The outpouring of grief from around the world following H.R. Giger’s death in May came almost as a surprise in his home country. Best known for his monster in Alien, the Swiss artist was ignored by the mainstream. A new film shows how he lived in the darkness.
The documentary, Dark Star – HR Giger’s World, premiered at the 2014 Zurich Film Festival, and from the moment Giger first appears on screen in director Belinda Sallin’s portrayal of him, there are clearly two sides to the Oscar-winning artist.
He sits and laughs and plays with cat, Müggi III, but a few shots later, describes how he came into possession of a skull at age six – it was to be the first in a collection.
This one however, was dragged behind him on a piece of string as he ran up and down the road outside his childhood home.
“He was not a dark man, he was not a dark character, which I had assumed he would be, based on his art. He was quite a nice man,” Sallin told swissinfo.ch.
She met Giger for the first time in 2012 after getting to know an ex-girlfriend of his, and the idea of the film soon took shape.
Pictures, not words
The documentary goes into Giger’s home in the north of the city of Zurich – a winding labyrinth of rooms, packed from floor to ceiling with books and piles of paper, balancing between pictures and paintings.
The home somehow spans across three houses in a row, all completely without internal natural light as the shutters are permanently closed.
H.R. Giger comes and goes between the houses’ many nooks and crannies as the camera rolls, and he actually says relatively little in a film entirely about him and his work.
“He wasn’t very well and he couldn’t speak really well when I was shooting, but then he never did like to speak a lot, so I accepted it,” said Sallin.
The film draws on a number of interviews with long-time friends of the artists, ex-girlfriends, assistants and his wife.
“You have to find a way from what you think might be a weakness, and make a strength out of it. Let the people around him talk,” said Marcel Hoehn, the film’s producer.
The opinions of Giger in the film vary as much as his own personality seemed to.
His mother in law, Carmen Scheifele de Vega, described him as “just a normal guy”, while the curator Andreas J. Hirsch who worked on two large exhibitions of Giger’s work said, “he feels at home in places we run from in fear”.
The Swiss master
His fans appear incredibly in awe of the artist in a scene at a book signing. Some offer up their arms for a signature, in anticipation of tattooing it permanently onto their skin. Others whisper “thank you master”, bowing as they walk backwards away from him.
Although Giger received limited appreciation in Switzerland, it is clear how popular he was around the world with groups who identified with his unique style and work. This intense following came clearly to the surface as news spread of his death in May.
“He never really got the recognition he deserved, here in Switzerland. He was like the prophet who wasn’t recognised in his own country,” Christian Jungen, film critic for Swiss newspaper, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, told swissinfo.ch
“People like me, regular film critics, saw how foreign newspapers had it in their obituaries. I think a lot of people only at that point realised how much of a star he was.”
“It didn’t influence the concept because we had finished the shooting. In a way, it affected my perception [of the film] because there were a lot of images, a lot of takes which we did with Hans Ruedi…and it was the last time, simple as that,” says Sallin.
“I really regret that he wasn’t able to see this film. I would have been very interested in what he thought of it.”
The film was finished at the beginning of September and quickly had its first screenings at the Zurich Film Festival. It already has a distributor in place for Germany and Austria, and in October 2014, talks were ongoing in the US and Japan.
“I think it should be more than a niche film because so many people all over the world know who this guy is,” Hoehner said.
Jungen agrees it should have a wider appeal than Giger’s normal fan base. “The film succeeds in bringing you closer to this artist if you’re not aware of his paintings, but it will also be accepted by the fans because it gives you glimpses behind the scenes…the director really had access to all the key people.”
Despite Giger’s sudden shoot to fame in 1980, when he won an Oscar in special effects for the terrifying creature and sets he created for the blockbuster film Alien, it didn’t mean he was suddenly accepted by the art world.
In the same way, Jungen thinks, the film will “not make 200 million [francs] at the box office…but a lot of people are curious now to see who he was”.