Over his life, H.R. Giger dreamed some fearsome dreams. Teeth, female faces, and fetuses. Tubular forms that could be snakes, birth canals, or phalluses. All imagined in a monochromatic future devoid of color.
“Waking up can be a bitter experience,” Giger says as a young artist in the 1970s, in “Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World,” Belinda Sallin’s gentle and competent documentary about the life and art of this influential Swiss artist. Especially, if “you haven’t finished dreaming yet.”
For the uninitiated, “Hansruedi” Giger was the mystical and, to some, disturbing visionary. His art imagined a melding of machines and humans, “biomechanoids,” who populate the vivid dreamscape of airbrushed paintings and sculptures Giger created – a world in which many a science fiction director and death metal band has found inspiration and a place to cast their spells and exorcise their terrors. He died in 2014, shortly after filming concluded.
Via interviews with Giger, his wife, his assistants, and other confidants, and interwoven archival footage, Sallin (“The Last Gardener: Reflections on Growth”) tells a conventional story of an artist’s coming to fame. Giger’s work first began appearing on dorm room walls and rock album covers. “That’s how it all started,” says poster designer Hans H. Kunz, “from that one short wizard, that man dressed in black with a tube under his arm.” Giger’s weird vision became famous after his science fiction designs appeared in Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Every cinematic insectoid alien whose layers of dentures erupt like a Jack-in-the-Box has sprung in part from Giger’s brain.
You’d expect Giger to be some twisted oddball, but Sallin’s meditative portrait depicts him as an ordinary guy, albeit a frail man in his final years of life. Still dressed in a half-buttoned black shirt, the troll-like Giger shuffles around his Zurich home cluttered with a lifetime’s detritus of art-making. Giger speaks sparely, stoically relating stories of his father giving him a human skull as a child, or losing an early love to suicide. In one touching scene, throngs of Goths line up at a booking-signing to pay their respects, show off their Giger-inspired tattoos, and shed a few tears.
The film captures both the claustrophobic and melancholic mood of Giger’s house, and also, perhaps, his mind. The subject being so mute, Sallin mostly leaves it to his close circle to extol his art. Psychiatrist and author friend Stanislav Grof says Giger is “the guide” for exploring “dark areas that we all have [related] to the trauma of birth.” His wife, Carmen Maria Giger, recounts a childhood story of Giger being fascinated with a mummy in a museum, in part to overcome his terror. “Either he loses his fear,” she says, “or he draws until he gets it right.”
Giger faced that fear. “Pretty much everyone has dreams,” Giger says in that 1970s interview, “but very few people actually dare to tell people about them or to try to depict them.” Be thankful Giger dared to capture them, so we wouldn’t have to.Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.