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The beginning was not the word. Nor the light. The ur-narrative of human genesis within a capitalist order began with money. It began at the moment when the hunters and gatherers who used to barter received a new currency. One that can’t be eaten, won’t keep out the cold or protect the clan from outsiders. It helps neither with building huts, nor stripping a carcass, it adds no spice, doesn’t heal and would be useless in other planetary systems without context. Yet because it doesn’t disintegrate so easily, because it’s indifferent to both climactic conditions and delay, because it moves so smoothly from hand to hand, because its equivalency to real life objects is merely an assertion, because the narrative of its value dovetail perfectly with the narratives of power, it has gained acceptance. With nothing other than symbolism. And with its unique phenomenology, it continues to write our history, our dreams of individual fortune and the promises of the world of commodities.

The beginning of Olanda is darkness. A starry sky. A voiceover that leads us into everything with the rasping sound of a wisdom that will remain without body and continue to accompany us throughout, through this meta-story of longing and drudgery, deprivation and persistence, of a ceaseless search and a nevertheless equal parts apodictic and human. We see a grotto under the earth, which will be revealed as where the body of the mushroom passes into the network of hyphae with which it creates its own supply paths. Then the camp of a troop of mushroom collectors, one of them under the canopy looking for instant coffee with a torch. A family that assembles beneath the moon and around the camping stove,  far too weary to speak and far too experienced to have qualms about the work of the coming day. An “Our Father” is supposed to help fill the plastic buckets with blueberries and boletus. The car moves before the backdrop of the Carpathians like a glow worm and a song plays on the radio, a song of happiness and money, of depraved employers and of the difficulty of being the father of daughters. The sky turns white and the line of clouds rises from the foot of the mountains. We follow the mushroom hunters deep into the pine forests of the Obarsia Lotrului region, begin to look out for ceps and chanterelles with them, hear the stems being pushed aside, jump as a branch suddenly cracks underfoot. At such moments, Olanda is entirely in the here and now, not least due its expansive sound design, within the rhythm and image of a conditio humana, a film itself in search of treasure. And it doesn’t matter which of these Romanian seasonal workers the film subsequently follows, it’s not about the individual here, but rather how this existential situation functions as a system; those whose backs are killing them, whose baskets chafe at their shoulders, whose children work alongside them are interchangeable. With them, our gaze passes by the sound rituals being pounded out by the orthodox priest in the valley, accompanied by herd of sheep who function like their chorus, the impulse of the crowd, if you will, who here don’t always trust the shepherd and his dog. We meet them again at the collection points, where they receive on average a hundred lei (around twenty euros) for five kilos of mushrooms and thirteen lei per kilo of blueberries, where mushrooms and blueberries are turned into basic food supplies, cigarettes and petrol. They range through the woods until the late afternoon, following tips and their instincts. If no one has already got there before them, maybe it will be enough for what’s missing. Until one of the middlemen tells them he can’t pay them a stable price because it isn’t him that determines the prices – as the mantra of late capitalism, whether global or national, would have it – but the consumer at the end of the food chain. During the breaks, they smoke, drink coffee that won’t dissolve in cold water, charge their telephones using car batteries. And sometimes they proudly show the camera the pictures on their phones of the most magnificent mushrooms they’ve ever found, still fixed to the moist forest floor.

“Soon they will sleep below in the valley and dream of them. Then they will grow. They are neither animal nor plant, more secret than science. A genus of a third kind, they establish their own kingdom. Enter into alliances with trees, pass on messages. They are at once drug, poison, medicine and nutrition” is how the female voiceover sums up the mushroom mythology of her home. In 1958, Romania dedicated a stamp to the porcini mushroom for the first time. More than a thousand tonnes of them are apparently consumed annually in Germany alone, depending on cooking trends and levels of heavy metal contamination. After Hiroshima, the Matsutake mushroom was the only thing that still grew, one of the most expensive edible mushrooms that seeks out contaminated ground in post-industrial landscapes in order to flourish. Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing developed a highly respected allegory about networks of economic relations from this phenomenon in “The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins”. For all its magic, the mushroom, with its underground network of branches, becomes just as ambivalent in Olanda.

And when the title of the film first appears white on black it its final third, it’s almost as if Olanda has itself been looking up from the ground. From the mycelium in the earth to the blue glow of the break of day. From the hidden layers of a capitalist narrative to a mystical view of nature which still retains the sublime for all the analysis of existential lack. This is also what Olanda is about, when the film looks over mountain peaks or lingers in the soft play of light in the forest. When natural beauty covers the ever-heavier steps of the seasonal workers or their prayers at dawn. For in case of doubt, this is more universal and closer to the survival instincts of the treasure hunters than any systems of religion and capital. The way in which Bernd Schoch brings all this into a back and forth of symbols and interpretations, the way he connects the atmospheric and the geopolitical, the subtle and the existential, is smart, strong-willed and cinematically impressive.

At the end of Olanda, the mushroom remains. And grows. A pars pro toto for commercial systems and commodity cycles. A symbol for communities born of hardship, resilience and adaptation. And thanks to Olanda’s complex layers of narration and multi-faceted visual aesthetic, far more than a mere critique of capitalism, an unwavering form of cinematographic magic.

Birgit Glombitza is a film critic and curator based in Hamburg.

Funded by:

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