BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 30 MAY 14
Featured in
Issue 15

The Wanderer

The life and work of Swiss filmmaker Peter Liechti, who died in April

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 30 MAY 14

Signers Koffer, 1996, courtesy: Liechti Filmproduktion, Zürich

‘I want nothing from the mountain’, says Peter Liechti in Ausflug ins Gebirg (Mountain Excursion, 1986), the short film that was his first big step towards finding an original voice as a documentary filmmaker. As a distancing gesture, wanting nothing from the mountain has a different weight for a Swiss person than for someone from the lowlands. Regardless of your want, the mountain itself wants something: recognition of its grandeur, for example, or mastery of its heights via an arduous climb. But Liechti doesn’t want to get to the summit. In the film he takes an excursion to Hotel Enzian and the Altdeutsche Stuben inn to eat raspberry tart and ‘suck up the valleys through binoculars’. The distancing gesture of the quote is mirrored in the image treatment: the 30-minute Ausflug ins Gebirg breaks the mountain scenery down into coarse video pixels, translates the rushing of the mountain air into synthesized sounds, and where the technical means are not sufficiently at odds with the natural content, Liechti swathes the images in smoke from his endless supply of cigarettes.

Ausflug ins Gebirge, 1986, courtesy: Liechti Filmproduktion, Zürich

There are obvious literary inspirations for this type of excursion: the angry internal monologues of many characters in the books of Thomas Bernhard, for example. In Ausflug ins Gebirg, from the filmmaker’s soliloquies we see that he disapproves of his subject matter: ‘mountains make you stupid’, Liechti concludes. In this case, stupidity is something like euphoria gone wrong, and Liechti refused to be guilty of euphoria. He was too much of a loner in a country where order and inte­gration are integral.

After Ausflug ins Gebirg, it took another ten years for Liechti, who was born in St. Gallen in 1951 and who lived in Zurich, to break through to a broader audience with his first full-length film, Signers Koffer (Signer’s Suitcase, 1996). Taking his artist friend as subject, the film is a portrait of Roman Signer who at one point says: ‘I love experiments above all else. An experiment is in itself a sculpture.’ Liechti, too, loved experiments, with the result that almost all of his films are essayistic in form, something akin to a self-experimentation with and in front of the camera. The success he enjoyed with Signers Koffer was an exception in his oeuvre, but one that allowed him to partner with a kindred spirit.

The wooden chairs that come flying out of Weissbad sanatorium during Signers Koffer – one of the artist’s explosion pieces documented in the film – are props from the ordered life Liechti and Signer gave up for adventures large and small. Sometimes these consist of nothing more than Signer donning a pair of rubber waders and filling them with water from a fountain until he can no longer stand up. Here, the slapstick principle of cause and effect – as pushed to great lengths by Fischli/Weiss in The Way Things Go (1987) – is taken to a point where the chain reaction is interrupted and the squashy materiality of the human body asserts itself.

Ausflug ins Gebirge, 1986, courtesy: Liechti Filmproduktion, Zürich

Absorbent materials were a recurring feature of the formats chosen by Liechti for his films. Early video technology introduced a blur­riness, similar to the grain of analogue film, which suited his approach to filmmaking. The pixelation pointed to gaps in the visualization of reality, which in turn relates to Liechti’s literary influences. He was never merely a documentary filmmaker, one who focused on true representation. For him, images and, in equal measure soundtracks, were means to traverse specific fields. A central one being Switzerland – defined for Liechti by his parents. In the film Hans im Glück (Hans in Luck, 2003), for example, we see the filmmaker attempting to give up smoking while on a long walk. Liechti journeys through the remotest corners of eastern Switzerland. Along the way he visits his parents – model Swiss citizens.

Liechti rebelled against his upbringing in more ways than just film. He was a wild man who liked to be associated with avantgarde music (in his films such as Kick That Habit, 1989; Hardcore Chamber Music, 2006, for example) and who, in a performance with Joseph Beuys at documenta 8 (1987), set fire to a hat – recalled in radically fragmented form by his film A Hole in the Hat (1991). In 2013, Liechti returned to the scene with his parents in Hans im Glück. This time he devoted a whole film to them. Vaters Garten – Die Liebe meiner Eltern (Father’s Garden: The Love of my Parents) is another engagement with the ideal of a neatly ordered life as reflected by the garden tended by his elderly but sprightly father.

Peter Liechti in the Swiss canton of Appenzell, 2013, Photography: Thomas Krempke

The son contradicts the obvious mood of rapprochement, however, by including heavy metal in the soundtrack. And further disowning the intimacy of a family portrait he uses a pair of hand-puppet hares to render his parents’ conversations. Liechti turns the pedagogical tables by showing his parents – the prin­ciple agents of his own socialization – as comic distortions.

More recently, Liechti was working on a project titled Dedications that dealt with his long fight against the cancer that claimed his life on 4 April, aged just 63. Whether he had hoped to complete the project remains unclear. In any case, con­solation can be found in another film he left behind. Das Summen der Insekten – Bericht einer Mumie (The Buzzing of Insects: A Mummy’s Report, 2009) deals with a disturbing tale: that of a Japanese man who withdraws to the solitude of a remote area in order to starve himself to death. Liechti came across this account in a text by the author Shimada Masahiko, based on a true story. Miira nu naru made (Until I Become a Mummy, 1990) is an attempt to recount a suicide lasting several weeks in the first person. To this story, Liechti addeda highly ambivalent impression of world-weariness and euphoric contact with reality. The imagery of the film becomes a membrane that almost renders palpable what the man wanted to leave behind. What remains is the skin of the pictures – a skin that, in Liechti’s work, concealed a euphoria that never did make him stupid.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.