IFFR 2024 review: Wayfaring Stranger (Andrea Luka Zimmerman)

“An immersive and contemplative work of singular cinema of the kind the world sadly sees far too little.”

From the very first notes of American singer-songwriter Fern Maddie’s rendition of the song that gives the film its title, Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s latest work Wayfaring Stranger transfixes the audience with its unique blend of image and sound as it takes us on a lifelong journey of finding one’s own terms to live. The folk song, used several times in cinema before (most recently and notably in Sam Mendes’ 1917), has a long history that goes back to 17th century Germany, when it was titled “Ich bin ja nur ein Gast auf Erden.” That original title, which translates to “I’m only a guest on Earth“, gets a poignant meaning in the context of Zimmerman’s film as it explores and questions our place in nature’s ecosystem; an ecosystem that man as a species has gradually eroded, but that will nevertheless survive us all. Hypnotic, introspective, and with a bewildering soundscape that pits the natural world against its manmade enemies, Wayfaring Stranger is a mesmerizing yet haunting journey through our relationship with ourselves and the world we live in.

Wayfaring Stranger eschews a traditional narrative as much as it eschews words, but for the sake of tradition here is a synopsis of sorts: the film follows a wandering character, played by seven performers, from childhood to old age as they search for existence on their own terms. Along the way there will be encounters, either with other souls placing themselves outside traditional ways of living or with nature in its glorious and majestic manifestations. Loss, grief, solitude, and community all pass through the life of the wayfaring stranger that traverses from the industrial and decaying outskirts of ‘civilization’ to the undefined space between land and sea. The clothes on their back are the only signifier that we are dealing with a singular journey; at one moment an older version of the character meets their younger self. The character has the outward characteristics of a woman, but is played by non-binary characters also. Both the ‘wayfaring’ and the ‘stranger’ of the title can be interpreted in various ways, and in a film that is as much about self-exploration as it is about our relation to nature that is perhaps entirely the point.

The absence of dialogue is bookended by Maddie’s haunting voice and a spoken-word text by renowned American poet Eileen Myles, who plays the oldest incarnation of the titular wanderer. Both lyrics and text speak about grounding one’s self in the world, about survival and an unwillingness to compromise the way to live one’s life. Myles is a prime example of refusal to comply with the unspoken rules that dictate our lives, once telling The New Yorker, “I’m happy complicating what being a woman, a dyke, is. I’m the gender of Eileen.” This thought is totally in line with the thesis of the film. The fact that the black-and-white photography turns into colour once Myles reaches the coast, that space that modernity has no use for, can be seen as the moment in which the central character’s journey to find themselves comes to a satisfying conclusion, and to have that moment be played by Myles is fitting.

When it comes to filmmaking, Wayfaring Stranger owes much to Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, from its sombre black-and-white photography (though the camera movements have more than a touch of Malick) to its immersive qualities thanks to a nature-based sound design. Both the cinematography, courtesy of Zimmerman herself, and the sound design by Chris Watson (much-lauded for his work on several BBC nature documentary series) draw the viewer in and make it an up-close observationist work. The wide lens, often with heavy lens distortion on the edges, has a similar effect to what Yorgos Lanthimos does in Poor Things. It’s unsettling, but not necessarily in a negative way. Zimmerman’s images force you to almost become part of this world, and Watson’s sound work heightens that effect, which makes the film an experience piece more than anything. Which is probably a long-winded way of saying this is best experienced in a theatre. In the end, Wayfaring Stranger is an immersive and contemplative work of singular cinema of the kind the world sadly sees far too little.