An ominous storm cloud materializes over Switzerland, stopping at the country’s borders while threatening its residents with potentially catastrophic effects in “Wonderland,” an impressive, albeit impossibly ambitious omnibus film project in which 10 up-and-coming Swiss directors each contributed provocative strands to the massive disaster-movie premise. For project originators Michael Krummenacher and Jan Gassmann, the overarching concept was to create a single unified film that might stand on its own, subsuming any of the individual egos along the way. As such, it was no small feat to marshal a coherent supernatural thriller from what amounts to a handful of wildly different mini-stories, though the bigger surprise is just how urgently critical “Wonderland” is toward a country the world typically perceives as fair and neutral.
Even the film’s original title, “Heimatland” (which ironically undercuts the bygone genre of folksily naive, German traditional-values movies known as “heimatfilm”) gets somewhat lost in translation: Here is perhaps the least propagandistic mainstream Swiss movie ever made, one that holds the country accountable for decades of sins, both big and small. At Switzerland’s high-minded Locarno film festival, where the movie premiered in competition, the project was met with considerable excitement by domestic press, who picked up on details that will surely be lost on foreign eyes. As one character puts it when faced with probably annihilation, “Finally something’s happening!” no doubt voicing the rebel spirit of all 10 helmers.
The mysterious storm represents a sort of reckoning, after all, best exemplified by the twist that panic-stricken Swiss citizens are turned away at the country’s European borders: The same bridge where Jews were refused entry during World War II now prevents them from seeking shelter on the opposite shore. Long before that happens, however, newscasters begin to sound the alarm as dark clouds gather overhead. It’s a clear advantage of the pic’s unified-by-fear premise — consistent with any number of Roland Emmerich movies — that the film is now free to circulate, where differences between the directors’ individual approaches translate to the way an assortment of characters might react, each hailing from the country’s various regions, classes and cultures (French, German and immigrant alike).
The daunting project’s unsung hero, editor Kaya Inan (who also cut this year’s exceptional “Above and Below”) skillfully weaves the various separate narratives together from the outset, setting up each of the stories: There’s the rowdy soccer fan headed to the game, a sleazy businessman en route to the airport, a nationalist militia cell standing guard over its neighborhood, two sisters separated from their parents and so on. The anxiety mounts as Inan glides between the various stories. Early on, it seems as if anything can happen, though it’s a tricky prospect as to where the film might go next, since there’s ultimately no way to resolve the monster-storm plot. Therefore, the tension evaporates roughly an hour into the film, as Inan must select a few of the minor episodes to flesh out in more detail.
The subplot that makes the strongest impression concerns a female cop (Julia Glaus) haunted by a Nigerian whom she shot and killed on the job. While responding to a emergency call from a local supermarket, where crazed civilians are looting the shelves, she tumbles into a storm cellar and comes face-to-face with the man’s ghost — another critique of the country’s racist attitudes toward immigration. Other threads offer milder critiques, such as the satirical depiction of a hipster couple who plan to spend the apocalypse in bed, while two stories featuring characters in cars intertwine to suggest a suspenseful high-speed chase.
The filmmakers’ challenge task becomes increasingly difficult in the film’s second half as Inan reintroduces plotlines that had all but fallen by the wayside. The sisters return, body-painting one another with no clear explanation of their actions; the businessman remains in his taxi, though somewhere along the way, his Yugoslavian driver (Dashmir Ristemi) has picked up his family; in one vignette, the storm kills off the birds, who start falling from the skies, while in another, a pet cockatiel appears completely unaffected.
Judging by the consistent look and tone achieved by pic’s three cinematographers, “Wonderland” benefits from more planning than typically goes into portmanteau films, though not so much that the stories ultimately fit together. Either someone needed to orchestrate a single backbone narrative, or the filmmakers should have considered another format, such as a TV series in which each of the strands might be treated as a standalone episode — though that wouldn’t have worked with the driving motivation to present the material in such a way that viewers couldn’t detect which of the 10 directors (two of whom are female) had handled which segments.