Fred Keleman’s obscure 1997 feature Frost is a gruelling yet thoroughly engrossing experience. A nihilistic world of domestic violence, sexual degradation and ruptured innocence channelled through muted colours and meditative long-takes. Whilst watching the film I felt that this simple, though intricately layered tale of a mother and son’s listless journey across a wintry German landscape cleverly plays with ones notion of the real and the unreal. In doing so, Keleman delves into the undefined space where reality and fiction collide. When referring to cinema Hitchcock famously said, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out”.
Like his Hungarian acolyte, Bela Tarr (The Man From London and The Turin Horse), Keleman displays a radical rejection of this dictum. The reality of Frost resides in Keleman’s observation of quotidian lives wrapped in the fictitious foil of the plot. This emphasis on the mundane everyday seems to regard plot as having secondary importance. For example, after arriving at the hotel, greeted by a sombre, bearded receptionist, Micha and his mother, Marianne, move out of the frame. Without warning, our focus is shifted to the taciturn receptionist as we observe him lying down to smoke a cigarette. In a way, this inexplicable scene may mirror the main characters’ search for relief, being compared to that of the respite granted by the musky taste of tobacco. On the flipside, it may merely be read as a moment removed from the narrative, leaving the spectator to ponder the deep-seated problems of anonymous characters.
Even unseen figures briefly hinder narrative progression. As Micha’s drunken father sits in a pub across the road waiting for him and his mother to exit the hotel, a rugged disembodied voice emerges. The voice rambles – at times humorously – about himself, his friends, his wife as well as the changes Germany has undergone over the years since reunification. During these comments a series of disjointed shots present other washed out members of the pub drinking and smoking their way through the callous night of New Years Eve.
This concern for ordinary people is taken further as Keleman observes ordinary movements of life. The lingering camera often tracks Micha and Marianne as they wander through various barren environments. Simultaneously these lengthy takes of the pairs’ silent trudge accentuates their perpetual plight as well as the dullness of everyday human movements. These refusals to propel the plot forward demonstrate Keleman’s concerns lie in presenting the audience with the ordinary over the extravagant and dramatic plotlines many filmgoers yearn for. In relation to the plot, all one can do is muse upon the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Besides everyday walks of life, Keleman also confronts the audience with the complex realities of the human condition.
These complexities range from loneliness to human endurance. The inscrutable Micha’s solitude and search for refuge is clear from the start as he nestles under the dingy stairwell next to a set of candles as his father rapes his mother. In other scenes of sexual abuse Micha can be seen gripping to inanimate items like a toy he won at a funfair. This source of solace is soon replaced by the flame of a lighter Micha wields to burn clothes and his hotel bedroom. Both the toys and the lighter remain fleeting forms of comfort, as the child is eventually lost in the vast landscape of indifference and uncertainty.
In the case of human endurance Micha bares witness to the depraved acts of sexually charged people - including a woman who attempts to seduce Marianne and then bathes Micha in a scene riddled with sexual connotations - the constant subjugation of his mother and death. Due to the apparent apathy of the child it is left to the spectator to question the seismic effect these events will play on his future. Even the mother, with her own unspoken problems, shows the absurd will to carry on even after discovering that her old home in East Germany has transformed into an icy plain. In spite of her odd behaviour (the disturbing solo dance to tribal techno suggests the mother may perhaps be attempting to rid herself of her past and present demons) and predictable descent into further degradation, Marianne shows maternal grace towards her child; doing everything she can to support them both.
These realistic portraits of trivial routines and human complexities are also laced with a surrealist edge. Keleman counterbalances “realistic” representations with highly stylised, evocative imagery. Thus, it is through the artifice of film where both reality and fiction merge. Interestingly, Keleman’s signature use of the long-take often dwells within this space.
Even the extensive use of the long-take found in Frost does not strictly adhere to the Bazinian notion of realism. Yes, a concern for continuous time and its duration with contemplative, unedited sequences are prevalent. The ability to scan the frame freely is also present as a scene shifts from stasis to movement, containing a multitude of shots. However, there are occasions where the long-take also carries an unnatural quality.
For example, as Marianne and Micha grip to one-another in the blistering cold the camera begins a slow-burning 360-degree turn around the bitter environment. In the distance old tank-traps and trucks can be faintly discerned. In an interview Keleman has commented on the remnants of war he discovered when filming on the border of Poland. These remnants imbue the scene with an ominous realism of Europe’s forgotten past as a war-torn wasteland. To distance us from reality, the wavy patterns of the barren plain and the slightly distorted trees are reminiscent of the romantic landscape paintings of Carl Gustav Carus and Caspar David Friedrich. To heighten the imagery further, I noticed that when the camera returned to the characters, now frozen, even the lens itself began to be covered in icy flakes. Soon after this scene, the land seems to have shifted from a frozen plain to a gleaming, though equally as fruitless land. Perhaps not to be taken literally, the scene metaphorically conveys the struggle to find warmth in a punitive landscape.
In another fantastical sequence, the long-take tugs between reality and fiction as Micha’s thoughts are nightmarishly materialised on screen. In a wide, static shot the snow falls gently outside. The camera creeps behind Micha as he walks towards the doorframe. Marianne can be seen on the other side of the road, willingly giving herself to a man. To intensify the uncanniness of this moment, a herd of cows invade the frame, blocking Micha from witnessing his mother’s self-debasement. Though Marianne’s foreseeable plunge into prostitution constitutes the reality of Micha’s life – haunting him even within his dreams – the cows and snowfall provide an oneiric twist, merging both realms within a single take.
This sly fusion of realism and fantasy is complemented by the film’s atmospheric and peculiarly framed shots. In the opening shot, a sleepy Micha rests on his drunken father’s shoulders being precariously carried home. The haunting soundtrack, a barking dog and a glowing Christmas tree enhance this seemingly simple observation with an air of dread. In the second, the camera is framed from a dizzying aerial view, slowly descending through the apartment’s stairwell. This acrobatic shot defies human perspective via its visually intoxicating framing, immersing the audience into a skewed, uncanny world of abjection.
After my viewing of Frost the space between the fictitious and the real remains an unearthly resemblance to the human condition. Visually poetic yet ambiguous in its nature, Fred Keleman leaves the spectator to distinguish between the two as he conjures the thoughts and feelings of his characters with minimalist ease. Not only does he create time but he also constructs a heightened world where artifice and everyday issues become subtlety entwined.