Cathedrals of Culture (3 stars)

Cathedrals of Culture

A '3D film project about the soul of buildings' featuring moments of inspiration and surprising poignancy

This documentary portmanteau film comes laden with a pretentious subtitle (‘a 3D film project about the soul of buildings’) and a 165-minute running time, but for audiences willing to dive in regardless, it’s an interesting and unique film experience, with moments of inspiration and surprising poignancy.

Each of the six short films in this project was made by a different director and takes a different iconic building as its subject, with the shared aim of allowing the buildings themselves to be the main characters. The first film, about the Berlin Philharmonic and directed by Wim Wenders, does this by employing a disembodied first-person ‘voice of the building’ narrator. It’s initially grating, patronising even, but as the film develops into a consideration of the striking boat-like structure’s place in German history it becomes more credible. Michael Glawogger’s film on the National Library of Russia takes a simpler, arguably more effective tack, as a floating camera travels through seemingly endless corridors and shelves and staff go about their work, while a persistent voiceover reads excerpts from a smattering of the libraries’ volumes. Here the thought that is pursued is the idea of a building’s ability to witness centuries of passing humanity, and the library in particular as a place where eternity is in some way pinned down.

In the third film, about Halden Prison in Norway, directed by Michael Madsen (not the well-known actor), the project finds real substance. A ‘voice of the building’ narrator is employed again, but here it works to bring out the contradictions inherent in this high security prison, a brightly-lit, apparently tranquil place designed for the clinical containment of chaotic individuals. 'The complexity of human nature is very obvious here', says the voiceover, and this is certainly the most complex and demanding of the films.

After this, Robert Redford’s piece on the Salk Institute in California feeds in some useful context about architectural theory, but becomes a little repetitive despite the inspiring nature of the building and its purpose. The last two films, on Oslo Opera House and Centre Pompidou in Paris feel inessential by comparison to the first four.

3D is employed throughout, but it is actually the painstakingly-crafted sound design that arguably has the greater transporting effect.

Screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014.

Cathedrals of Culture - Wim Wenders, Robert Redford - Official Trailer | HD

Cathedrals of Culture

  • 3 stars
  • 2014
  • Germany
  • 2h 45min
  • PG

A collection of six short films from six acclaimed directors, each focusing on a different world-famous building.