Workers in four different countries are seen contending with fire, ocean waves, the bowels of the earth and space travel in debutante helmer Jiska Rickels’ poetic docu “4 Elements.” Although atmospheric and engaging at the very least on an anthropological level, pic isn’t quite as technically polished or as visually breathtaking as, say, “Workingman’s Death” or “Our Daily Bread,” two recent docus about labor and landscape that “Elements” immediately calls to mind. Nevertheless, the film was well received when it opened IDFA, and inclusion in further fest programs looks as elementary as “one, two, three.”
Each segment is themed around one of the elements, and opens with voiceover narration culled from either a folk tale or a primal creation myth that relates to the country in which the segment is set. However, the images that unspool are less stories with recognizable characters than bare-bones observations of workers getting their jobs done each day.
Opening sequence shows Siberian firemen dousing blazes in the forest. Helmer Rickels and lenser Martijn van Broekhuizen get close to many burning trees, but none of the conflagrations captured look especially out of control or dangerous. Later, the firefighters gather around campfires and tell stories.
Second, stronger sequence climbs aboard an Alaskan-based trawler gathering king crab. Various scenes suggest the disciplined life aboard thecramped ship, while the huge, moonlit waves outside adds a sense of majesty and awe.
Third segment about German miners working deep under the earth was the first produced, and was originally Rickels’ film school graduation project. Images certainly conjure the claustrophobia of the mine, but by this point, the pic is starting to feel a little unvaried, and not entirely dissimilar to something one might see in an elementary school classroom.
Last sequence, showing astronauts in training at a Kazakh air base, reaches for a more abstract, unsettling atmosphere. At one point, a psychedelic effect is created by quick, strobing cuts between a spinning black-and-white pattern and an astronaut in a centrifuge, but the sleight-of-Avid doesn’t disguise the fact the pic never really provides the airborne sequences one would expect to be the payoff here.
Shot on 16mm, many of the images have a grainy quality that enhances the informational film look. Still, van Broekhuizen’s lensing is proficient, even in the most adverse conditions such as deep underground. Editing synchs with low, guttural humming noises on the pic’s soundtrack, penned by eminent avant-garde composer Horst Rickels, who’s also the helmer’s dad.