Peter Liechti's 'The Sound of Insects - Record of a Mummy', which had its world premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival on Saturday, might well be the longest death scene in film history. Reminiscent of both 'Into the Wild' and Chris Marker's cinematic essays, it is a deeply unsettling meditation on death and, by implication, the dehumanization of modern life.
Based on the novella 'Until I Am a Mummy' ('Miira ni narumade') by Japanese author Shimada Masahiko, which in turn was based on actual events, the film tells the macabre story of a nameless man who starves himself to death in a hut in the woods. Months later, his mummified corpse is found by accident, along with a diary of his incredible 62-day deathbed.
Liechti, who was "both fascinated and irritated immensely" by the text, presents the diary in a voice-over, accompanied by a stream of subjective, associative images. We see through the man's eyes, alone in the wilderness with his thoughts, and we are forced to experience the entire, drawn-out process of his suicide with him.
At first, he passes the time reading Beckett's 'Malone Dies' and listening to Bach's 'Mattheus Passion' on the radio. While he documents his bodily deterioration, we see images of his surroundings - the forest, the sky - and detached, gloomy images from a city - silhouettes on sidewalks, faces behind a tram window.
The man has no history, no context or motive, except his own resolve. He has no ties to this world, and the only he thing he might be remembered for is his extraordinary way of dying. As Liechti interprets this:
Ultimately, the nameless man's manner of dying [...] constitutes the most radical form of renouncement: a total retreat from the hustle and bustle in an achievement-oriented society, the unmitigated refusal to consume, to partake in the haste of this life.
Growing weaker, the man muses on his self-imposed limbo. After 40 days, he notes the fact that he has now fasted longer than Moses, Jesus and the Buddha. But unlike them, as an unbeliever he hasn't had any revelation, nothing to bring back to the world of the living. And besides, he is too weak now to leave his tent.
From here on, his visions become more lyrical: images of water start to dominate, reflecting the man's preoccupation with his crossing of the river Styx to the afterworld. The diary becomes more fragmentary and hallucinatory, until the last entry, on day 62, states:
There is light.