H.R. Giger is an example of an artist whose work has become incredibly well known without him attaining any large degree of personal fame. It is likely you don’t know his name, but if you have seen Alien (1979) or any of the increasingly convoluted array of sequels/prequels, you have seen Giger. If you ever came across the cover of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery or seen the infamous Penis Landscape poster in the Dead Kennedy’s album Frankenchrist, you’ve seen Giger. If any of your friends have a “biomechanical” tattoo made popular after the success of Alien, you or your friends have even been wearing Giger. So proliferated is the Swiss artist’s work, the odds are you’ve probably seen something of his, even if you never knew it.
Enter Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World (2014), a documentary following Giger and capturing him in the months immediately prior to his death, and this week’s Pick of Online Film on culturised. This is an illuminating documentary if, like me, you are tangentially aware of Giger’s work, or if you come in with zero knowledge of the man behind one of the world’s most infamous monsters. Under the fantastic direction of Belinda Sallin, this documentary examines Giger’s life by making him just one character in a broad array of people on whom he has made an impact, or who have made an impact on him (or both). The way Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World puts to forefront people such as Giger’s now widow Carmen Vega and the artist’s various assistants – cultivated over many years – is what elevates this film beyond a standard documentary; what Sallin has created is an exceptionally layered patchwork of Giger’s life.
The film is focused on a stretch of time in which Giger is preparing for the opening of an exhibit of his in Austria and includes a visit to the H.R. Giger Museum and Bar, which opened in St Germaine, Switzerland, in 1998. We watch as he potters around selecting work chosen from his labyrinthine-esque house, painted – of course – entirely in black. Sallin presents Giger as an avuncular source of dark creativity. His work is admittedly all decidedly similar, but he did after all nearly single handedly create the biomechanical arm of surrealism, and it seems through this documentary as though the inspirations for the work just come to him, fully formed in his head. This highlights perhaps the most interesting facet on which Dark Star, or really any documentary, hinges: how real are the moments we’re seeing?
The film begins with a long crane shot of Giger’s house and then a series of movements through the miniature train station in his garden. This shot is surrounded by Giger’s artwork in a way that immediately reminds – or informs – the viewer of how “dark” Giger’s artistic creations are. In a voiceover, a psychiatrist extols the Freudian idea of “tabula rasa” (blank slate) and asserts that, because of the prevalence in Giger’s work of babies and reproduction, Giger must be tapped into the perinatal trauma all babies endure in the womb. The people who were around Giger did seem to see something remarkable in him: one of Giger’s assistants in the house was the leader singer of death metal band with which Giger was in correspondence; at one point Giger sent the band a letter stating, “I can see how our work is similar,” and this letter has inspired the man to follow Giger for years. In addition to this we hear Giger’s agent saying he believes that the artist may be capable of “channeling” visions of some other plain. This is indeed Giger’s “world” and through the camera’s lens Sallin shows him navigating around his kingdom slowly, shuffling on painful feet through a house that almost functions as a shrine to his own artwork. Most revealing are the moments when Sallin manages to catch him alone, or with his wife Carmen, such as when he reveals that he was terrified of the skull his father brought home to him at the age of six, so to conquer the fear he tied a string around it and drug the skull down the block.
Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World is intelligently shot so as to associate certain feelings with different surroundings: when inside the house, Giger is represented as pondering his work, outside he is reacting – usually in astonishment – at the devotion to him that his work has caused in others. One such moment occurs when at the opening of the Giger Museum and Bar, one a man breaks down in tears and says, “thank you master,” and another reveals he has had his entire back tattooed in a representation of Spiegelbild (aka Mirror Image). It becomes clear in these interactions and the interviews with the various figures of his life, that Giger may have started his little world, but the rest formed around him and became so much larger than he could ever have anticipated.
You can tell that Giger is not well in this documentary, and that this dark star is not long for the world that has risen around him. He often has trouble speaking and moves very slowly, but Sallin handles this well: she keeps interviews with the man at the end of his life to the minimum, and makes heavy use of archival footage to give the audience a better understanding of how Giger approached his work at the beginning: to give us a window into Giger’s life before he was encapsulated within his artistic creations. The effect of which allows the young, vivacious Giger explain and show his process without the filter of age.
Alien was without a doubt the turning point in Giger’s popularity. It transformed the work of a Swiss guerilla poster artist into a cultural phenomenon with mainstream clout. In one particularly telling section of Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World, Giger is discussing the design of the eggs in the film from which the infamous “facehuggers” emerge. He says 20th Century Fox, felt the opening at the top was too obscene, too vaginal. To appease them he added another slit perpendicular to the first so that the opening was shaped like an X; “now,” he says, “they are twice as obscene.” It is here in the moments with the young Giger that we understand the most about his creative process, but it is with the artist as an old man that we come to understand the most about Giger as person. In his most extended speaking moment of the film, Giger relates the effect that the suicide of his partner and muse Li Tobler had on him. In this moment he speaks beautifully of what she meant to him and her influence on his life, and explains how he found in his art the ultimate refuge from her death. Sallin captures the entire speech on film, and punctuates it beautifully with a series of slow dissolves that depict Li gradually having one of Giger’s famous biomechanical designs applied to her face and chest with an airbrush. It is in these moments that Sallin’s motivation for making the film becomes clear: to shine a light on the influences of its dark star.
Giger and his art were undoubtedly possessed of a unique vision. Regardless of personal opinions (and Giger’s art certainly divides opinion) it cannot be denied that he crafted a singular style and one that breached the divide between the art world and mainstream audiences. Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World, for all its skill, does have some bumps in the road, and this seems to be mainly because Sallin was forced to work around Giger’s failing health. The result is sporadic shifts of tone between what feels like the film’s intended purpose and what is actually shown, but similar to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” the people around the subject and their feelings about him are just as compelling as Giger himself. There exists a very real division between H.R. Giger the man, H.R. Giger the artist, and H.R. Giger’s world that has risen around him. What Dark Star achieves, and the reason it has been included as a Pick of Online Film, is managing to capture – with unique intensity – all three of these aspects of this fascinating artist.
Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World is available on Netflix in the U.S. and on YouTube worldwide.