The eminent Swiss documentarian looks at saints and sinners of history – without saying which are which
“My films revolve around absence,” Swiss documentarian Richard Dindo has said, but the phrase, however felicitous, is misleading. While it’s true that the subjects of most his documentaries are dead and thus literally “absent” from the frame, his films also have a greater feeling of “presence” – in the Buddhist sense of existing “in the moment” – than the work of most of his peers. Dindo achieves this effect by relying primarily on eyewitness accounts, original texts, and authentic environments and landscapes to gradually immerse the viewer in the world of his subjects, who range from writers (Arthur Rimbaud, Max Frisch) to artists (Auschwitz casualty Charlotte Salomon) to revolutionaries (Che Guevara) to ordinary citizens who perform extraordinary acts and suffer for them (Paul Grüninger).
Dindo, born in 1944, made his first film in 1970 and has added more than a dozen since then, no mean feat for a filmmaker working in this realm. A Marxist by inclination, Dindo gravitates to rebels, but his work is far from visual agitprop. He has a formalist sensibility that gives a sense of beauty and possibility even to the most downbeat material.
The 1997 Grüninger’s Fall is a riveting reconstruction of the fate of a police captain whose activities in helping Jews illegally cross the Austrian border into Switzerland to escape the Nazis proved his personal undoing. Paul Grüninger forged entry dates, personally escorted some of the émigrés, and socialized with them in spite of Switzerland’s notorious anti-Semitism. Grüninger’s Fall, based on Stefan Keller’s book of the same name, is set mostly in the courtroom where he was tried. Dindo assembles some of his relatives, Jews he helped escape, and fellow policemen to portray both Grüninger himself (he died in 1972) and the historical forces that did him in. The sterility of the courtroom is ironically counterpointed by the sometimes intensely emotional testimony of those who survived through Grüninger’s efforts. St. Gallen’s refusal to “rehabilitate” him until the mid-1990s speaks volumes about the climate that allowed Austria and Switzerland’s embrace, acknowledged or not, of the Nazi ideology, and the recent ascension of a former, and probably present, Nazi sympathizer to power in Austria makes the film especially timely.
Dindo’s most widely seen work is the 1994 Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary. The film masterfully re-creates Che’s famous trek through the poor villages and rugged countryside of Bolivia with a small band of 50 committed soldiers – mostly Cubans and Bolivians. His goal was to “create a central nerve center in Bolivia” from which he could spark a peasant revolution. Ego and infighting prevented the Bolivian Communist Party from aligning with him, and there is no evidence that Castro offered help or even publicized his former colleague’s radical step. This sense of isolation and near-futility permeates Che’s diary of this event and thus the film, which uses large portions of this document as a voiceover.
The film retraces much of Che’s journey, the camera wandering through desolate valleys and rocky cliffs while Che’s words are read on the soundtrack. These scenes were videotaped rather than shot on film, to give the landscape an intimate intensity as the outward manifestation of his interior struggle. Che’s words are resigned but also have a poetic immediacy; in one sequence he describes one of his comrades being swept away by a river as “our baptism of death in an absurd manner on the shores of the Rio Grande.” Dindo managed to locate some of the peasants Che described – still living in squalor almost three decades after his death, and reprises Che’s deathbed promise to create a better life for them. Dindo’s use of primary sources and his re-creation of Che’s journey seduces the viewer into the story without resorting to sentimentality or sensationalism.
Three years prior to Che, Dindo uncharacteristically experimented with actors to recount the life of a famous gay poet. Arthur Rimbaud: A Biography is an impressive work, with Rimbaud retrieved from history through some of the director’s most inventive strategies. While Dindo is known for his static camera, which lets a subject or a landscape speak for itself, here he alternates that approach with gorgeously dreamlike sequences in which the camera glides across a forest or a river with Rimbaud’s words heard in voiceover. These scenes attain added spiritual power through the use of blue filters that distinguish them from the rest of the film.
Not that the film is only spiritual. Rimbaud’s frenzied life, his doomed love affairs, his Svengali-like power over those around him, his artistic angst, his drudge work in Aden and Africa, and his drug addiction and early death at 37 are on full and florid display here. Dindo brings them to life through Rimbaud’s own words, images of the locales in which he worked and played and suffered, and “interviews” with the principals in his life, including Paul Verlaine, who abandoned his wife to be with Rimbaud. The poet’s surprisingly modern imagery and insights – “I think I’m in hell, therefore I am” – provide much of the film’s heft, but Dindo’s framing of the words make them resonate even more.