Set deep amongst the Swiss Alps, Jonas Ulrich’s Thin Air (Höhenwahn) tells the story of Georg, a family man sucked into a world of internal paranoia. Ulrich’s world is a slow burner that creeps up on the viewer like a sharp icicle falling after a gradual melt. It’s precision filmmaking executed with real confidence, and we can’t wait to see what Ulrich makes next. Today though, DN sits down with Ulrich for a conversation about the challenging nature of the film’s frosty production.
Thin Air certainly imbues those classically serene Swiss landscapes with something much more sinister, what kickstarted the thought process of creating a film that does that?
The mountains and skiing are a large part of our cultural identity in Switzerland, and they are usually shown in beautiful postcard pictures. We wanted to take a different look at this world through the eyes of a man with paranoid schizophrenia. As a result, the cosy mountain chalets and the sun-covered slopes become places of paranoia and claustrophobia. A certain inspiration, of course, was The Shining.
We wanted to look at the subject not from the outside but from the inside.
There’s a lot of Jack Torrance in your protagonist then?
Not really. Georg would be closer to Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. Our goal was to make the mental situation of a person with paranoid schizophrenia tangible and comprehensible for the viewer. We wanted to look at the subject not from the outside but from the inside. It is a horror film about fear itself. It’s about how you deal with fear and what it does to you, without over-explaining the subject in a documentary way.
Was it much of a challenge to shoot in the snowy conditions?
The film was shot in the beautiful Lötschental in Switzerland. We were there outside the ski season so the valley was quite deserted, but it was also difficult to get to certain locations. Luckily it was quite warm, even if it doesn’t look like that in the movie. A special challenge was of course working with a one-year-old child, because they’re absolutely uncontrollable and you have to improvise all the time. But that made it even more exciting and luckily we could count on the full support of Emily’s parents, who also acted as extras in the movie.
I’d love to know more about the practicalities of shooting the alps, how was that for you as a director? Did you storyboard much or leave it up to the locations once you had obtained them?
Shooting in the mountains was a great experience overall. It sometimes took up to half a day for the equipment and crew to be up on the slopes, but visually the location was very rewarding. As a director, I think it’s great when the location already has its own look and atmosphere. It’s much more difficult to make everyday places like an apartment or an office look interesting.
It sometimes took up to half a day for the equipment and crew to be up on the slopes.
Location scouting came very early in the preproduction and we did the breakdown as much as possible on location. It also helped that I have been skiing at the same place for 20 years and know the whole valley inside and out. So, certain scenes were already written for a specific location in the script.
How did you develop the sense of paranoia that builds throughout the film, was that something in the script or did it come from working with your cinematographer?
I’ve been working with the DoP Jonas Fischer for many years and the collaboration began on a script basis, where he gave his input. Furthermore, we have a very similar taste in movies and like, for example, It Follows very much. Films that are especially concerned with the feeling of paranoia through long, creeping shots. Therefore, many creative decisions came up by themselves. Oftentimes we didn’t even have to discuss something, because both of us knew what the other one meant anyway.
Could you tell us more about your next film?
Last year I was able to shoot a new short film with the same producers (Nicole Boner, Philipp Ritler and Luzius Fischer). I think we have become a very well-rehearsed team. The film is called People on Saturday and is something completely different from Thin Air. It’s a collage of short, funny, everyday episodes that take place on a Saturday afternoon in the city. It is a homage to the silent film People on Sunday and to the films of Roy Andersson. Due to Coronavirus everything has been delayed a bit, but we hope for a world premiere in summer or autumn.