Chloé Zhao’s masterful social panorama “Nomadland” with Frances McDormand is finally coming to the cinema.
It has been nine months since Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” started its triumphal march around the world from the Venice Festival. Renewed corona lockdowns could not stop the success, which peaked with the Academy Awards last April. Even if this fragile film about the unprotected existences of modern migrant workers was made before the pandemic, it will probably tell about this time for a long time: Like a magnifying glass of the devil, the pandemic has ravaged especially where the social misery is already greatest. It is quite possible that soon nobody will speak of the suffering of the elderly and the poor, because the structures of the social system are only changing very slowly.
But the images of “Nomadland” will remain. Not least because many of the people who make a living here on the edge of capitalism work for Amazon – the retail giant that is one of the big winners of the Corona era.
But also from an artistic point of view, some important threads of this time come together in “Nomadland”. Even before the debate about the docudrama “Lovemobil” ignited in Germany, the film produced by Frances McDormand saw itself as an artistically transformed reality. The use of the cinematic means is unmistakable. In the tradition of the film language of Italian neorealism by Roberto Rossellini, amateur and professional actors meet in a clearly recognizable manner.
It is the film adaptation of a non-fiction bestseller – Jessica Brother’s report on the new American camper culture born of poverty with the means of a feature film. Brother used a kind of Günter Wallraff method and mingled with the nomadic economic losers himself in the motorhome. Many of the stories of these people, who do not call themselves homeless, but simply “homeless”, can now be heard firsthand; the Chinese-American director Chloé Zhao lets these often uprooted people play themselves. Lead actress Frances McDormand, who also produced the film, transforms herself into the former factory worker Fern using the means of professional acting.
Just a few months after their work site shut down in rural Nevada, the small town’s zip code has also been deleted. America is moving into a second Great Depression, barely noticed by the public. Migrant workers, as described by John Steinbeck in “The Fruits of Wrath”, are camping in front of Amazon’s dispatch centers today – a scene of “Nomadland”.
Some of the documentary elements, the stories experienced and the landscapes of the Midwest are extremely powerful. A terminally ill nomad, for example, raves about the happy moments of her fulfilled life – and by that means the sighting of a moose family and a swarm of swallows. As a narrative alone, this story is so powerful that it no longer needs to be re-enacted: when Frances McDormand’s film character then travels to the swallows himself, it only becomes an illustration of reality.
Document and staging do not always come together, however. McDormand comes across as more of a sensitive interviewer, a kind of more sensitive version of Michael Moore, than an equal. But one must also credit this principle of filmmaking with the fact that it always makes the boundaries between document and staging visible through breaks. This is really the principle that Roberto Rossellini applied when he cast the Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman with amateur actors in his social drama “Stromboli”. A rupture arises between the photographed and the staged truth. What remains is the question of how both should be weighted.
Once one of the nomads sings a folk song that one would have liked to have heard, but after a few bars the director prefers to put an emotional piano piece by the film composer Ludovico Einaudi over it. In this way it takes a piece of truth away from reality, but on the other hand it also protects the space of art as a distancing level. Frances McDormand is both anchor and weak point of the film, her scenes compete with the authenticity that director Chloé Zhao captures around her.
Nevertheless, “Nomadland” ranks high above the standards of semi-documentary filmmaking. Every filmmaker who moves on the borderline between document and fiction will be able to discover something amazing about this film. With what dignity does Zhao stage the amateur actors, who are always complex personalities, never just functionaries or even mere victims. For the filmmaker herself, by the way, it is a German filmmaker whose work she keeps coming back to in times of crisis, as she admitted at the Academy Awards: If she doesn’t know what to do, then take another look at how Werner Herzog would have done it.
Nomadland. USA 2020. Regie: Chloe Zhao. 110 Min.