Schuss! (2005)

Dir. by Nicolas Rey

“Do you ski?”
Pause. Sly grin. “I used to.”
— First question at the Q&A with Rey, TIFF 2006

Nicolas Rey’s Schuss! is an experimental essay film that is concerned, ultimately, with the spoils of capitalism. More specifically, it’s about the rise of the aluminum industry, the building of a French ski resort, and the economic interests that joined the two. Also, Schuss! is about the cinema, which, I realize, is one of those lazy critical phrases that gets attached to every film that pushes, in even the vaguest of ways, the boundaries of film form. But in this case it’s a fair assessment, I think. During the post-screening Q&A, Rey told us that the overarching subject of his work is the 20th century, and in this film he’s particularly interested in chemistry — specifically, the radical innovations that improved manufacturing processes and that made possible both weapons of mass destruction and, eventually, multi-national capital. Rey participates actively in his investigation by scavenging decades-old film stock, shooting it with restored cameras, and processing his footage by hand. (His previous film, Les Soviets plus l’electricite, was apparently shot on Soviet-era Super 8. Not surprisingly, he’s in no hurry to buy a DV cam, and he doesn’t want you to either.)

Schuss! is divided into several chapters, each of which includes: early 9 1/2mm skiing footage, recent footage shot atop a ski slope, archival documents that unearth the history of an aluminum manufacturing plant and the local economy it fueled, and contemporary images of that plant and the owner’s large home that towers over it. A voice-over (I can’t recall if it’s Rey’s or an interviewee’s) comments on the images, filling in some — but not all — of the gaps. I’m ambivalent about the film’s rigid structure, but the aspect of the film that I most admire would be impossible without it: the repetition of the skiing footage. The man in the image above is one of the sixty or seventy vacationers we watch take off from the same spot. Each acts in precisely the same manner. They pause briefly, stare down the slope, push off (“schuss” is a German word that describes a fast downhill run), and turn to pose for Rey’s camera as they pass. Rey cuts the skiers together into a montage that begins to feel like a loop until interrupted, from time to time, by black, “empty” frames. (I’ve been following Zach’s recent posts on cinema violence and flicker films with interest because I suspect that much that I liked about Schuss! is wrapped up, somehow, in those ideas. I remember, after the screening, making some vague comment to a friend about how I wanted to understand “what those black frames were doing to my eyes.” Any guidance in this area would be much appreciated.) Schuss! is a long film — unnecessarily long according to the few reviews I’ve found online — but the effect of the duration, the constant repetitions, is to defamiliarize those skiers, making them . . . well . . . gross.