Europe has entered 2017 in what promises to be a particularly cold winter, with much of the continent progressively being taken over by polar winds, dark clouds and several inches of snow and fog. Fortunately there are some that have no problems whatsoever in finding light within all this fog and, even better, are skillful in finding warmth in the freezing cold. Those fortunate enough to have encountered the wonderfully weird and eerie world of “Aloys”, one of 2016’s most exciting feature debuts (or better, sort of a debut), will know exactly what we are talking about. It is the work of one of the most talented and promising fresh figures in the European film circuit and he also happens to be FEST’s Filmmaker of the Month this January. It is time to come in and meet the Swiss filmmaker Tobias Nölle.
Berlinale 2016. While the crowds outside battle to find their way to marvel at new works by filmmakers such as Denis Côté, Lav Diaz, Gianfranco Rossi, Danis Tanovic or Mia-Hansen Love, in the corridors of the industry and press areas a rumor begins to spread like wildfire. A “shy and small” Swiss film was on the tip of many tongues, as if sharing a little secret and sign of big things to come. The film was Tobias Nölle’s “Aloys”, the story of an introverted private detective whose near total isolation is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious woman, who turns his universe literally upside down. The Fipresci award within the prestigious Panorama section of the festival was the confirmation of such a rumor and the path the film has taken since then leaves no space for much doubt. Five months later the film was sucking in most of the limelight at the 2016 edition of FEST – New Director’s competition, where it won the Golden Lynx Award and a very similar story took place in events such as Cameraimage or Las Palmas Film Festival.
It is no accident that within the festival circuit Nölle’s fresh vision of urban alienation and the moody atmosphere he creates in his most recent work rang so deep in people. “My characters are fighting those walls of isolation in extremis, but in the core, their feelings are our own. I believe we all feel lonely and disconnected sometimes, maybe more than we’d like to admit. The changes in modern society, digital communication, and the shift into a virtual world alienates us more from each other and from ourselves than bringing us closer together”, he told us.
It is not the first time Nölle chooses to explore such themes and type of outcast protagonists. Back in 2008 he unleashed his first success, a short film entitled “René” (which can be watched here), a portrayal of an unusual man obsessed by recording his own voice onto tapes, as he rambles on about the “White Land”, a mysterious place in which he cannot enter yet is infatuated by it. The sense of loneliness and seclusion are very similar to the ones found in “Aloys”, and so is the result. Both films explore the Swiss urban landscape quite spectacularly, a vision that plays a central role in itself.
“Compared to the glitzy skyline of let’s say New York or LA, the ugly, foggy, cold, and gray apartment towers in Switzerland are much more honest. They literally reek of isolation, as if they were the faces of loneliness. Yet I try to find beauty and mystery in that bleakness, like my characters, finding windows through those gray walls. To build dreams in these lost and forgotten parts of the modern world is as existential as food and water for the body.”
“René” announced the arrival of Tobias Nölle with a bang, taking major awards at events as diverse as Locarno, Clermont-Ferrand or Tampere International Short Film Festival. Ironically, for a filmmaker so captivated by characters that don’t quite see eye to eye with everyone else, he himself was caught off guard with the reactions to the film. He said: “When I finished editing, I believed René was the worst film ever, with a strange character that nobody will get. But then all these people came, who felt so connected to this man. It gave me the security that if I portray the world strictly through my eyes, no matter how uncomfortable or strange that can feel, the chances are that it might say something true.”
You’d be forgiven for not noticing how many interesting new filmmakers have been rising in the past few years in Switzerland. There may not be much glitz and glamour in the Swiss scene, but there is surely no lack of buzz, energy, and creativity. The amount of groundbreaking Swiss short films in the past few years brightening programs all across the world should be a clear sign that a new generation is ready, able, and hungry to breakthrough feature filmmaking. In Switzerland “more young filmmakers take cinematic risks to tell something personal. Maybe we’re realizing the simplest truth that even if we’re living in a neutral paradise, there is a fight going on inside all of us. Although we are loaded with money, we have darkness, humor, and curiosity. People like Frisch, Dürrenmatt, Fischli/Weiss or Roman Signer proofed it in other art forms, so why not in film? I wish Switzerland becomes new Scandinavia, but completely Swiss. The international echo to my work has been much warmer than at home. Still I’m pretty sure I’ll get the chance for another movie. That’s all that counts.” Said Nölle.
It was in this context that the Swiss artist participated in the thought-provoking experience of “Wonderland”, an ensemble vision on the Swiss condition by 10 young local directors. “I love collaborations and it felt kind of historic. Based on the nature of the project, with 10 people telling one story, it was a great chance to work in a more conventional universe than my personal work. It gave me hope, that one day I can open up to a slightly bigger audience than “Aloys” or “René”, without losing the personal vantage point. Actually, my next project is already nurtured with that experience.”
With “Aloys” Tobias Nölle’s name has suddenly been projected to higher grounds, creating much expectations across Europe. Yet, despite the success, the filmmaker rejects the notion that he has become somewhat of a star. “Are you kidding? I feel like the opposite of a star. I keep trying to make a good film. I was given the chance to create my own universe and fill it with people and emotions that I wanted to address and then there were some other people who really liked that. And some who didn’t. As simple as that.”.