In 1922, Robert J. Flaherty gave us Nanook of the North, one of my favourite silent films and an early example of a snow movie — that is, a movie that wouldn’t be what it is without its wintry landscape. In some films, snow is incidental — a pretty backdrop or a minor metaphor (like the snowfall that blankets the Bride’s duel with O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill Vol. I). In others, a snowy climate is central to the story or sometimes even a character in its own right. Here are ten movies that each uses ice, snow and cold in a specific way; together, they collectively demonstrate the range one symbol can have. I’ve considered several genres (no fear, Nanook fans — silent film, documentary and Inuit culture all appear below in some form) but, as with any film list, apologies must be made for omitting many more films than could possibly be included (I’ve also omitted snow movies I’ve written about elsewhere, such as the great Atanarjuat, which would otherwise have been a shoo-in).
Fargo (1996), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen The opening sequence of Fargo still makes me goosepimple after multiple viewing, and not because of the onscreen weather. That haunting shot of synchronized ploughs on a snow-swept highway, accompanied by Carter Burwell’s plaintive Medieval-flavored track, is something powerful, especially to those familiar with the sight. Almost 15 years on, Fargo stands out of the Coens’ oeuvre as an arguable masterpiece, a dark comedy that depends on a North Dakota winter to make the world of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) seem as everyday as possible — an everyday that can smother a person if they let it. Detail is everything in this film, from the hairsprayed creases of Marge’s coif when she experiments with adultery, to the suburban window-cranks in the Lundegaards’ bathroom. This detailing of interior personal lives contrasts with the obliterating broom of the outside world, where secrets bleed out into view. Snow is both a canvas for literal blood and a background for the Coens’ birds-eye compositions of parked cars on a lot. It provides temporary hiding places for the desperate but it’s an environment that doesn’t shelter escapees — it’s too indifferent and bitter, and human voices can’t generate much surge in the hollow outside air. Fargo the film, in other words, would not be Fargo without its frost-scape. That’s how critical snow is to atmosphere and event.
The Holy Mountain (1926), directed by Arnold Fanck No snow-movie list is complete without a nod to the oh-so problematic Austro-German mountain genre and the man who pioneered it, Arnold Fanck. These movies — filmed between both World Wars — are unapologetic totems of nationalism, edelweiss and all, and some viewers find them understandably difficult to watch even today. Like Olympia, they’re gorgeous cinematic specimens associated with horrifying ideas and events. Heroes in The Holy Mountain are blond, vigorous, and loyal to friend and value, and they fly over mountainsides with the greatest of ease even when they’re endangered by north-face elements. There’s a love triangle in The Holy Mountain, between athletic Karl (Luis Trenker), diaphanous Diotima (Leni Riefenstahl) and a romantic named Vigo (Ernst Petersen), but the main character is the mountain and the main events are back-country ski races and treacherous climbs. Extreme athletes eat this film up; fuck Warren Miller and his heli-skiers, who had it easy compared to Fanck’s team and the real-life athletes and mountaineers who fill the screen. These guys did it on wooden skis, with early 20th-century film equipment. Fanck provides an extended thrill-ride after the 30-minute mark that’s extra breathtaking when we realize how crazy these people must have been, both on- and offscreen. The geography makes for eye-popping cinematography, and Fanck’s German Expressionistic eye exploits every sublime alpine crag, reinforcing the Gothic/Romantic feel of the film and exaggerating (or maybe not) the awful beauty of nature — which the snow itself signals here. Criticism about Riefenstahl, Aryanism and melodrama are valid indeed, but they can’t dislodge my fondness for this both/and movie. Its tension, visual spectacle and exuberant daring-do are too outstanding, and ballsy intertitles like Turmoil! and Abyss! only add to the fun.
The Idiot (1951), directed by Akira Kurosawa The Idiot (aka Hakuchi) may be stagy — it’s Kurosawa does Sirk, silver fork and all — and too reliant on expository intertitles at film’s start, but it works. Kurosawa shifts the events of Dostoyevsky’s novel from St. Petersburg to Sapporo, and from summer to ferocious winter, where snowstorms and snow formations become Gothic elements that represent the oppression of social rules. Masayuki Mori, as the kindly Kameda, plays the title character, a man too virtuous for this world, whose generosity towards others is interpreted as madness. He’s smitten by Taeko (Setsuko Hara), a so-called fallen woman who no longer wishes to be kept. Kameda and Taeko must pick their way around the obstacles of class and gender codes, as well as the landmines of rival suitors (including Toshiro Mifune as the loudmouth Akama), while blizzards howl through eaves and snow gathers densely on roofs and awnings. Those formations look dangerous — the weight of snow is suffocating and beautiful, like the beautiful, suffocating lifestyle of Kurosawa’s well-to-do Japanese in their expensive Western clothing. Winter figures into the film in other ways, too, from the strains of Mussorgsky’s oh-so-windswept “Night on Bald Mountain,” to a festival featuring enormous carved ice-demons. Kurosawa wants us to know that there’s something sinister in the climate, which mirrors the sinister ways in which we treat one another.
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn Kunuk’s follow-up to Atanarjuat/The Fast Runner is, unfortunately, no Atanarjuat (few films are), but it’s still a deserving entry. Set in the early 20th century, after Europeans established a presence in the Arctic, Journals tells the story of the last great Inuit shaman, Avva (Pakak Innuksuk), who must give up his spirit helpers and accept Jesus in order to feed his tribe. Ironically, it’s a neighboring clan of converted Inuit who make religious compromise part of the deal for food, not the two Greenlanders who’ve glommed onto Avva’s circle as observers. The film is loosely based on the writings of the real Knud Rasmussen (played by Jens Jørn Spottag), who recorded the lore and songs of the Inuit in the 1920s; his European face is necessary to the film’s exploration of the dismantling of a culture, but the filmmakers refuse to engage in reductive censure. Journal‘s signature moment — a heartbroken Avva banishing three wailing spirits — lingers on our minds for days, but so does the film’s use of sound (throat singing taken to an erotic pitch, or an Italian aria tellingly superimposed over the North) and, of course, its Arctic setting. As he did for Atanarjuat, cinematographer Cohn makes a killing beauty out of the landscape that means food or famine for inhabitants, depending on the weather. The Kunuk films are responses to Flaherty’s problematic Nanook of the North — they are ethnographic exercises created from within a culture rather than from without, and Journals takes that ethnographic element much further than Atanarjuat thanks to the presence and actions of the Rasmussen figure. Journals is about the core of culture — belief — and its snowscape represents the ocean between two converging ways of life.
Let the Right One In (2008), directed by Tomas Alfredson If I’d omitted this popular recent snow movie from this list, I’d have gotten an earful. It’s a good thing I admire it enough to include it without reservation (despite the mood-wrecking CGI cats, which aren’t enough to wreck the movie even for the most devout atmospheric purist). In a story about vampirism (both subtle and overt), a Scandinavian winter makes perfect thematic sense: wan Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) communicates the literal cold with a shiver while the undeadness of Eli (Lina Leandersson) mirrors the weather outside — which in turn tells us more than we want to know about the temperature of the grave. Death is a white blanket in Oskar’s Swedish neighborhood, collecting pints of blood that maybe help, in a weird way, to fertilize the ground for an unusual friendship. Alfredson’s snowy world isn’t an unalloyed one; somehow, his dead of winter is a space for the in-between, where the not-quite-alive and the not-quite-family and the not-quite-sexual are embodied in vampires, in master/slave dyads and in prepubescent figures. Something warm is at odds with the ice, here, complicating things and making Oskar’s winter unlike any other winter onscreen.
The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick Snow provides story in The Shining, because without snow, there’d be no winter-caretaker job for Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), no total isolation to mess with his marbles, and no obstacle between his family and rescue (an obstacle surmounted by Scatman Crother’s mad Sno-Cat skills). The film (and the novel it’s based on) helped popularize the imprisonment-by-blizzard device, harnessing that Gothic-spun milieu used by Fanck, Kurosawa and others, and turning it into a common frame that keeps characters trapped in terrifying situations. Snow, in other words, compounds the isolation that geography has already imposed on a group, and the high winds of a snowstorm take on a Wuthering effect. Snow- and cold-bound landscapes, in short, are natural to the horror genre, and it’s nice to see them getting their due in plenty of recent offerings (Dead Snow, Pontypool, Wendigo, Dead in 3 Days 2), locking victims into place and adding to their misery. When we think of Kubrick’s masterpiece of affect, we think of Lloyd and his daughters, we think of redrum, and we think of axes smashing through doors. But I bet most of us also think of Danny’s canny use of footprints to foil his lunatic dad in the labyrinth, of that long sweeping hill of snow waiting like an escape ladder under the bathroom window, and of Dick Hallorann racing his Sno-Cat up the mountain pass. Snow’s so important to the film’s emotional timber that it’s represented in Wendy Carlos’ Berliozian opening track, which suggests both the ominous, immovable weight of a blizzard’s dump and the skittering current of snowflakes rushing across a windscreen. Genius.
Stacja (2001), directed by Piotr Weresniak Stacja is the weakest entry in the list, but few films capture cold white weather so well. Those of us who deal annually with snow drifts and harsh air feel kinship to Stacja‘s characters and their complaints. This middling caper happens to boast one of Poland’s most beloved actors, Boguslaw Linda, who rounds out a solid cast and gives the film heft. Some scenes don’t quite gel, the humor is a bit trite in spots, and the score is lazy (a better soundtrack, in fact, might have made all the difference). But those flaws aren’t enough to disqualify the film, which is well-shot and made with palpable affection. When Linda’s wounded hitman takes shelter from cops and weather in a rundown gas-bar, its owner (Zbigniew Zamachowski) and employee (Bartosz Obuchowicz) wage a mini-war of ethics over the fate of the sick man, his gleaming Audi, and a pouch of cash. We’ve seen this set-up before, but the main characters are satisfying and the weather adds great dimension to the plot. Weresniak explores the irritation of winter days; snow is, quite simply, in the bloody way, and brings with it all sorts of annoyances: fogged car windows, slippery pathways, chilled extremities, and ground too cold to bury a body under. Locals bet on the salt-trunk’s punctuality and blame the cold for all kinds of snafus, including “frozen” airwaves when radios conk out. Cops are barely competent (the one decent detective is hounded by the flu) and snow ploughs have to drive around horse-drawn wagons. Stacja‘s snow is a metaphor for breakdowns: automotive, anatomical, ethical, bureaucratic. Weresniak defies us to find something which the cold doesn’t negatively affect, producing a landscape bitter enough to feel.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997), directed by Atom Egoyan Without winter (again), there wouldn’t be a story to The Sweet Hereafter, whose catalyst is the death of a town’s young when the local school bus plunges into a lake. Ice sends the bus skidding onto frozen water, and ice fails under its weight and cracks open in a terribly still yet terribly gut-wrenching scene of destruction witnessed — and anticipated — by Egoyan’s calculated long-shot. Weather-related death has a way of tingeing the entire environment; Egoyan’s snow-blanketed town takes on an air of sadness that dogs an ensemble cast for the duration. Characters can’t help but recall the accident every time they look outside, and an ambulance-chasing lawyer (Ian Holm at his most textured) makes matters worse when he visits parents with talk of a class action suit. He doesn’t mean to — Holm’s lawyer is a grieving father himself, who believes in the adage that someone has to pay even for acts unaccountable. Sarah Polley pulls it off as a teenager left disabled by the event; Polley’s creaky voice and wooden manner, which usually annoy me elsewhere, are appropriate to the role of a shocked victim of longterm and recent violence, and she dredges up a desperate sort of sweetness (see title) that costs her even as it helps the town find its center again. But better than Polley are Holm and Arsinée Khanjian and Tom McCamus, loved to bits by Canadian theatre-goers but underappreciated by larger measures. His craven, kid-diddling dad injects a shot of nouveau-Dickens into the whole—we recoil from his character despite McCamus’ blistering, offbeat charisma. That character, like Polley’s, refracts the bittersweet tension of the larger movie and its melancholic winter.
The Thing (1982), directed by John Carpenter Oh, remake-just-as-good-as-the-original, how rarely we get a peek at your face. Few would dispute your greatness as an SF/horror flick, or your place at the top of Carpenter’s body of work. You are one of the granddaddies of genre — any genre — and you hold up well for your age. It’s your tension, and it’s Kurt Russell’s bush of a face and the claustrophobia of isolation on an Antarctic scale. I don’t even need to recap your premise, you’re so comfy and warm. But like Wilford Brimley in his woolies, you’re not entirely what you seem. You’re not just a 1980s FX extravaganza or a taut nail-biter. You’re cunning, and your icy environment has more value than your actors’ performances (canine as well as human) and your plasticky gore-monsters (it was acceptable in the 80s) combined—as memorable as they are. Your snowy expanses aren’t just reminders of the yawning space between scientist and civilization; you let them mimic a moonscape (the same way your 1951 predecessor did) so that it’s almost axiomatic that your snow will give birth to alien menace. Just thinking about you makes me want to pop you in the DVD player, The Thing, and give you and your affect and your Carpenter/Morricone score yet another whirl. You sure have left a mark on cinema—it’s your creator’s version that spawned a million imitators, including Fessenden’s unsung love-letter to you, The Last Winter, and at least two X-Files eps.
Touching the Void (2003), directed by Kevin Macdonald If there’s a more visceral tale of survival committed to celluloid, I have yet to find it (and the upcoming Boyle film about Aron Ralston’s ordeal has a lot to live up to). Touching the Void is wrenching, and not just because of its topic — blame the movie’s execution for your bitten nails and clenched jaw. We know its subjects survive but it doesn’t make a whit of difference. We’re still harrowed to hell and back and walk away drained. If Macdonald derives a little too much from Errol Morris’ signature documentary style, he’s forgiven come the middle point of the film, when we realize he’s not hampered by imitation but inspired by it, determined to pummel us with a combination of image, score and the very idea of what’s onscreen — of what’s happening to Joe Simpson on the mountain, then in the crevasse, then on the glacier (and with a Boney M ear-worm, to boot). By presenting the viewpoints of two mountaineers contrapuntally, Macdonald double-hooks us emotionally as we follow the recollected trials of Simpson and his friend, Simon Yates, who faced a peak that bested every other climber until their (in)famous 1985 attempt. This story isn’t just about surviving against every last conniving odd (probable, anatomical or psychological). That would be too easy — too conventional. Throw an ethical case study into the mix, rely on the dizzying slopes of the Andes, capture the re-enactment with an almost drunken camera, and you’ll find yourself, as Macdonald has, in possession of an overlooked masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, one whose sensationalism belies its skill and purpose. Snow, ice and cold are at their most terrible in this one and at their most symbolically basic: something to be overcome first for the sake of hubris, then heartbeat. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba as part of their Guide to What’s Good for You series, on Febrary 18, 2010.)