Fairy tales, soap and blood: the power of snow in film

Thomas McMullan

Thomas McMullan on the cinematic value of turning movie sets into winter wonderlands

04 December 2018 14:47

Jerry Lundegaard trudges across a snow-caked car park. The camera doesn’t move an inch, watching from a God’s eye view as the salesman follows the tracks of his car, parked within a grid of lampposts and plant pots. In a few seconds he will try and fail, and try again, to scrape the ice that has covered his windshield. This scene from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996), with cinematography by Roger Deakins, is a cold, uncanny shot, all Last-Year-At-Marienbad geometries and oppressive light. Like so much else in the film, it takes the everyday and makes it stranger, the snow turning a workplace parking lot into negative space peppered with dark shapes; Jerry alone in the void.

Many of us are more used to seeing snow in movies than in real life. At this time of year, it’s hard to avoid powdered streets on our TV screens, shorthand as it is for Christmas and winter and BBC costume dramas and Coca Cola adverts. But snow can be more than set dressing. In the hands of the right filmmaker, snow can be a potent psychological, or even a political, tool. The moving images of film can be both occluded and sharpened by snow; characters can be lost in it; nations mythologised by it. When it snows, everything looks different. All normal markers vanish.

This can be liberating, jolting characters out of the ordinary into a liminal state. In Federico Fellini’s 1973 film Amarcord, the year’s first snow brings fantasy to fascist Italy. Social order in the village of Borgo San Giuliano is interrupted by a playful snowball fight, which is itself interrupted by the ecstatic arrival of a peacock, spreading its resplendent, jewel-like feathers on the rim of a frozen fountain. Elsewhere, in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1991), snow seems to fall over suburban America, Winona Ryder’s teenage hero dancing in a moment of unguarded euphoria. But in this case, all is not is what it seems: the momentary blizzard is the result of Edward’s frantic sculpting, his sharp fingers sending a stream of fake snow into the air.

The collective delirium of first snow can quickly turn to melancholy. When snow comes to Istanbul in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2002 film Uzak, unemployed Yusuf is captivated by the city, and he aimlessly wanders the streets and parks wearing little more than a thin leather jacket. The fresh snow is beautiful but also alienating. After eyeing up couples playing in the park, his lonely drift eventually takes him to the docks, to the scene of a half-sunken trawler, sinister and strange, made all the more unreal by the thick snow that covers it.

‘Edward Scissorhands’ (Tim Burton, 1991)

Tundra also covers the ruins in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago (1966), as Yuri Zhivago and his lover Lara return to their former home in the wilds of Varykino, only to find it a changed, frozen place. In a melancholy, dream-like sequence, the pair enter the grand estate; every surface covered in white. Much like the fairy tale of Edward Scissorhands, this is also fake snow, albeit of a movie-making kind. The scene was actually shot in Spain, not Russia, and Varykino’s icy interior was made from a mixture of cellophane, beeswax, soap flakes and crushed aspirin.

Those measures pale in comparison to the work behind Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. The 1938 film’s climactic ‘Battle of the Ice’ was made during a particularly hot summer outside Moscow, and so cinematographer Eduard Tisse has to go to extreme lengths to ensure things looked wintery. In addition to putting filters on his cameras, this included dressing 30,000 square meters of a studio lot with 17.5 tons of asphalt, white sand, water glass, and chalk laid over sacking, as well as painting trees white and coating them in cotton wool.

Sean Cubitt, professor of film and television at Goldsmiths, writes in his book The Cinema Effect (2004) that Tisse’s snowy battlefield creates a sense of national identity ‘by lifting the land out of history to plant it in myth’. Snow – even fake snow – helps to turn the world of Alexander Nevsky into an idealised image of Russia, free from the present, all the nitty gritty details of everyday life blanketed in the white stuff. It makes a land seem dislocated, timeless. To quote Brendan Gleeson’s assassin in the snowy Belgian city of Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008), ‘it’s like a fuckin’ fairy tale or something.’

Another national myth begins in the snow during Abel Gance’s five-and-a-half-hour, 1927 epic, Napoléon. The movie starts with a snowball fight, foreshadowing the soon-to-be French military leader’s campaigns in a sequence of shaking cameras and frenetic cuts, some sections filmed using a toboggan. The snow once more gives the scene the feeling of a fable, turning the fight into a site for storytelling and play; a make-believe version of wars to come.

‘Lady Snowblood’ (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

But snow fights aren’t always so harmless. The whiteness of snow has often been used as a canvas for violence, aestheticising blood spill in films like Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 action thriller Lady Snowblood, which was a major inspiration for the snowy dual in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003). The snowy woods of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), meanwhile, are the backdrop for an altogether more violent fairy tale, full of werewolves and bloody transformations.

There is more blood, and fire, on the snow in John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing, as a team of American researchers stationed in Antarctica hunt a parasitic alien. In one scene, an assimilated scientist is burnt alive in the snowy night, the flames lighting the other researchers against a vast, dark landscape. No snowball fights and impromptu dancing here. The snow is cold and it will kill you if you linger, as it does to Jack Nicholson’s father and aspiring writer in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), swallowed by a blizzard in the Overlook Hotel’s hedge maze. Luke Skywalker narrowly avoids a similar fate, freezing on the icy planet of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) until he is found by Han Solo. As the night draws in, the pair survive by sleeping in the entails of Solo’s steed. Beyond this shelter, the snow is endless.

And so we’re back to the void. The way snow blankets a landscape can be magical, mythical, socially liberating, but it leaves a world without signs or points of reference. The pavements are gone, their paths buried. This can turn a city into a fairy tale, but it can also transform it into an uncertain place. Zorns Lemma, a 1970 film by the avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton, spends close to an hour cycling through an alphabet of Manhattan street signs, but it ends with a sequence of a man, woman and dog walking through a vast plain of snow. The letters are gone. The shot is unblinking as they gradually make their way together, eventually disappearing from view.

This is the power of snow: it is a leveller, patting down the streets and fields into blankness. For a filmmaker, this can be a negative space on which to draw lines and shapes, or it can be an edgeless place to find yourself lost. Towards the end of Fargo, Steve Buscemi’s unfortunate hitman staggers bloody from a car, burying a suitcase of money beside a barbed-wired field. He looks left, he looks right. There is nothing in either direction but the snow. No landmarks, no signs of life. Nothing to grip onto.