Filming only from his Zurich window, Swiss director Thomas Imbach inventively combines imagery of the demolition of an old, much-loved railway station, and the subsequent construction of a large prison and police centre, with reflections on the loss of loved-ones and the harsh treatment of newly arrived migrants.
From May 2013 to January 2020, Thomas Imbach filmed the world outside his window. Living a few floors up, the Swiss director of documentaries and fiction features (Mary Queen Of Scots, 2013) has a sweeping view of Zurich. When he points his camera down, we see a street, with people walking from left to right and back again. He zooms in, and follows them. When he angles the camera up, we see the skyline, with mountains in the distance and the ever-changing skies above.
He used the same techniques in Day is Done (2011), which was shot over of fifteen years. But although the view is familiar, the documentaries are in fact opposites. With Day is Done, Imbach used the outside to look inside. He ingeniously combined the changing landscape with messages left on his answering machine. When the messages got sadder, it rained. When people complained he wasn’t in, planes flew past. And the building of the Prime Tower skyscraper (which started in 2008) was mirrored in the growing-up of Imbach’s son, who was born during the film’s production.
In Nemesis, however, Imbach focuses on the outside world. In front of his house, an old freight railway terminal is being demolished, to be replaced by a large prison and police centre. Imbach films the machines tearing away at bricks and mortar, roofs and windows, like metal dinosaurs. He has perfected the filming, editing, and musical techniques he employed in Day is Done, with smoother results. He films in 35mm and often speeds up or slows down the filming, so buildings crash in beautiful (in-camera) slow-motion, while trucks speed by like racing cars. It’s one of the easiest forms of trick photography, and used far too seldom.
The idea of filming from your window is not new, as Imbach freely admits. One thinks of Hitchcock’s Rear Window(1954), but a better reference may be Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary Tishe! (2003), filmed for a year from his Saint Petersburg window. One is even reminded of the oldest surviving photograph, Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826-27), or the countless paintings of window views, from Caspar David Friedrich to Van Gogh.
Imbach also mentions Cézanne’s almost eighty paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire as an inspiration to keep filming the same view, with different lighting, in different weathers and at different times of the day. Of course, Cézanne could also have a made a hundred, and similarly, there is no end to the sunsets and snowfalls in Zurich – always beautiful, always different, but it does mean Nemesis, with its two hours+ running time, could have been shorter.
Having mentioned Hitchcock, we have to mention voyeurism. It’s partly inescapable when you’re zooming in, from above, on unsuspecting construction workers and passers-by, mainly harmlessly. But it gets uncomfortable when Imbach starts lingering on beautiful women. And when he zooms in on a recognizable couple kissing, he violates their privacy – unnecessarily, as it has little to do with the film’s larger themes.
During the first half of the movie, when the historic, much-loved freight station is being demolished, Imbach’s voice-over centres on death, especially of his loved ones. His grandfather, his mother, a good friend – these are years marked by loss. But his focus shifts when the destruction is complete, and when construction of the new prison and police centre begins (a symbol of national security and confinement replacing a symbol of international travel and trade). His assistant Lisa Gerig goes to the airport prison twice a week to talk to refugees. She thinks Imbach is too concerned with the past, and not enough with the present. As the year comes to an end, Imbach proclaims: “This New Year my resolution is to think not of the dead, but the living.”
Imbach starts reading us fragments, in first person singular, from refugee statements that Gerig has collected. His film becomes, in a sense, an extension of her social work: “She says it’s not about doing anything special. It’s about being there. So they know someone’s listening to their story.” He also mentions the 2014 ‘mass immigration initiative’ referendum that was narrowly won by the anti-migrant vote, and the strict Swiss prison regime, where accused can be confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day. Meanwhile, the ethnically diverse group of construction workers outside his window raises the question as to whether some of them might be former refugees themselves, now having to build prisons for those who have followed in their footsteps.
The strongest moments occur when the audio and visuals reinforce each other. In other words, when the view poetically echoes, and thereby strengthens, the migrants’ stories. As when a story of a stormy sea-crossing is accompanied by Imbach’s upside-down view, with dark clouds suddenly resembling rolling waves. Or when Imbach films the fireworks at New Year, and reads us the story of Hamza, a refugee from Algeria, who bought Cola bottles for New Year’s Eve. With his fellow inmates, he shook the bottles at midnight and sprayed them out of the window, while “many shouted ‘Liberty’ out into the darkness.” The story relates a feeling of hope, but meanwhile, in the dark, we see the silhouette of a new prison, almost ready to receive other refugees like him.
Director: Thomas Imbach