Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Deutsches Kino - Das Salz der Erde

I'm categorizing 'Das Salz der Erde' as 'Deutsches Kino' because its director is German film-maker Wim Wenders, famous for (amongst many others) the visual poem to Berlin 'Der Himmel über Berlin' ('Wings of Desire'). But 'Das Salz der Erde' is not a film in German, but in French, Portuguese, and English. And it isn't shot in Germany, but mostly in Brazil at the home of renowned photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. It is however an example of how New German Cinema (Neuer Deutscher Film) has evolved from its early beginnings in the art-house cinemas of Europe in the last century, under the direction of the likes of Herzog and Fassbender (and Wenders), into a truly international affair that touches everybody.

'Das Salz der Erde' is a documentary about the life and works of Sebastião Salgado, a photographer who's lens has recorded some of the worse excesses and tragedies of humanity across the globe: famine, war-zones, genocide, hell-hole life and work environments, the desperate migrations of thousands. It is a wonder he can close his eyes at night and not be haunted by what he has witnessed.

We as the film-goer witness for ourselves these events through the view-finder of his camera, with a succession of some of his stunning black and white photographs. Meanwhile Salgado's disembodied head explains the background to the images as if he is looking at the photo whilst also looking out at us.

The images in turn shock us, or make us gasp in awe, or bring us close to tears, or sometimes make us look away. The subject of most of them are humans displaying a common humanity we can empathise with, even if we cannot comprehend the difficulties they strive against.

Wim Wenders is such a consummate documentary maker (check out for example 'Buena Vista Social Club' and 'Pina') that you barely notice his presence guiding the film and Salgado's narrative as he (Salgado) leads us through his life. Wenders is also an amazing photographer himself, and his eye for the perfect image is at work selecting and displaying Salgado's photos for just the right amount of time.

But contrast Wenders' direction with the contributions by the film's co-billed director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, who is Sebastião's son. I am sure that Wenders had a compassionate reason to create this film with Juliano, but to be honest, whilst the son did bring an insider's angle of Sebastião's family life that Wenders could not, Juliano's parts of the film seemed surplus to requirements.

I think that the film is titled 'Das Salz der Erde' because it focuses on the lives of plain, simple, good, honest people, all be that they are living in extreme situations. People like you and me, not international celebrities or leaders of nations. The vast number of people who make up the world, and have to suffer the consequences of the headline-makers. But I am also reminded of the ritual of spreading salt on conquered land to symbolically curse it's rehabilitation. Salgrado's photographs often seem to show humanity as a curse on the Earth, rather than a blessing.

Wender's film would be altogether too bleak an experience if it wasn't redeemed by an extraordinary later phase in Salgrado's life. At the depths of his own depression and disgust with what he had seen, he turned to wildlife and landscape photography. No less depressing you might think, given the impact of Man on destroying the environment, but this in turn led Salgrado to conceive - at the inspired suggestion of his wife Lélia Wanick Salgrado - in turning the land his family had owned and see die in Brazil back into rainforest. This remarkable project has succeeded in creating in just 15 years an amazing sustainable eco-system where once there was dry, barren earth. Sebastião and Lélia have founded the Instituto Terra to continue the project and to pass on the knowledge, and hope, that they have discovered.

A breath-taking film, then, full of emotion and poetry as well as a journey through the life of a remarkable photographer. A must-see for anyone interested in photography, or in humanity. Which must surely be most of us.

By the way, we watched 'Das Salz der Erde' at the Neues Off Kino in Neukölln, Berlin; a marvellous jewel of an independent cinema, well-maintained and just large enough to feel like a real cinema whilst small enough to make you feel part of a film-lover's community.

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