misguided band seems to signal that something's wrong with them, too. Nina Hoss plays Emily with a disquieting stoicism that barely hints at deeper motives for her relentless quest. When she takes leave of us, her perseverance can be seen with equal fairness as heroic or foolhardy, or as both in equal measure. To writer-director Arslan's credit, he recognizes in Emily an enigma that can't be reduced to the neatness of a romantic character arc or resolved in violent catharsis. That may leave Gold's ending as unsatisfying to some as the in medias res finish of Meek's Cutoff. But by disdaining conventional dramatics both films may leave us truer portraits of the pioneers and fortune seekers that populated a continent.

No comments: