The first figure we see in Belinda Sallin’s intimate documentary Dark Star, which reveals the last years in the life of artist H. R. Giger, is his beloved Siamese cat Müggi. Behind the shuttered doors of Giger’s ivy-covered cottage, where sunlight dare not enter, and behind the macabre master’s tight-lipped smile that can’t mask the pains of age, Müggi is Giger’s spirit roaming freely.
Known for his massive biomechanical airbrush pieces depicting a sinister world where dread, lust, and nightmares converge, Giger dwelled in the dark places where few artists dared to venture. While speaking to Sallin about model and actress Li Tobler, Giger’s late partner who committed suicide in 1975, the normally stoic visionary fights back his tears. The trauma of the relationship haunts his work, Giger’s muse transformed into a stunning symbol of beauty and pain. As a curator tells us in the film, Giger “made himself a home there” in those dark places, where a fount of images poured forth from the shadows. Giger’s strange hieroglyphs from an alien world haunt us, too.
But was there any light in Giger’s world? Sallin’s film shows us there was. Her voyeuristic camera captures the quiet moments of the everyday, during which Giger gazes out a window, traces pencil over paper, and closes his eyes to escape his surroundings. The man, Hans Ruedi, as his family and closest friends refer to him, seemed to channel something different during those pauses. Was it peace? Acceptance? Death no longer seemed to haunt Giger as it did when he was young Hans Ruedi, who, as a boy, tried to conquer his anxiety by pulling a skull on a string like a morbid pet as he walked down the street.
We spoke to Sallin about filming Dark Star and the previously unseen world of H. R. Giger.
Flavorwire: The opening shot with your camera leading us down the wooded path to the house in Oerlikon [in Zürich] is so striking. Opening the door to Giger’s home felt like wandering inside a labyrinthine cabinet of curiosities. Your camera draws us in to this intimate space, winding around hallways and creeping around corners. Did you choose to shoot this way to recreate the sense of wonder you felt walking into his home for the first time?
Belinda Sallin: Absolutely, it was my intention to visualize the feelings I had when I first entered the house of H. R. Giger. It shows this quite well, I think. I mean, you’re a little bit anxious. You don’t know what’s behind the door. And you enter the house, and you’re quite astonished. I was astonished. I was amazed. I was fascinated… a little bit anxious, too. It was really extraordinary.
Did you discuss your approach to the shoot with Giger before making the film? Did he have any input on the finished work, or was he completely hands-off?
I talked with him about the concept, of course. He liked it. He liked that I wanted to realize a film that is not based on interviews with him, because he never liked to talk about his work… about his art. So, I told him from the beginning, “You don’t have to give hours and hours of interviews.” You can see in the film how his health is quite poor. And he couldn’t talk for a long time anymore. So, he was quite relieved when he realized that I didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to visualize his world, where he was living. He appreciated that a lot.
There are some beautiful overhead shots of the home in Oerlikon. What was the significance of capturing the property this way?
I think it’s quite amazing where he lives. He lives in a small town in Zürich. Everywhere, there are huge buildings, which are new, and he lived for over 40 years in his house. It’s like, how do you say in English, an oasis?
Yes, an oasis.
A little bit like a cocoon, which is completely different from the world outside. The house includes the garden, which is very special, too. I wanted to show that cocoon, this oasis, in this town.
Is the home still private, or has it been preserved for the public?
No, it’s private. Carmen [Giger’s second wife, and the director of the H.R. Giger Museum] lives there. Tom [Fischer, a longtime assistant of the Giger household] is there almost every day, working. Marco Witzig [the Giger family’s assistant and archivist] is there. All the people you see in the film, they are still there. I’m there. I have really a good relationship with Carmen Giger, so I’m there about every two weeks.
What’s striking about the film is that I think most people have this idea that Giger was a very standoffish figure. But the film really shows how warm he was. He was such a gracious host, surrounded by many different people. Did you observe that his private image was different from his public image when he was interacting with fans?
He appreciated his fans a lot. There, he got a lot of acknowledgement. These are the people who buy his books, his publications, his posters, and so on. He always took time for autographs. But, in fact, he was a very shy person. A timid person. He didn’t like to go out of his house, especially during his last years. But he did it. He wanted to do his duty for his fans, but, of course, he was a shy person. So, there was a little ambivalence.
I adored the way Giger’s cat Müggi was an ever-present figure in the film.
Yeah, Müggi is really important. He was very important to Hans Ruedi Giger. He was so attached to him, he loved him a lot. Müggi is a special cat. Somebody asked me once, “What did you feel the most in the house of H. R. Giger when you were there?” And I said, “Müggi.” Because Müggi is not predictable. He is really a weird cat. I like him a lot, but I fear him a little bit. But Hans Ruedi Giger adored him.
Many people have commented on how frail Giger appears in the film. I loved the the blog post you wrote in response to this, expressing that age remains one of society’s great taboos and that Giger “simply [wouldn’t] accept being invisible during his latter years.” What was his studio practice like in those final years? Was he drawing much?
No, he didn’t work a lot anymore. But I like a lot of the scenes in the film where he is drawing, because this is how he started. He started with a pencil in his hand. H. R. Giger used different media. He used airbrush, he made sculptures, he made films, he really did a lot of things. But he always kept the pencil. He never put back the pencil. In the last two years, he made these drawings. And, of course, he didn’t airbrush anymore. I like it. He started this way, and we see him at the end of his life with a pencil in his hand.
It’s beautiful. What did you observe that he liked to sketch?
He made a diary. He did some writing, and he illustrated his thoughts. It was like a diary.
I loved your shot of Giger’s Oscar for Alien, the way it’s tucked amongst the many objects littering his room as though it’s just one other thing taking up space around the house. As the film explains, he did face a few setbacks with his designs for the eggs and whatnot. Did he look fondly on the time he spent working on Alien, or did he find Hollywood detestable?
No, it was funny to talk with him about that time. He explained to me that Dan O’Bannon, the writer, and some people from the studio, 20th Century Fox, were in Zürich, at his house. He told me how it was, they talked a lot, they showed him things, and they talked for hours. And he said to me, “You know, I didn’t really understand what they wanted from me, because I didn’t speak English at the time.” So, it was really funny. They got along, and they have some history.
Sex was a driving force in Giger’s work — it was one of several primal forces he drew upon. Early in the film, Carmen reiterates that the work was always about more than the phalluses on the canvas. And Giger seemed to shy away from discussing sex in his interviews. Did he just get tired of talking about sex, or was there another reason he didn’t want to talk about it?
No, it was not the point about the sex. He didn’t like to talk about his art. Really, he didn’t like to do that. He told me this clearly from the beginning, when we started filming. We talked a lot about agents, the studios, how his life was, his biography, his music. But he didn’t like to talk about his art. “You don’t have to ask me. I won’t explain my art.” No, it’s not about sex or a specific topic that he didn’t like to talk about.
We see the “ghost ride” in the film, the train he built in his garden, and Carmen says that he “saw all his dreams come true.” Did he ever express regrets or hopes for one last big project he wished to make?
No, he was too weak. There were a lot of projects. You see in the film the art exhibition in Austria. It was quite a big thing. There were two book projects in progress. You have the film. There were a lot of things going on.
Music was obviously very important to Giger. He contributed art to several albums [including Debbie Harry’s KooKoo and the Dead Kennedys’ controversial album Frankenchrist, which saw singer Jello Biafra go to trial over the use of Giger’s Penis Landscape]. He also played piano in the film. What kind of music was he listening to when you spent time with him?
Jazz. Always jazz. He was a very open person toward all kinds of music. He worked with Tom Fischer [also known as Tom G. Warrior] from the band Celtic Frost, for example, or [Tom’s other band] Triptykon, now. And he liked it. But he always said, “It’s not my kind of music. My music is jazz.” Whether it was Miles Davis or Oscar Peterson, these were his heroes.
When you spent time inside his fabulous library, were there any surprises for you amongst his many books?
He had a huge spectrum of what he wanted to know. It didn’t surprise me. He was really a man who loved reading a lot. His friend, who is in the film, Hans H. Kunz, he told me that at the beginning of the ‘70s, [Giger] always went to town and returned with two bags full of books. He liked to read them. You see them in the house.
H. R. Giger’s Necronomicon is a gateway book for many artists and dark subcultures. I know you’re familiar with his work from your teenage years. What did the images symbolize for you back then, and has your view of the work changed since making the movie?
In my youth, it was a bit like a rebellion. These pictures were uncommon. They were unusual. Adults, they thought it was disgusting. “How can you look at that?” It was a kind of position you take when you say, “I like that.” This changed a lot over the years, and now during filming, I engaged completely in another way with his art. I really appreciated that a lot. I started thinking what he wanted, why I am attracted to his art. And, of course, I found many, many answers. I can’t tell you all of them, but I think it’s really interesting that his art leads you to more philosophical questions or abstract questions. “What is fear?” for example. “What are my fears?” And so on. There are a lot of things I appreciate.
You have a journalism and indie filmmaking background. Many of your previous works seem to be focused on social and political subjects. Was there more freedom for you in capturing a personality like Giger, and will there be more portraits of artists in your future?
I don’t know yet what my next project will be. I have a lot of things in my mind. But, of course, it was amazing for me to work with him, because I had the opportunity, the possibility to visualize his work. For political topics, for example, you have to do a lot more with words and explanations. You have to interview people in another way. I appreciated working another way with H. R. Giger.