Pictures Enlightened

By Jerry White

peter-mettler.jpgPeter Mettler

The cinema of Peter Mettler searches for a new way of being

Peter Mettler exists between the conventional and the experimental, never entirely at home in either and yet fully dependent on each. He is a key member of Canada’s second-generation experimental cinema, a group that includes filmmakers like Mike Hoolboom, Richard Fung and Guy Maddin, filmmakers who move freely between narrative and non-narrative modes and who have strongly resisted the hermetic quality of the earlier generation of experimentalists like Michael Snow.

Even though Canadian film history looks like a straightforward tale of an earnest, documentary-oriented national cinema trying to shake off its Griersonian shackles and emerge into the exciting realm of smarter-than-Hollywood narrative filmmaking, the traditions of both are actually quite tangled. One of the crucial aspects of the groups of filmmakers that emerged from Toronto in the 1980s (Atom Egoyan is probably the most famous) is that, even though they succeeded in escaping the dry, civic sensibility of Grierson-influenced cinema, they are often not as far removed from it as they may initially appear. Mettler stands apart from such an association but his early films are particularly in dialogue with Egoyan’s work of that period. Partially this is because he was cinematographer on some of Egoyan’s early films, such as Next of Kin (1984) and Family Viewing (1987), on which he shared cinematographer credit with Robert MacDonald. But the connections are philosophical too. The kinds of concerns about epistemology at the heart of Family Viewing (1987) – how do technology and photographic reproduction affect intimacy or understanding? – are also at the core of Mettler’s early films, such as Scissere (1982, which attempted to recreate a fragmented consciousness) and The Top of His Head (1989, about a technophilic satellite salesman).

gambling-gods-and-lsd-peter-mettler.jpgGambling, Gods and LSD, 2002

Mettler is thus a clear example of R. Bruce Elder’s assertion that, “Canadian thought… has been dominated by questions concerning technology.” [1]  Elder invokes Canadian philosophers such as George Grant and Marshall McLuhan. The latter’s impact on Mettler is keenly felt in his 1989 film The Top of His Head, especially in terms of Mettler’s portrayal of the mass media as – to use the words of the subtitle to McLuhan’s most famous book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The connection to George Grant might seem more counter-intuitive. Grant was one of the towering figures of Canadian philosophy, contributing on a wide range of topics that included Christian ethics, Canadian / US relations and, most famously, technology. And it is via technology that his connection to Mettler is clearest. Although Grant is very clearly a “Red Tory” (a distinctly Canadian brand of conservative: sceptical of capitalism, strongly communitarian and often anti-American) in a way that Mettler clearly is not, the two share a deep and critical engagement with the way in which knowledge and scientism are shaping our exterior and interior worlds in ways that are not yet fully comprehensible.

In addition to being clearly connected to important parts of Canadian intellectual life, Metter is also very much a Swiss artist. Mettler’s parents are immigrants from Switzerland; he holds Swiss citizenship and speaks Schwizertitsch (Swiss German). Switzerland is, really, ever-present in his work. It is particularly central, though, in his most recent film Gambling, Gods and LSD. That’s not only because it was partially filmed in the mountains outside Berne, but also because of the way that it was finished in a series of old, rambling houses.

The story of the four houses of Gambling, Gods and LSD really begins with Picture of Light, Mettler’s 1994 film of his trip to the Canadian sub-Arctic in an attempt to photograph the Northern Lights. Picture of Light was partially completed in Switzerland and featured, in a rather unsung role, Andreas Züst. Mettler told me that Züst “actually proposed the idea of cataloguing the lights on film, and agreed to find the funding. It was only during post-production that he came into money of his own.” Züst was an art collector who, after inheriting money during the post-production of Picture of Light, became a kind of patron to Mettler (along with several other artists). Picture of Light was edited in Züst’s farmhouse in Appenzell Ausser-Rhoden, also known as Appenzell AR, close to where Mettler’s mother grew up. “I reconnected with my roots there,” Mettler told me, adding that Züst also put up initial financing for Gambling, Gods and LSD, “but much later. Well after Picture of Light was finished.”

gambling-gods-and-lsd-peter-mettler-2.jpgGambling, Gods and LSD, 2002

Shortly after finishing the shooting of Gambling, Gods and LSD, Mettler learned of the Schlesinger-Stiftung, which he described as “a house you apply to work in,” also in Appenzell AR. He began post-production work there after his application to the foundation that runs the house was accepted. One of the requirements of fellowship was to produce a public exhibition of some kind related to the work being supported, so Mettler produced a photo exhibit at an old movie theatre in the nearby town of Heiden, where public screenings of all of his films were also held. He produced an installation of his work in the farmhouse itself as well. Marcy Goldberg, writing in the Canadian independent film magazine Point of View in 2001, recalled the experience of attending Mettler’s event and, as she recounts, on display was a very, very long rough cut (about fifty hours) of Gambling, Gods and LSD. Indeed, Mettler was very clear with me that what he showed at that event was not a series of rushes, but instead a preliminary (if unwieldy and rambling) assembly of the film. He added that he was quite surprised that some people would spend hours and hours looking at the material, and that this willingness to linger over the material slightly affected his final cut. [2]  

When the Schlesinger fellowship ran out, Mettler was in need of a new base from which to finish the truly enormous project Gambling, Gods and LSD had become. Learning of the Hotel Alpenhof – an old, abandoned hotel on the high edge of the Rhine Valley, near the border with Austria and Liechtenstein – he formed a collective with a few other artists to make use of the space and share a nominal rent, paid to the owner who did not seem to have much interest in renting the place out. “That was a great place too, because it was huge,” Mettler told me. “I had a lot of screenings there, more towards the end of the editing process. Three - to five-hour rough cuts.” Mettler began to feel part of a community that was forming there, and this also informed the course of the film’s inception. “It was an isolated place where people came and went,” he recalled. “It was a big enough place where people could retreat and do their work, yet also share some interaction.” At the hotel, Mettler also started to experiment with the image-mixing techniques that would become the framework for the performances he would later stage with the unused footage from Gambling, Gods and LSD.

Just before post-production on Gambling, Gods and LSD was complete, Andreas Züst passed away. Shortly afterward, Züst’s daughter invited Mettler to live in Züst’s house, located on a hill called Spiegelberg in the canton of Zürich. In Züst’s house, Mettler found a collection of records and books the size of which flabbergasted him. Züst had over thirty thousand records (the archiving of his collection was still going on several years after his death). This residence has since become Mettler’s base in Switzerland, although he is still affiliated with the collective at Hotel Alpenhof.

peter-mettler-2.jpgPeter Mettler

But despite truly close and meaningful ties to both Canada and Switzerland, Mettler is at heart an internationalist; it would be a major mistake to consider his work only within the context of English Canada, or within Switzerland. Martin Schaub has tried to find some lyrical, non-narrative and yet non-documentary comparisons as well; he wrote of Mettler’s peers that “the ‘family’ of lyrical filmmakers is far-flung and has many branches. Andrei Tarkovsky belongs to it, and so does Raul Ruiz; by token of his (then. ed) latest film, Lisbon Story, Wim Wenders is also seeking admission.” [3]  Mettler had for some while, also been seeking membership of a new, truly international cinematic practice. With Gambling, Gods and LSD he arrived there.

His films, then, offer a model for a global cinema worth supporting. His career has been vividly influenced by an engagement with the details – geographical, philosophical, cinematic – of Canada. But it has never been limited by them; his films have restlessly expanded beyond Canada’s borders. This is also true of his relationship to Swiss culture; he is very much rooted in the landscape and social life of Switzerland, but he is also searching to connect those details to global experiences. Globalization could, at this stage, very easily become a fancy word for a placeless form of Americanized culture. Mettler is as much opposed to this idea of the global flow of culture as he is committed to a genuine transcendence of all manner of boundaries, from the economic to the spiritual. His is a global cinema worth supporting.


[1] R. Bruce Elder, Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989), p.54.
[2] Marcy Goldberg, “Peter Mettler: Middle of the Moment,” Point of View 41-2 (Winter 2001), p.10.
[3] Martin Schaub, “Musik und Reisen: Die Welt als Ahnung / Music and Travel: Sensing the World,” in Salome Pitschen and Annette Schönholzer, eds., Peter Mettler: Das Unsichtbare sichtbare machen / Making the Invisible Visible (Zurich: Reihe Andreas Züst / Verlag Ricco Bilger, 1995), p. 52.

All of Peter Mettler's films can be ordered on DVD at

Jerry White writes and teaches in Canada. He is published by Wallflower Press and wrote the book Of This Place and Elsewhere: the Films and Photography of Peter Mettler (Toronto, 2006).