4 Elements (2006)

Director: Jiska Rickels

2007 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

There doesn’t seem to be much on this earth that human beings haven’t wanted to conquer or exploit. It is both a testament to humanity’s unquenchable spirit and often insatiable appetite that many strides in science and industry have been made. This Dutch documentary, an astonishing achievement in cinematography, takes on man’s (and this is a film of men) encounters with fire, water, earth, and air by focusing on four dangerous and grueling occupations: forest firefighting, commercial fishing, coal mining, and space exploration. The film traverses three countries and brings viewers so close to the experiences the men who work in these arenas face that you can practically breathe the coal dust and feel the G-forces of a flight simulator.


The first segment, and for me the least compelling, features firefighters trying to put out a 100-hectare blaze in a Siberian forest. The segment opens rather undramatically on the men cooking their meals, climbing out of their tents, washing, and smoking. This “waiting” portion of the segment is, frankly, boring, but then I suppose that’s the point. There’s nothing much to do until they get the call. Finally, they get the word that a helicopter will be coming to get them. They pile their gear in—simple rucksacks filled with axes and shovels, hand-operated water pumps, bottles of kerosene for setting backfires—and board the plane. All looks well from the air until a gray-white smoke becomes visible along the treetops. We watch the firefighters dig a trench for the backfire, chop and push down burning trees, and wet remnants of the blaze they successfully pushed back. A drenching rain comes down to finish the job.


The fascinating water segment takes us to Alaska, where a fleet of crabbers set off for a long, wet tour of setting traps, waiting, then pulling them up and unloading their catch into a holding tank in the bowels of the ship. Once again, one of the main activities of these men seems to be smoking. The rolling waters look inviting, but their icy temperature can kill a man in 5 minutes. Nonetheless, as the men don their dayglo orange slickers and go about staging the large traps, they seem fairly matter-of-fact. One fisherman has to climb on the edge of the deck to free a trap that has slid the wrong way; I was frightened to the core at this risk he was taking.

Then they wait. The swaying of the ship is familiar to the men. An object that looks like a cleat has swayed back and forth so much, it has worn a dent in the wooden paneling of the room where it hangs. Drawers open and close slightly. Lanterns sway. The entire effect is very hypnotic.

Then, it’s time to reap the fruits of their earlier labor. The men pull up the traps laden with king crabs, measuring and tossing the smaller ones and grabbing the spiny legs of the larger ones and tossing them down a chute. In the end, they learn they have made a great catch, and all the men cheer. This is lucrative seasonal work, but I felt after seeing the dangers involved in feeding the world’s gourmands that I might never eat crab again.

The third segment opens poetically, showing trees falling and explaining how layer upon layer of plant life has been built up over the eons, turning itself into fuel that men will later unearth. We are taken to a coal mine in Germany, where the men board a transport and elevator to get to their destination—a world of midnight, dust, and dynamite. The miners seem to have fun as they ride the automated chutes, currently devoid of coal, to their work site. We watch as they fuse sticks of dynamite, use their pick axes to work loose some lodestones. A sprinkling of white dust falls, and the men wipe their dust-encrusted eyes. No one wears a mask.

Finally, the work day is over. The men assemble in a warehouse-sized locker room. They remove their work clothes, affix them to lines on pulleys, and pull them up to the ceiling for storage. Then the group shower takes place, pairs of miners scrubbing the stubborn coal off each other’s back. When the men emerge, the day is ending. They are greeted by a glorious sunset, but we are reminded by this breathtaking sight that the men rarely see the light of day.


The last segment, filmed in Russia, is perhaps the most grueling. Conquest of the air can only mean outer space in a documentary of such extremes. We experience the first extreme by seeing the first few minutes of the sequence completely upside down. Then we realize that the female technician—the only woman in the film—is running tests. Finally, the cosmonaut, strapped to a table and wired with electrodes, is turned right-side-up. More tests await the cosmonauts, including one in which the man is spun in a chamber with a striped wall. An extreme close-up of the man shows his eyes moving to follow the stripes. The flight team simulates an underwater recovery of the cosmonauts after their capsule returns to earth. High-speed lift-offs are simulated, with one of the test crew telling the men to let him know if their ears start to pop—he’ll pause briefly in a small concession to comfort. Finally, the day of the launch arrives. Everything happens very slowly, from moving the propulsion engines into place to transporting the cosmonauts to the top of the rocket for lift-off. When the engines ignite in what has become a fairly familiar sight, the sense of both the grandeur of what is being accomplished and relief that the exhaustive preparations are over is overwhelming.

This film is nearly wordless, but it is far from soundless. The ambient noises of drilling equipment, crashing oceans, licking flames, and a metallic clang—and a musical score by Horst Rickels that closely resembles that singing voices in the psychedelic sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey—put my nerves on edge as often as they led me to a sense of peace. This film is both mesmerizing and tedious, a true reflection of the work these men do. How the cinematographers (there were four units) managed to get some of the shots they did would be the first question I would have asked the director had the festival brought him in. This is a miraculously beautiful film that shows just how far humanity’s striving has gone, and yet, how primal our struggles with nature still remain. l

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    5th/09/2011 to 2:09 pm

    The BBC “Human Planet” showed a lot of occupations that seem odd to us, some of which seem deadly, like climbing the cliffs of Galicia to collect shellfish while waves are crashing, but the worst to me was climbing into the crater of a volcano to collect sulfur. Some of the same hazards of coal mining (though it’s on the surface), with the added features of possibly having a cloud of sulfur dioxide blowing in your face, or, if you trip in some places, the brief thrill of meeting lava first hand. It seems unneccary, too, because there are places where you can pump sulfur out of the ground by first melting it with steam.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    5th/09/2011 to 2:20 pm

    My father was an underground miner for some years, I’m so glad he made it out of that profession. I keep his helmet in my garage as a reminder of the risks he took for me and my family when I was a little boy.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/09/2011 to 3:37 pm

    It’s such a kick that this ancient post of mine actually got a little life pumped back into it, and reading it anew and both your comments reminds me of the experience of seeing it. I didn’t know it at the time, but the film would win the best cinematography award from CIFF, and well deserved.

    My ex-husband actually knew a commercial fisherman who crabbed off the coast of Alaska. He fell in the water at night, and only very quick reflexes of the skipper and rescue crew saved his life.

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