Karlovy Vary 2024 review: Spheres (Daniel Zimmermann)

“Making sense of Spheres can be a challenge, but once we realize it is not supposed to be comprehended, but rather experienced, the closer we come to understanding the ingenuity that drives the film forward.”

Some artists set out to explore the beauty of our world, others the absurdity of existence. Over the course of his career, Daniel Zimmermann has seemed interested in doing both, spending his time crafting films that are simultaneously deeply personal and profoundly universal. This kind of layered contradiction is a quality we find in his films, with his previous (and arguably most celebrated work) being Walden, a film composed of panning shots designed to explore the journey of timber from the rainforests of Brazil to its final destination across oceans. He has followed this film with another similarly themed work, the fascinating and utterly befuddling Spheres, in which the director sets out to unravel the very fabric of humanity through a carefully crafted, systematic deconstruction of social and artistic conventions. The film starts with an unnamed character throwing a wooden stick into the horizon, followed by a slow and steady panning shot that eventually returns to our initial protagonist, who is struck by the same object he has just thrown: one of many fascinating moments in a film composed from episodic vignettes that leap between perspectives. Spheres is a multidimensional project, both in terms of scope and conceptual foundation, which never quite clarifies itself or what it represents, but still offers something truly memorable in the process.

A question that has been asked on countless occasions by many experimental writers and directors is whether or not a truly plotless film can exist. Regardless of the extent to which it may be driven by stream-of-consciousness, the moment even the vaguest semblance of a story begins to appear is when this notion is disproven. Zimmermann is one of the many contemporary filmmakers who use this as the premise for his work, and at a cursory glance, it does indeed seem like Spheres is mostly free from any discernible storyline, at least from our perspective as mere viewers. The entire film takes place in a series of ambiguous locations, where the camera slowly pans to create a 360-degree view of these visionary tableaux (borrowing the same technique from the director’s previous film, only expanding the scope and usage of the technology), through which we encounter a variety of characters. None of them has a name, and even their conversations are presented at a low volume and without subtitles (with the exception of a few moments of voiceover narration that we are meant to understand), with each scene conveying something different but equally inexplicable. Defined less by plot, and more by the atmosphere that oscillates between hypnotic and genuinely uncomfortable, Spheres offers a bold and borderline revolutionary approach to the narrative process, or rather the lack thereof.

Taken in isolation, none of the scenes in Spheres is entirely meaningful; they only start to convey something deeper when we look at them as pieces of a cohesive whole, which begins to make sense when perceiving them from a distance. The pieces gradually fall into place, and eventually we can recognize some of the intentions behind this film. Comprehending what it represents or intends to convey takes effort, but Zimmermann clearly intends for the audience to put in some work to understand the multitude of ideas present in this film. One interpretation is that Spheres represents the cyclical nature of life, and how we are all engaged in the laborious Sisyphean task of simply existing. Another is that this represents the deconstruction of the human mind, as seen through the perspective of an artist intent on examining the deepest and most intricate psychological sensations. More than anything else, this film represents the glorious liberation from conventions, proving that something doesn’t need to follow a traditional structure in order to provoke some kind of reaction. It carries immense artistic resonance, but the key to understanding Zimmermann’s creation is to abandon logic and quite simply surrender to the madness that is human existence, something we will never be able to entirely comprehend.   

Spheres is a film that takes time to fully absorb, or at least achieve the closest approximation to an understanding of it, since it refuses to justify or rationalize even an ounce of its artistic vision, and would prefer that the viewer remain suspended in a state of bewilderment, where the most intriguing ideas are able to emerge. It presents a literal 360-degree perspective on humanity, composed of a series of disjointed vignettes that coalesce into a tremendous and mystifying work of postmodern experimental cinema. It is slow but purposeful, and moves at a steady pace as it sets out to condense the entire human condition into a single 90-minute existential odyssey, an ambitious feat but one that feels oddly possible under the director’s fascinating approach. Less a film driven by a particular narrative, and more a sensory experience that piques our curiosity with its promise of being a daring and unconventional deconstruction of the human mind through a series of bizarre visual and aural cues, Spheres is a hypnotic and disquieting voyage into the collective psyche as seen through the perspective of a truly original filmmaker. Making sense of Spheres can be a challenge, but once we realize it is not supposed to be comprehended, but rather experienced, the closer we come to understanding the ingenuity that drives the film forward.