Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Død Snø [Tommy Wirkola] Cinematography

Tommy Wirkola’s Nazi zombie movie Dead Snow uses a plethora of deviceful shooting strategies to distinguish itself from other zombie horror genre movies and other comedies and other action-adventure films while simultaneously comprising all of those. Wirkola aggressively pursues strong visual situational and dramatic irony by playing with mise-en-scène. The setting for the film is a beautiful, snow-blanketed Norwegian mountain chain that Wirkola frames up in such a way in relation to the characters that it can convey treachery or solace or the insignificance of the characters in the vast stark landscape. Wirkola’s use of camera movement and sudden revealing cinematography lends heavily to the film’s frightening, exciting mood. Tension-building point of view shots and interchanges are the strongest moments in this film as Wirkola allows his viewers to empathize with the characters, especially in terrifying situations that can’t end happily. While the long shots of the mountains use the open air to establish utter isolation and helplessness, Wirkola also uses mise-en-scène once the characters are in close quarters to establish that same cut-off tone.

An example of Wirkola’s purely visual situational irony comes after the ex-military character Vegard dangles tantalizingly off the edge of a cliff from another zombie’s intestine while a second zombie hangs onto him and tears a chunk out of his neck. Vegard kills the Nazi, stitches his neck back up, wraps it in masking tape, mounts a machine gun on the front of his snowmobile, and takes off, prepared for anything--except for the zombie clinging to the back of his snowmobile. The zombie stands up, but before he even notices it’s there, is knocked off by a tree branch. Another example comes after a character amputates his arm to avoid becoming a zombie after he is bitten, only for a zombie head to pop out of the snow and bite his leg. An example of dramatic irony comes when a character is mauled in the outhouse and screams for help as she stumbles back to the cabin. She’s in the foreground screaming, the distance to the cabin exaggerated by a defined telephoto lens, a zombie darts across the screen and whisks her away, and another character finally opens the door in the background scanning the trees for her.

The long take where a weathered old Holocaust survivor reveals the historical significance of the mountain that explains the premise of the movie isn’t hokey whatsoever. Wirkola slowly pushes in on the man’s face which establishes him as earnest and sincere, and thereby his story is earnest and sincere. In the next scene, his tent is just a small, insignificant glowing red form in the middle of the overwhelming mountainous terrain. The shooting strategy is a big changeup from the confidential close-up of the last scene, but it makes perfect sense because his character is violently murdered and therefore the tone is established as far more unforgiving. Vegard on his snowmobile often takes up an insignificant amount of space on the screen, but Wirkola does this to depict the futility of Vegard’s search for their friend who went missing. Throughout the film, Wirkola also uses repetition of imagery of his characters lying in the snow looking up at the sky. The first time this happens, the girl gazes up at the night sky as she is ripped apart and devoured. There is the symmetry of the trees framing the sky and the clouds, and the shot, while grim, is also very aesthetically appealing, very much in the spirit of the shot in Rashômon where the woman is raped and stares at the sky. Later an iteration of this shot is used in a different context to express the relief of a character after she fends of an undead Nazi attacker.

Wirkola effectively decides when to shoot from a more literal, straight-on perspective and when to use camera movement to add to the meaning of a scene, and when to shoot handheld guerilla filmmaking style. A perfect example of this comes when a girl frantically flees from a zombie and runs up against the edge of a steep crevasse that is revealed only when the camera quickly zooms out. Another creative example comes after that same character regains consciousness at the bottom of the crevasse buried under snow. She’s disoriented and doesn’t know which way is up to dig herself out, and neither does the viewer as the camera rotates around, holding on her face. The chaotic handheld perspective is used only in the woods. The shaky handheld cue furthers the meaning that the viewer attaches to the woods as a visual metaphor. Whether they are having a snowball fight or being eaten alive, the woods are shot in a distinct, chaotic way because they function as a set-piece.

There are three occasions when Wirkola really wants his viewers to enter the psychology of his characters. The first time is the first time a zombie is on screen, and he does this to build tension and set the tone for the film. The second time is when a character is dying and being eviscerated. The lens has trouble focusing, and finally the scene builds to the moment where the character summons the courage to blow herself up to kill the zombies with a grenade she’s holding. This intimate cinematography confronts the viewer with the same dilemma. Wirkola uses a low-key, high-contrast style of shooting to express the points of view shots of the zombies. Mise-en-scène and points of view through windows are also visually thematic. There is a moment when two men peer out their cabin window as the camera backs out to reveal Nazi zombies everywhere, and their faces are trapped within the windowpanes. It is these provocative storytelling cues in the cinematography that create the meaning and evoke strong reactions in Dead Snow.

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