A tangible chill runs through Fred Kelemen’s Frost (1997), his magnificently miserable existential epic. Set during a sunless Christmastime in a grubbily contemporary Germany, the story is a distorted echo of the Nativity, bereft of redemption. A woman, Marianne, and her young son flee her brutal, drunkard husband, trudging east through run-down, holiday-light-speckled villages and over barren, wintry landscapes to return to her childhood town. Along the way, the pair find themselves exploited repeatedly by those who offer shelter or comfort. Later, at a cheap motel marked by a sallow electric star, Marianne finds short-lived solace.
Like the works of Béla Tarr, his past mentor and collaborator, Kelemen’s grim multihour road movie unfolds at somnambulant speed, punctuating its long, paralyzed stretches of gloom with sharp shocks of violence and ecstasy. His handheld camera stalks its characters like an ethnographer of the damned. At times, the shot wanders off into images of glacial, visionary abstraction, momentarily entranced by ice and fog. In one extraordinary sequence, Marianne and her son huddle on a blue-gray, windswept plain on the outskirts of a town. The camera pans a slow, full circle, absorbing the atmosphere of their absolute solitude, until it comes back to rest upon them, its lens now coated with a teary gauze of moisture and dust.
Kelemen portrays another fallen world in his first feature, Fate (1994). Though hailed by Susan Sontag as one of the last gasps of 20th-century cinephilia, it’s also a new species of creatively adulterated audiovisual art, a sublime, bastardly feat that makes the Dogme films appear visually pedestrian in comparison. Shot on Hi-8 and transferred in blotchy, painterly hues to 16mm, Fate trails the sordid goings-on among a group of Russian immigrants in Berlin, the displaced and dispossessed. The transpiring crushed-soul cocktail of betrayal, rape, and murder proves worthy of an Ed Ulmer flick. The film’s semi-documentary structure mixes uneasily with the video’s dreamlike low-fi fuzziness, creating a churning sense of torpid imbalance. (It’s a fitting mood, considering that, in all of Kelemen’s films, the characters drink endlessly; his cinema could be diagnosed with alcoholic depression.)
The director’s latest lurching urban parable, Nightfall (1999), likewise intermingles formats with experimental aplomb. The film unspools in elegantly snaking 35mm long-takes, interrupted by shaky, low-resolution video close-ups. Like Fate and Frost, Nightfall drags viewers through an inky-black world of dingy mattresses, greasy-brown wallpapers, tortured lovers, and frozen souls. The oppressive air of all three films becomes heightened by strains of forlorn folk and pop music. In Fate, it’s the whining gypsy wheeze of a Russian’s accordion. The thin hotel walls of Frost seep half-audible snatches of sad, doomed love songs: schlager, tango, country—even Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” made unexpectedly profound by a bitterly melancholy scene in a seedy lounge. Ghostly Portuguese fado provides the background for Nightfall, which takes place in an imaginary European city cobbled together from multiple spots on the continent.
In interviews, the 38-year-old Kelemen explains that his filmmaking embraces “impurity” as both an aesthetic and political choice. “Pureness is a myth,” he has said, “and the ideology of pureness has created much pain in the world.” His critique could be extended not merely to ideas of pure race, belief, or nationhood, but also to arch notions of pure cinema or production style which hamper the exploration of motion picture art. But Kelemen’s films are hardly mere exercises in anti-aesthetics. Each constitutes a palpably coherent, unique vision built upon an alchemy of contradiction; both depressing and uplifting, they discover a deep humanism in metaphysical emptiness. “Tamed birds sing about freedom,” says a torch singer in Nightfall, “wild birds fly.” Kelemen’s untamed cinema, like a rough beast, simultaneously roots in dismal dirt and soars to exhilarating heights.