What is it about snow and ice that makes for such great, compelling cinema? From Griffith's Way Down East (1920) to the avant-garde epic Icebreaker (1987), from Nanook of the North (1922) to Fargo (1996), the screen image taken almost to the point of blinding, abstract whiteness has a powerful, reverie-inducing effect.
Hans Petter Moland's Zero Kelvin has the crisp economy of a tough, knotty thriller by Roman Polanski. And, as in the work of that master, most of the story unfolds in a grimly circumscribed setting: a shack in Greenland where three men hired as seal hunters quickly go crazy.
Larsen (Garb B. Eidsvold) is a young dandy more used to writing romantic poetry than facing a harsh wilderness. Holm (Bjorn Sundquist) is the quiet, scientific type, forever hunched over his specimens. Randbaek (Stellan Skarsgård) is a gregarious, disturbed, raging bull.
For a fair while, dramatic tension occurs only between the two diametrically opposed masculine types, Larsen and Randbaek. Their relationship seesaws between violence and boyish, petulant displays – the scene where the bull tries to win over the dandy with a surprise Christmas party is a perversely comic gem.
But, two thirds of the way through the plot, Holm makes a sudden, decisive intervention – one that propels the characters out of the shack and into the ice and snow. Moland cleverly reserves his most striking images, and his most ingenious narrative moves, for this final, outdoors act.
These days, the lazy word among reviewers for any drama that places battling bodies against a vast, natural landscape is 'existential' – presumably because all traces of civilisation are absent and fundamental passions come to the fore.
Yet Zero Kelvin is more primal than existential. The social values and prejudices of the characters do not disappear; rather, they are placed into stark relief by the monumental setting. And Moland's ultimate concern is not with the philosophy of life and death, but more immediate ethical dilemmas of human behaviour under pressure.
In this sense, the film is an ethical thriller. It examines what a normally civilised person will do in extreme circumstances, with all the usual social restraints removed. It asks what, in the final analysis, can separate men from beasts. And, like Fargo, it coolly probes the constant claims of its characters to moral superiority or lofty idealism.
© Adrian Martin November 1996