Unter Schnee

 (Ulrike Ottinger, Germany, 2011) 108 minutes


Director: Ulrike Ottinger
Producers: Heino Deckert, Ulrike Ottinger
Screenplay: Ulrike Ottinger
Cinematography: Ulrike Ottinger
Editor: Bettina Blickwede
Music: Yumiko Tanaka
Setsuko Arakawa
Kiyotsugu Fujima
Takamasa Fujima
Hiroomi Fukuzawa
Nori Katsumata
Eva Mattes (Narrator)

Reviews and notes

2012 New Horizons (Poland), Reykjavik

In the Echigo region of northwestern Japan, where heavy snow blankets entire landscapes and villages for more than half the year, a distinctive way of life has evolved. Time follows a different, slower rhythm, and everyday routines, along with religious rituals, wedding traditions, festivals, foods, songs, and games, are adapted to Echigo’s austere living conditions and natural beauty. Ulrike Ottinger’s latest film leads us into this mythical country, turning her lens on daily and communal life under the snowy mountains… Stunning documentary sequences merge with the tale of students Takeo and Mako, played by Kabuki performers. Their journey through the past and repeated encounters with the present find them wondrously transformed with help from a beautiful vixen fox. Under Snow is clear evidence that Ottinger, whose career spans more than four decades, remains one of world cinema’s most original artists.
– Women Make Movies.

"Snow Atlas" is the name of the scroll that the camera will use to explore its path. With the manuscript from ancient Japan, Ulrike Ottinger maps the country and time with poetic imagery, so that the director lets a nature study emerge on the canvas. Unter Schnee is the title of the symbolistic fusion of fiction and reality, of legend and everyday life, of poetry and landscape, from which the director creates the captivating character portrait of a region. The historic province of Echigo lies under snow in northern central Japan, which is covered in a mantle of icy white for more than half of the year.

The ancient name, with which the voice of the narrator tells of the natural beauty caught in the freezing frost, inaugurates the dramaturgical symbiosis of historicity and the present. The timelessness of people's lives and the nature around them, and the persistence of customs and rituals, transform the villages and mountains into a mythical ground, the entry of which leads the uninformed into a fairytale world that is as picturesque as it is ghostly. The first of the only hinted protagonists, in whose footsteps Ottinger follows, is the author of the Snow Atlas. The analogy of the various types of snowflakes, written down by the imperial hand, was inspired by the 22 words that describe the nature of snow in Japanese, and each of which is believed to have been discovered in the glistening compositions of the camera.

Two hikers follow Bokushi Suzuki's historical trail to the places and the rites associated with them, which the author from the 19th century describes in his epic Snow Land Symphony. Not they track down the mysteries Under Snow, but they find the mysteries, in the form of a kitsune. The fox demoness leads the travelers without their noticing it to a house from the Edo period, in whose rooms the world of spirits and human beings merge. The change is accompanied by the staging change from documentary simplicity to the stage-like stylization of the kabuki theater. After an evening of sak drinking, Takeo finds himself in the Edo period, where the vixen appears to him first in the form of a demon and then as a beautiful woman. Like the characters of a classic Japanese opera, the couple embarks on a walk through the past, on which they repeatedly encounter the present. The ambivalent character of the demon makes the fox woman the image of the threatening and tempting surroundings.

The common transition of man and spirit into a bygone era symbolizes the merging of tradition and modernity in Echigo, whose inhabitants still keep the religious festivals and rituals of the old days alive. In mirror-inverted equality to her fictional protagonists, whom the camera follows just as curiously as the real inhabitants of Echigo, Ottinger encounters the old days on her cinematic path. Sad myths such as the legend of the weaver who is haunted by a mountain demon and the actor exiled to the mining island of Sado, who wrote painfully beautiful poems in exile, rites of passage such as the chimes of 108 bells, which symbolize the mistakes of the old year, Ring in the New Year, and humorous customs like throwing a groom, in which the future is thrown into the snow by friends, is what Ottinger has put together to create her own Schneeland Symphonie.

Stylization and precise observation meander into a landscape vision, in which theatrics, cultural history and ethnography result in a unified and yet clearly delimited complete work like the flakes of the snow atlas. The soot, which is a symbol of luck for Echigo's resident, finally cuts its way into the realm that has arisen from it. A consistency that, in the blackness of the cinema hall, after the end of the documentary poem, the images of the magical world Under Snow also have.
- Lida Bach, filmrezension.de, 20 August 2011. (Google translate)

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