At some point, you’ve probably experienced the work of Hans Ruedi (H.R.) Giger, the legendary Swiss artist whose fusion of the macabre, the erotic, the biological and the mechanical spanned the worlds of film, music, publishing and architecture. Best known to the public for his Oscar-winning realization of the title creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Giger attained a substantial cult following over the years for his vast catalog of paintings and sculptures, even if he never got the respect from the “traditional” art establishment that his pioneering, instantly identifiable and disturbing style richly deserved.
Always a mysterious, somewhat distant figure in public, Giger allowed Swiss filmmaker Belinda Sallin into his home in the last year before his untimely death in May 2014 to make the documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World. Despite being already in failing health, Giger comes across as warm, friendly, complex and sometimes even childlike in the film — quite different from what one might expect from the creator of such nightmarish visions. Although he does not speak much, he is candid about his art, career and personal life — most affectingly when he talks about Li Tobler, the lover who committed suicide in 1975 and whose image haunts much of his work to this day.
An equally imposing presence is Giger’s house in Zurich, where most of the film was shot. Stuffed to the breaking point with his work — including a ghoulish train ride he built in his garden — the house is literally the physical manifestation of his imagination, and Sallin’s camera prowls through it as if traversing the mind of the man himself. Sallin spoke about this and more when Den of Geek got her on the phone to discuss Dark Star, a poignant and unique testament to the brilliance of H.R. Giger.
When and how did you first encounter Giger’s art and how did it speak to you?
Belinda: I knew Giger’s art since I was a teenager. I saw his work everywhere — in shared flats, in comic shops, and bookstores. So I think probably the first image I saw by him was Brain Salad Surgery, the album cover he did for Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I knew a lot of things and I was fascinated, Of course, my knowledge and my awareness of his art changed over the years, and (then it went) a little bit out of sight over the years, I have to say. And only when I met Sandra Beretta, his former life partner, did it come back to me immediately. I talked to her and she said to me, “I was together with H.R. Giger once,” so immediately I had a lot of images in my head. I think that is the ultimate quality of his art. If you have seen it once, you don’t forget it. It is very unique. It is very distinctive.
How did the idea of doing a film come about?
It was the very first time I met Giger that I started thinking about that. I wanted to actually literally realize this film when I met him. When I entered his home for the first time, I was really overwhelmed. It’s amazing. It’s really extraordinary. You don’t see that every day. And then when I met him, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I think I was expecting more of a dark character or a distant person and it was the opposite — really completely the opposite. Giger was such a nice, warm, and friendly man. So I was very surprised. We got along very well from the first second together. So yeah, I think it was the very first time I entered the house, the first time I met Giger, that I wanted to make this film. It’s like a playground, his house.
We see so much of the house in the movie and it almost feels like being in that house would be like being inside his brain.
Absolutely. I felt like that. I mean the house became a protagonist, a character. This is very important for the film, because the house and the garden, they take you inside Giger, in my opinion. He literally lived in his art. I really liked filming there. It might be surprising to hear, but it was really a very friendly place, a quiet home.
I was struck by how secluded the house seems, but then you pull back and you see it’s right in the middle of Zurich, yet sort of its own enclave. Is that actually the case?
Absolutely. That’s why I shot with a drone. It’s not a crane; it’s a drone. I really wanted to show that there’s this house in the middle of the city with an old and new buildings around. I thought the house was like a cocoon. It’s completely different, another world. And he was living really inside the city with his cocoon. I wanted to show that it was a different world. There was the world of H.R. Giger and there was the other world, the world around.
Is Carmen (Giger’s wife) still living in the house? What’s happened there since his passing?
She is. Carmen is still living in the house. Also, Tom (Fischer, Giger’s personal assistant), he is still working there. Marco (archivist) is still working there. So the life continues forward. Of course they are all very sad still now. Giger is very, very missed. But the life goes on how it was before.
When you proposed the idea of the film to Giger, was he receptive to it?
Yes. I think he saw that my research was serious and my knowledge of his work profound. So I think that was something he appreciated. Fortunately, I live near his house, so it was not a problem for me to be there many times. I showed him my concepts. I told him what I wanted to do and he appreciated that also, I think because I accepted some things — for example, that talking wasn’t his medium. I told him, “You don’t have to do interviews for hours and hours and hours.” And I think he was very pleased when he realized that I understood that he doesn’t like to talk. Even before his illness, he didn’t like to talk about his art. And he said to me very clearly from the beginning: “Don’t ask me about my work because I don’t like to explain it.” And I accepted that. I wanted to show other things. As we mentioned before, I really wanted to show his home where he lived.
So I didn’t want to make a conventional biography. I didn’t want to start with a photograph and say Hans Ruedi Giger, born 1940, and he liked that. He saw my teaser, which has more or less the same groove, more or less the same color and the same rhythm as the film now, and he liked it very much. He said, “Yeah, that’s nice. You don’t have to explain everything. It’s nice when it stays a little bit mysterious.”
I think it was the right moment. It was high time for a project like this. He said to me from the beginning, “This is the last time I participate in a project like this.” And I think…well, it’s my opinion. I think it was his last performance. I think he knew exactly what he was doing despite of his poor health. He wanted to be in this film. It’s quite provocative, I have to say, because in a society which is obsessed with beauty and fakeness and all these things, it’s quite courageous to appear in a film with your health issues. But he was completely aware of that.
He does appear to already be ill in the film. Did he become ill as you were filming or was he ill already before you started? Did it make it more difficult in some ways to get what you needed?
Yeah, of course. I mean his health issues got worse over the months. I gave a lot of thought to that, because I wanted him to be comfortable. He was tired. He couldn’t be there all the time. So I thought a lot about that. I prepared the scenes very carefully, because when he was there, we couldn’t do retakes two or three times of the same thing. So we really had to be careful.
One scene that is really striking in the film is when he is doing the signing at the museum and the fan comes up to him and starts crying as he’s standing there in front of him. That’s such a powerful image of the effect that he’s had on people over generations.
Absolutely. I’m very glad for this scene because it shows exactly that he had a huge impact for many, many people all over the world. It’s comforting, because Giger didn’t get the acknowledgment of the art establishment or the art institutions. So I think the fans were very important to him, very precious. Being a public figure was ambivalent for him, because he was a shy person. But he always did his duty. He went to these book signings and always did autographs, because he knew it was important for his fans. So he would show his gratitude towards them.
What do you want people ultimately to take away from watching this film?
I can only speak for me. What impressed me the most is his biography and that he realized his dreams. I think this is the main thing; this is beautiful to see. His art is very provocative, but he stuck to his own path all the time regardless of what people thought or said. I can only imagine what people said in the ‘60s or in the ‘70s about his art. But he stuck to his own path and he made a lot of different things. He made films. He made buildings. He made a bar. I mean you could call him a transmedia pioneer. He didn’t get the acknowledgement of the art establishment, as I mentioned before, so he built his own museum. This is extraordinary. “They don’t show my work in the well-established galleries, so I’ll build my own museum.” And he did it very successfully.
I think this is amazing. It’s very inspiring — not only for artwork, but for life, to stick to your path and realize your dreams. And at the end of his life he was very satisfied. I thought that was wonderful. He said, “I’m satisfied. I have done what I wanted to do and I have seen what I wanted to see.” This is great.
Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World is now in limited theatrical release. For more information, go here.