Winter Journey in the Hartz Mountains

A new in-depth focus on Cordelia Swann’s ‘Winter Journey in the Hartz Mountains’ by writer Charlie Fox

IT’S THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS and all through the house, not a creature is stirring except for a woman with a broken heart. She stands at the window, face ringed with mist and ice, her spacey gaze aimed at the suburban world outside to tell us there’s terrible trouble within. The lady in question is Cary Scott (played by Jane Wyman), the widowed heroine of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows (1955). A woman staring at you from a distant window is a haunting sight: everyone remembers Rapunzel and nobody forgets Agnes Moorhead (who plays Wyman’s vulpine best friend in this very picture) as ‘Mother’, that gaunt apparition at the window in Citizen Kane (1941), calling her son in from the approaching snowstorm. Here snowflakes tumble from the sky like jewels. Fixed in close-up through the windowpane, Wyman appears, deep in lonesome thought, watching who knows what, lit half by a merry fire and half by the neon beam thrown from a blue moon. She allows a few secret tears to fall before turning back to the empty living room where festive cheer reigns: hot with tinsel, the tree sparkles like a trashy queen. The curtain falls; the woman disappears. This little scene of domestic tragedy lasts maybe ten seconds: it’s surprisingly desolate in heaven tonight.

Cordelia Swann’s Winter Journey in the Hartz Mountains (1983) is a twelve-minute slow motion replay of this brief sequence. Repeating on two screens (one showing the original footage, the other a fuzzily videotaped double), this spectral experiment makes the most ravishing Hollywood spectacle look like a peeping tom’s home movie. But it also conveys plenty about lovesickness, the longing for lost time and Hollywood history. Calling it a ‘meditation’ might feel smart considering its patient attentiveness to the fact of Wyman’s presence, but it’s far too jittery for that classification, following its own unpredictable rhythm of manic jolts, awkward lacunae and spellbound inactivity. Such agitation is a lo-fi special effect created by warping videotape, which signals she’s experiencing some unsettled psychic weather.

Freezing the scene, Swann melts the story: our heroine, this fairytale hostage, may be frightened of wolves, she may be an insomniac, she may reminiscing about a dead son or daughter as the other neighbourhood kids frolic at a Yuletide sock hop. But she’s really brooding on everything as the film converges in this moment of shattered contemplation. Her full-grown children have promptly killed her hopes of marrying Rock Hudson through furious protest. The many ice queens on the block — other mothers sustained by nothing but cocktails and acid wisecracks — have scorned her too, following the lovers’ stormy debut at a Christmas party straight from John Cheever. As Rainer Werner Fassbinder wisely notes in a 1971 essay on Sirk’s films, ‘Rock is a tree trunk’. A hunky silviculture expert who’s seen as a lowbred dope by everyone in Wyman’s snooty circle, he’s ditching suburbia for a transcendental life in the forest. After causing such uproar, they’ve split, and Wyman has just seen him browsing for this Christmas’s silver-tipped spruce with a perky blonde starlet. If there’s plenty in that slender plot about the radical power of desire to explode your sense of self, class consciousness and family, plus more sharp thought about suburban loneliness, then Swann’s study attends to the major theme: how a woman’s expression of those desires is fiercely circumscribed by society. Flashing his smarts, Fassbinder pinpoints the critical mystery in Sirk’s film, which manifests with eerie vividness through the scene repeated by Swann: ‘If Jane entered another house, Rock’s for instance, would she able to adjust?’ Jane wants to trade her mansion in the make-believe enclave of Stoningham (the twin of a tony Connecticut locale) for beloved Rock’s declassé bachelor pad in the woods. The dream of being ‘at home’ (a psychological state more than any genuine place) is what’s really at stake.

Few directors bring these matters to life with the same whip-smart elegance as Sirk. Almost all his critical substance is there in advance, concealed under the lush surface. Any so-called happy ending will turn out to have some melancholy comedown lying in wait for the unwary; much kindness is merely a discreet mode of manipulation and erotic promises come bruised with shades of fear or angst. These troubles occur in an outrageously ripe world that’s laid out to delight your eyes like a birthday cake. Remember the microtonal subtleties of colour in Stoningham: autumn is spun from pumpkin orange, cherry red, persimmon, brown sugar or honey whilst winter brings in a hallucinogenic dazzle of Arctic whites and blues.

Never skating anywhere close to camp theatrics, Swann’s doppelgänger ballet shows sympathy for its poor heroine’s plight. Attuned to melodrama’s delirious frequency, Winter Journey switches the original soundtrack — drowsy children on a sleigh ride through the snow mumbling ‘Joy to the World’ — for the eponymous Brahms aria, sung by a female vocalist who sounds like she’s succumbing to a broken heart of her own, voice twisted into a distorted warble by decaying videotape. Goethe’s lyrics map an eagle’s eye survey of a Romantic landscape which, in a fancy tag-team between European sensualists, performs a lucid commentary on Sirk’s film, picturing a scene where ‘the wealthy/Settle themselves on the marsh’ of suburban obscurity while ‘through gloomy thickets/Pressed the wild deer on.’ Nature boy Rock is so frequently seen communing with a deer that the sweet critter must be his spirit animal. And if anyone could have captured what sky-high Goethe calls ‘the thousand colours of morning’ in the same poem, it was obviously Sirk. So dreamy when many of her conceptualist confréres would have surrounded the scene with a force field of alienation effects, Swann wishes to intensify its quiet tragedy and repay the heroine with her own vigil.

At first blush, this work may sound out of step with its post-punk associates, more like my own ornery choice as a dumb romantic protesting against all the radioactive dread and gothic shadowlands looming throughout the seven sections of This Is Now. But the post-punk era was a time of near-deranged sensuality, dolts thinking to the contrary can check out A Kiss in the Dreamhouse by Siouxsie and the Banshees (1982), Remain in Light by Talking Heads and, oh, any film by Derek Jarman. Swann’s anarchic procedures — vexing found footage — make her film a prime example of the ‘scratch video’ movement, which sprang into pirate life in the early 1980s with the discovery of the new inventive potential afforded by messing with videotape. (Other examples are collected in This Is Now’s ‘Home Taping’ catalogue, including Jill Westwood’s zonked-out vision Skinheads and Roses, 1983, and Jeffrey Hinton’s Pop Dolphin, c.1983.)

Winter Journey also comes from a time of energetic feminist experiment with cinema, but juxtaposed with Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) or Jeanne Dielman (1975), two films that likewise run at opiated tempo to deliver their messages, it feels way dreamier, luring you into an enchanted past.

Not that the past was too far from anybody’s mind at the time. As Swann’s coupling of the Fifties original with her woozy remix hints, the 1980s were distinguished by a weird temporal loopiness all their own. They had to bring the 1950s back from the dead — consider Blue Velvet (1986), Back to the Future (1985), Madonna’s Marilyn-channelling performance in ‘Material Girl’ (1984) — to make sense of the uncanny similarity between their social ills. Thanks to revivification from the Republican party, hysteria about the Soviet Union was all the rage again along with returning ambient panics about nuclear annihilation, infectious sexual perversity, and many other phantom threats to the family unit. 1983 was the year Ronald Reagan called the USSR the ‘evil empire’ before an audience of rapt Evangelists in Florida, thus rocketing the Cold War into its chilliest phase for a generation. In the light of that bleak reality, Wyman’s performance acquires an extra peculiar dimension: she was married to Reagan from 1940 to 1948, back when Bonzo was only a B-movie actor. The subtext about Wyman’s taste in men reverberates, permitting Swann to create yet another disorientating loop, this time oscillating between life and art: am I watching ‘Cary Scott’ weep or Jane Wyman? Suggestively confused, Fassbinder always calls her ‘Jane’ and, just like her character, the actress is a woman shadowed by an absent husband. Peeking through the frost together with the reflection on Sirk’s sublime world, there’s an enigmatic inquiry into Wyman’s wildly fluctuating value as a Hollywood dame (supporting actress?) at the margins of history. For an additional subtextual tickle, recall that Hudson’s character is also called ‘Ron’. He and the president were old pals, too. Reagan publicly acknowledged AIDS for the first time, too late, in 1985 because Hudson lay dying from the condition.

But something doesn’t feel right about calling Winter Journey the deconstruction of the halcyon past or, anyway, thinking of it as only that. Fassbinder, again, acutely understood what happens in this scene when he wrote that within Sirk’s films ‘the women think. I haven’t noticed that with any other director. It’s wonderful to watch a woman thinking.’ Swann celebrates this ordinary wonder, too, commemorating a woman at the edge of a snowscape thinking difficult thoughts — an internal activity almost impossible to adequately represent — about her life, the future, and the slow drift of time. Amplifying the sadness, a few moments transform into a self-contained world, like the scene within a snow globe. Near the close, the woman and the window slowly vanish. Perhaps what we’ve watched isn’t critique at all, but an especially subdued manifestation of that traditional Christmas Eve entertainment, the ghost story. Unstoppably haunting, here’s this Hollywood memory, running on a sleepless night’s endless repeat: it’s the night before Christmas and all through the house…
Charlie Fox

Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London. He is currently at work on a collection of essays titled This Young Monster.