‘A Piece of Sky’ Review: Things Fall Apart as a Choir Sings in an Impressive, Austere Alpine Tragedy

Stunning image-making fills out the stark storytelling in Swiss director Michael Koch's potent, stoically moving second feature.

'A Piece of Sky' Review: An
Armin Dierolf/Hugofilm

The hills are indeed alive with the sound of music in Swiss filmmaker Michael Koch’s intimate Alpine epic “A Piece of Sky,” but if you go in expecting twirling frolics, expect to be harshly disappointed. Acting as a kind of distinctly non-Greek chorus, a full Helvetian choir pops up between the acts of this small-scale domestic tragedy, their solemn folk songs lending a mournful running commentary to this story of a mountain family undone by medical misfortune and psychological upheaval. It’s a quasi-absurdist flourish in an otherwise austere slab of rural realism — cast with non-professional locals — and emblematic of the arresting formal grandeur that Koch brings to ostensibly modest material.

That combination of downbeat storytelling and rigorously mannered styling makes “A Piece of Sky” a challenging proposition for arthouse distributors, though a special mention from this year’s Berlinale Competition jury is indicative of the rarefied but rapt following it ought to find. (In cinemas, one hopes: This lengthy film’s languid pacing and starkly soaring visuals aren’t best suited to streaming.) Whatever its commercial future, Koch’s sophomore feature is likely to elevate him to the major leagues of the festival circuit, demonstrating as it does a bolder, more distinctive directorial voice than his already promising, Locarno-premiered 2016 debut “Marija.” That German-set immigrant character study was a fairly conventionally told slice-of-life affair, albeit with long-view moral complexities that have been retained in this more aesthetically ambitious follow-up.

The tone and rhythm for proceedings is set by a serene, long-held opening shot of a large hillside boulder, sandwiched by iridescent grass and sky, and boxed in by the film’s tight Academy ratio. It’s not the first time we’ll dwell on this image, which suggests an implacable permanence in the natural world, in cruel contrast to the drastic changes befalling the film’s human characters from one vividly denoted season to the next. But at the outset, it’s all robust, bucolic springtime energy, as hulking, ox-like laborer Marco (Simon Wisler, himself a mountain farmer in real life) is introduced hard at work under a beating sun, his biceps filling the frame as he pounds fence posts into a sloping meadow straight out of “Heidi.”

Marco, it emerges, is not a local, but a lowlander who has taken to the mountain village of his girlfriend Anna (Michele Brand), a multi-jobbing mail deliverer and cafe waitress in need of a solid support system for herself and her young daughter Julia. Physically, at least, they don’t come much more solid than the stoic, devoted Marco, though his bearish sexual advances on her — even while she’s at work — are something of a red flag. With the summer comes their jubilant wedding, though you couldn’t ask for a more blatant foreshadowing of a shift to come than a startling needle scratch on the soundtrack, as an ethereal “Ave Maria” abruptly cuts into Haddaway’s simultaneously ominous and euphoric ’90s club classic “What Is Love.”

Sure enough, not long into the marriage, catastrophe strikes: After suffering migraines and passing out on the job, Marco is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Though it’s operable, the surgery turns out not to be a complete success, as Marco’s behavior turns increasingly erratic and dissociative — straining the family until a severe act of violation on his part breaks it entirely. But while the community, swift to reject an outsider as soon as he proves a burden, passes cold judgment on Marco’s mental health and how it should be treated, Anna finds it far less easily to detach herself from the man she loves, particularly as he devolves into an increasingly frail, even childlike, state. Koch unfolds this crisis with distanced compassion, permitting room for viewers’ own moral judgments on a thorny situation, while drawing performances of subtle, bruised emotional acuity from his deeply affecting leads.

All the while, this shattering, unstable human drama is sturdily anchored by the humbling vastness and eternally fixed cycles of the land itself — captured by DP Armin Dierolf with a muscular pictorial sense that never settles for the merely picturesque. Koch has an infectious fascination with ancient labor, giving over generous minutes of screen time to rich images of scythes sweeping steep, yellowed fields like a razor pulled across a bearded cheek, or puffy bales of hay making their way down the mountain on spindly ziplines.

Such hypnotic observational passages feel more than decorative, however, even as the film’s 136-minute running time pushes its luck a little. There’s a genuine sense of old-as-the-hills rural routine here, against which the tumult of Marco and Anna’s marriage is all the more disorienting and disruptive. Only the recurring choir, uniformly suited in emerald green, seems unfazed by their tribulations, as their unified, comforting collective voice appears to emanate from the ground itself.


‘A Piece of Sky’ Review: Things Fall Apart as a Choir Sings in an Impressive, Austere Alpine Tragedy

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Competition), Feb. 15, 2022. Running time: 136 MIN. (Original title: "Drii Winter")

  • Production: (Switzerland) A Hugofilm Features production in co-production with Pandora Film Produktion, Swiss Radio and Television/SRG SSR, Arte. (World sales: New Europe Film Sales, Warsaw.) Producer: Christof Neracher. Co-producers: Claudia Steffen, Christoph Friedel.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Michael Koch. Camera: Armin Dierolf. Editor: Florian Riegel. Music: Tobias Koch, Jannik Giger.
  • With: Michèle Brand, Simon Wisler, Elin Zgraggen, Daniela Barmettler, Josef Aschwanden. (German, English, French dialogue)