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“A More Boxier Feel”: Aspect Ratio, Architecture, and Ecology in A Cure for Wellness (2016)

“A More Boxier Feel”: Aspect Ratio, Architecture, and Ecology in A Cure for Wellness (2016)

Joshua Schulze   |   December 2020

In an interview concerning the 2016 horror film A Cure for Wellness, director of photography Bojan Bazelli explains why he chose to shoot in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1:

We made the decision based on location. We were going to shoot at this wonderful place which has tremendous 30-foot ceilings…[i]f we used standard widescreen, it would clip everything down—too much width and not enough height to show the location.[1]

Contrary to the way it is presented in the interview, 1.66:1 is by no means “unique,” nor was it “created” especially for the film. It is, however, used far less commonly used than it was in the 1950s and 1960s when it was initially branded as VistaVision. More likely, Bazelli is here referring to the method with which the ratio was achieved: using added height from the Alexa camera’s open gate software, leaving pillarboxes on the sides of the frame. In other words, the aspect ratio was achieved digitally, if only for the benefit of the film’s theatrical distribution; indeed, for both its home video and streaming release, the film was presented in 1.78:1. Nonetheless, director Gore Verbinski, along with Bazelli and his collaborators, persisted with 1.66:1 during principal photography for a number of reasons.

Figure 1 - The Beelitz-Heilstätten hospital

Perhaps the most significant of these is the place to which Bazelli refers in the interview: the previously abandoned Beelitz-Heilstätten hospital complex, around 12 miles south of Potsdam in Germany (Fig. 1). It served as the primary location for most of the wellness center’s interiors in the film, and the aspect ratio results in a noticeable emphasis on the vertically expansive space of the clinic in comparison to the bodies of the actors. In another interview for the Go Creative Show, Bazelli elaborates on this, and discusses having to work with the operators for up to a week in order for them to “go against their instincts…to let go of that and be free to frame it higher.”[2] He identifies the natural tendency of his camera operators as being to “put the top frame line almost touching some actor’s head,”[3] and explains how he encouraged his team on the set of this film to embrace the different amount of frame space that surrounds the actors when shooting in 1.66:1, resulting in a “more boxier feel.”[4]

These aesthetic strategies, I argue, tell an informative story about the relationships between the horror genre, architecture, and ecology. In particular, the use of an aspect ratio that has historically been associated with height for a film shot in an abandoned sanatorium, and set in a sinister wellness center, configures a complex attitude towards ecological issues. What might the film’s narrative and visual qualities tell us about the notion of empty space, and architectural ‘imminence’? How does this relate to the horror genre at large? It is the intention of this article to think through these issues, drawing on an analysis of the film in conjunction with a discussion of aspect ratio and ecology, empty space in the horror genre, and the history of sanatoria in Germany, of which the Beelitz-Heilstätten was an important contributor. First, I will establish the ways in which different aspect ratios can inform and affect the configuration of the world on screen, before exploring how this is thematized and wrestled with in A Cure for Wellness itself. Finally, I will consider what the individual history of the sanatorium, and the production’s use of and effect on it, contribute to broader discourses of horror and architecture.

Figure 2 – Casablanca, 1.37:1.

Empty Space: Aspect Ratio and Ecology

In a particular strand of film theory, there is a tendency to code classical Hollywood’s stylistic norms as striving for a kind of visual cleanliness. One thinks of a close-up of Ingrid Bergman in the tear-jerking final moments of Casablanca (1942), shot in the Academy Ratio of 1.37:1, allowing her facial features to fill the frame with a compositional elegance, leaving just enough room for the shadowy tilt of her hat and Humphrey Bogart’s affectionate hand to enter the image (Fig. 2). In these moments, there is little to distract us from the human story playing out, and we are focused almost myopically on the emotional toll it is taking on its central characters. Even in a story so dependent on the specificity of its geographical and spatial circumstances, it is remarkably easy to forget where Ingrid Bergman is standing when she is shot in such a way. As Mary Ann Doane describes, the close-up results in “the annihilation of a sense of depth and its corresponding rules of perspectival realism. The image becomes, once more, an image rather than a threshold onto a world. Or rather, the world is reduced to this face, this object.”[5]

This kind of thinking, it should be said, is largely predicated on the notion of suture – that classical Hollywood cinema serves an ideological purpose, and thus conceals objects, events, and spaces from the frame in order to protect ‘the subject’ from exposure to them.[6] In that way, we might consider such images as striving for a sense of ideological, as well as visual, cleanliness. Formalist theories of narrative have also stressed the efficiency of films from the classical period in their narrativization of, and accounting for, different kinds of space. For example, David Bordwell has used terms such as “scenographic space”[7] and the notion of hypothesis to describe the perceptual factors whereby the viewer is primed to anticipate that certain spaces will become narratively significant.[8] It is easy to see how the films of classical Hollywood lend themselves to these interpretations in their largely unobtrusive filmmaking styles that tend to foreground the performance of the actors and the clear presentation of the narrative event. Following Bordwell, then, it would seem that no form of natural landscape, human-built structures, or excess space should be allowed in the frame unless it is narratively significant – which is to say, in anthropocentric terms, defined in relation to the human characters. However, many of these ideas, in their implicit insistence on the frame’s square shape, were complicated by the advent of widescreen technologies, and different aspect ratios, in the 1950s.

André Bazin, for example, wrote at length about the industrial and aesthetic implications of these new technologies, ranging from Cinerama, to CinemaScope, to VistaVision, and to 3D. Bazin’s views on how they affected film spectatorship and rendered the environment on screen were somewhat conflicting; in one article, he asserts, “CinemaScope seems interesting not so much for landscapes as for the ways it renews the value of the close-up,”[9] and in another, in response to the common objection that it was incompatible with the close-up, he concludes, “if CinemaScope offers the ideal frame for landscapes, for establishing shots, and for scenes involving vast horizontal movement (as when the cavalry rides out), the director who prefers psychological analysis over spectacular effects would always be disadvantaged.”[10] Continuing his confrontation of the paradox of the widescreen close-up’s plasticity and its psychological dimension, Bazin writes:

The ‘useless’ space that surrounds faces is thus not as useless as all that; on the contrary, it highlights those faces, not in relation to the frame but by restoring to them a natural relation with space. Cézanne said that it was never a matter of painting perspective, but rather the air around objects. There is something of this in what CinemaScope gives us: the air around faces.[11]

In this case, Bazin ascribes an almost spectral quality to the cushioning space between human bodies in the frame, which somehow manages to bring us closer to the world onscreen. Charles Barr, to a large extent, shares Bazin’s view: he praises CinemaScope’s capacity to act as a bridge between the audience and the onscreen surroundings that help shape the characters and their world. He highlights the ways in which widescreen “increases the involvement of the spectator and the physical integration of the characters.”[12]

From one perspective, then, it might be useful to think of widescreen as carrying with it the inherent possibility for us to rethink our relationship to the environment when we witness bodies in this “more natural relation with space,”[13] referring in part to the similarity between the panoramas of widescreen and human vision. However, a key passage in Barr’s article exemplifies the paradox that underlies my primary concern here. CinemaScope, for Barr,

makes the surroundings more palpable, and enables you to get close to one or both of the characters without shutting out the rest of the scene. The more precisely the camera charts the substance of things, the external environment of words, expressions, gestures, the more subtly can it express the internal movement: the essence of things.[14]

Barr sustains an emphasis on psychological expression and interiority, implying that the physical reality of the environment, to paraphrase Siegfried Kracauer, cannot be sufficiently redeemed.[15] If this is to be true, can the larger amount of ‘natural’ space captured on screen in widescreen aspect ratios have any positive ecological function, when it is still presented in an anthropocentric context, and defined in relation to the human characters?

One potential solution to the problem is to turn shift the emphasis from horizontality to verticality. Width, at least in some cases, more readily lends itself to a kind of anthropocentric stare, in its facilitation of the human eye’s ability to survey surroundings – thereby fostering a greater desire for mastery. In a CinemaScope western, for example, the expansive space of Monument Valley can be conquered triumphantly by galloping across it on a horse. By contrast, humans, when dwarfed by something tall, have a harder time optically comprehending (and thus ‘mastering’) it. Although pre-dating the advent of widescreen, and instead responding to the coming of sound in 1930, Sergei Eisenstein bemoaned the horizontal disposition of the standardised 4:3 ratio in a lecture entitled “The Dynamic Square,” in which he passionately argues for a restoration of verticality in film composition, and for the axes of the frame to be deployed dialectically, in perfect balance.[16] Eisenstein points out that the 4:3 ratio had roots in theatre and the visual arts, which has prohibited the cinema from adequately representing the natural world.[17]

In spite of this, there are several instances to which we can turn that seem to sustain a corrective emphasis on height, which in some ways provide the groundwork for A Cure for Wellness’ engagement with the same dynamic, in allowing the natural environment to render the human characters noticeably smaller. Gilberto Perez, in an essay on landscape in the films of Jean Renoir, is particularly optimistic about the agency of nature in relation to cinema when such an emphasis is achieved. He writes,

a natural landscape may seem submissive to a filmmaker’s constructs, a setting he can manage without much problem. Yet landscape has its own demands and its own ways of resisting an attempt to press it into unwarranted service. Although generous with appearances in the role of scenery, tolerant of prettification and sentimentalization – doubtless out of indifference to such petty concerns – landscape will seldom countenance an importunate display of its features in support of an undeserving story or scheme. An agreeable background performer, when brought forward it will assert, and require that the filmmaker do justice to, its intrinsic character, its compound of geological properties and associations with humanity.[18]

Perez here certainly encapsulates the often paradoxical and congested meanings that nature, as a term, has come to possess – Kate Soper, for instance, describes nature as “both machine and organism, passive matter and vitalist agency.”[19] If it is possible for nature’s presence in the frame to mark both its assertion into our consciousness as well as subject to our exploitation, perhaps the best way this is to be achieved is through composing images in the manner presupposed by Eisenstein. For example, one of the films Perez looks at is Partie de Campagne (1936), which was shot in Academy Ratio. In many instances, the human characters are pictured as miniscule in comparison to the rural surroundings, and this is predominantly due to the way we perceive them vertically (Fig. 3).

Figure 3 – Partie de campagne, 1.33:1.

In addition, a number of non-American films working within Academy Ratio (and similar ‘square’ formats), but outside the stylistic norms of classical Hollywood achieve similar representations of nature that generate a different kind of ecological affect. Ingmar Bergman often loved to frame characters in a way that allowed the skies to fill the frame (Fig. 4) while in Fruit of Paradise (1970) the square box-shaped frame frequently envelops the characters in scenic surroundings that emphasise their height more than width (Fig. 5). These films emerge from wildly different historical, industrial, cultural, and stylistic contexts, and yet adjust their compositions to highlight the vertical superiority of natural surroundings. In that respect, the conflicting response to widescreen technologies present in Bazin’s writing encapsulates an important principle: that no aspect ratio inherently dictates how the surroundings are represented and configured, but that it depends, instead, on how the filmmakers compose their images, and on what basis (and for what reasons) they choose to shoot in specific ratios.[20]

Figure 4 – The Virgin Spring, 1.33:1
Figure 5 – Fruit of Paradise, 1.37:1.

Nature in a Box: A Cure for Wellness, and 1.66:1

This brings us back to Bozelli’s comments with which this article began. The digital reconstruction of an aspect ratio that emerged in the 1950s, but has been used sparingly since, demands consideration of its particular qualities and features. In the 1950s, the coming of Cinerama and CinemaScope led Paramount to develop VistaVision and the 1.66:1 ratio, which was initially marketed as a taller and “more comfortable viewing experience.”[21] Supposedly, it allowed filmmakers to compose images with a greater deal of control and resulted in fewer distractions for the audience than did the comparatively extreme width of CinemaScope. Bazin, for instance, although describing the 1.85:1 version of VistaVision, considered it “spectacular enough to satisfy the eye, yet still rational enough to satisfy the mind.”[22] Used in other contexts, however, the balance between height and width allowed by these less extreme formats has the potential to configure a unique relationship between the humans and their environment onscreen– be it natural or built.

This is primarily a question of scale; through combining the height and width so as to more holistically dwarf human characters in comparison to the environment, films can reinforce the sheer size of the surroundings over the characters, rather than the other way round. To take a handful of examples: Bergman used it in Cries and Whispers (1972) to make his characters small in natural spaces and thus ultimately subservient to the progression of death (Fig. 6), while Apichatpong Weerasethakul used it to contrast the banal urban everyday of the central characters with the sublime emptiness of open skies (Fig. 7) in Blissfully Yours (2002). In these instances, the added scale is used in a way that can be said to provoke awe and wonder, rather than encourage exploitation.

Figure 6 - Cries and Whispers, 1.66:1
Figure 7 – Blissfully Yours, 1.66:1

However, where in those examples the vastness of the surroundings invokes a more timeless and classical sense of the sublime, the use of scale with 1.66:1 in a horror film, such as A Cure for Wellness, generates a different kind of ecological affect. Indeed, rendering the human characters miniscule and helpless in a context that poses impending threat might well change how the audience is encouraged to view and engage with the surrounding environment – at the very least, it might facilitate less joyous feelings to awe and wonder. As I will now demonstrate, because A Cure for Wellness actively thematizes how scale can be used to differentiate between the environment as ‘natural’ or ‘human-made,’ it is worth putting its textual qualities into discussion with these broader questions of aspect ratio and ecology.

The film follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a young executive working in New York City, who is given an errand by his superiors to find and bring back the firm’s missing CEO after he fled to a mysterious wellness center in the Swiss Alps. Upon his arrival, Lockhart meets and speaks with the center’s director, Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who proves resistant to point him in the direction of the missing CEO. When Lockhart tries to leave out of frustration, he suffers a car accident and wakes up in the center’s ward with his leg in a cast. Left with no option but to stay and explore the center and its history, Lockhart, befriending a young girl, Hannah (Mia Goth), begins to peel back the institution’s layers, revealing its increasingly sinister inner-workings. Most of these revolve around the center’s water supply, said to possess life-restoring powers – only that in order to such powers to be harnessed, the water must be filtered through the human bodies of un-consenting patients in the center. As soon as Lockhart makes this discovery, he gets caught, and suffers a series of tortures at the hand of Volmer. Finally, we learn that Volmer and Hannah are actually the deranged Baron and his daughter who owned the castle (on whose ruins the center was built) who seemingly died 200 years ago, but were preserved by the water’s powers. In a disturbing denouement, Volmer marries Hannah and sexually assaults her, before Lockhart manages to set the center alight and escape with Hannah from its flame.

In addition to its overtly melodramatic, Gothic plot, on a thematic level the film is particularly pre-occupied with the differences between naturally occurring spaces and man-made structures, and takes pains to establish the fallibility of such a separation. One of the ways this is achieved is through the repeated use of reflections, which are photographed in a way that actively blurs the distinction between the ‘real’ image and its mirrored double. For instance, the shot from the side of the train early on in the film demarcates Lockhart’s diegetic transition from metropolis to the Swiss Alps (Fig. 8). The pristine clarity of the reflection renders the reproduced image on the train as more of an ‘other half’ than a distortion, and the added verticality of 1.66:1, in its balance with the width, allows the top and bottom of the train on the left side of the frame to spill over its borders – meaning that, if not for the split of the frame by the side of the train, the audience could quite easily mistake the reflection for a photographed image of the landscape.

Figure 8 - A Cure for Wellness, 1.66:1. Note: The home video release, from which these stills were taken, unfortunately presents the film in 1.78:1. Only during its theatrical release were audiences able to see the film in 1.66:1 as intended.

Ecologically, the implication here is that the natural environment is both intruded by machines, and easily reproduced by them – echoing Jennifer Fay’s characterization of cinema as “a technology of the Anthropocene.”[23] Here, the filmmaking apparatus is used reflexively to help us ponder our, and cinema’s, current relationship to the environment. By explaining that images of nature can be so seamlessly reproduced, the film reminds us that this kind of logic has often given way to graver forms of exploitation and destruction. In conjunction with the wellness center’s excessively pristine greenery and the eerily ‘relaxing,’ well-maintained surrounding landscape, the image of the train in particular touches on the age-old relationship between nature and technology, and between garden and machine, to paraphrase Leo Marx.[24]

From a narrative perspective, the train journey marks a shift from New York’s corporate skyline to the locality of the wellness clinic, which is advertised as something akin to a rural retreat, and the eponymous cure to the modern world under late capitalism. As we gradually discover, however, under the authority of Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the institution is less a clinic and “more of a cult, using promises of health and salvation to control and manipulate.”[25] This is largely facilitated by the toxicity of the water from the local aquifer, which, we learn, is used to feed the eels that dwell beneath by using the patients’ bodies as vessels. Like the landscape in the reflected train, water is another natural resource subject to manipulation, which the film establishes through a continuation of reflected imagery. When Lockhart first encounters Hannah, the scene unfolds in an extreme long shot that splits the frame in two: the ‘real’ top and the reflected bottom (Fig. 9). Again, the taller aspect ratio renders the characters miniscule in comparison to the surrounding mountains, generating a greater sense of scale through the reflection. Further, it forces us to look twice at how the bodies are positioned in relation to space, reiterating the capacity of water, in film images, to duplicate – which is to say, reflect, and to generate.

Figure 9 - A Cure for Wellness, 1.66:1.

In its context as a horror film, such images work to make unfamiliar, and somehow disturbing, things that are often culturally understood to be anything but. Sweeping, mountainous landscapes, crystal clean water, sparkling green grass, and rural retreats are commonly considered antidotes to contemporary problems; a recurring criticism of modern societies is that they separate humans from where they belong – in and amongst nature. When, in A Cure for Wellness, we discover that the center and its surroundings are a front for experimental medicine and torture, images of natural beauty and the sublime are made terrifying and oppressive (which is to say, made uncanny), firmly under the control and manipulation by humans.

In a perverted sense, this sentiment echoes a typically Marxist claim made by Raymond Williams that cultural understandings of nature and natural beauty are designed to erase the human labor that goes into their maintenance.[26] Indeed, the film appropriately wears its Gothic credentials on its sleeve by making uncanny and distorted the concealment of this labor when it is expressly designed to conceal such terrifying deeds. Read this way, the film’s 1.66:1 compositions and its representation of the environment demarcate a pessimistic attitude towards contemporary ecological epistemology, arguing that our relationship with nature has become so warped and exploitative, that any images of natural, untouched beauty, should be taken with scepticism, and even, in some cases, outright fear.

Tuberculosis: Sanatoria and the Horror of Architecture

While I have so far limited my discussion of the film to ‘natural’ spaces, this is because an engagement with its ‘unnatural’ spaces necessitates some extra-textual context. In this section, I will argue that the significance and history of the real-world site in which the film was shot both enriches and complicates our understanding of its attitude towards ecological issues. In particular, the relationship between the horror genre and architecture serves as a useful platform from which to engage with this peculiar instance of film production, especially one with a such notable impact, or “footprint,” on the real world. Scholars such as Nadia Bozak[27] and more recently Hunter Vaughan[28] have sought to uncover and understand the environmental impact of film production, encouraging a critical emphasis on the medium’s relation to the material world that produces it. These ideas provide my discussion of A Cure for Wellness with a framework from which to put its textual features into dialogue with its strange production history.

Many scholars have pointed out that the horror genre has a unique relationship to the built environment. More specifically, spaces that are empty have proven particularly useful in the production of ominous atmospheres. Karl Schoonover, for example, considers large-scale emptiness a key resource for horror, writing:

But as much as horror occurs in spaces replete with dark pockets of menacing vacancy—the neglected cellar, the shadows of dense woodlands, the abandoned city street, the corridors created by tall crops—it also occurs in expanses of wide-open space: the endless seriality of that same field of crops, the void of a still lake, the labyrinthine hollowness of the abandoned villa, the desert’s limitless horizons of sameness, etc.[29]

As Schoonover rightfully points out, some of horror’s most lucrative sites are structures erected by humans, and indeed, in Bazelli’s interview, he attributed the reasons for shooting in 1.66:1 to be less about the natural environment and more the built. Charlotte Brunsdon, writing in an urban context, has described certain empty spaces as “immanent” and as “bearing traces of earlier settlement, labour or industry.”[30] When a film takes up these spaces that are not places, she argues, “the film’s narrative can render them place-like, just as property development (like filming) can make them both disappear and re-emerge.”[31]

In the story-world of A Cure for Wellness, the renovation has already taken place, so one might assume that we are encouraged to ignore the architectural history of the sanatorium, and take it as the spooky mental institution that plays into a generic spatial intertextuality. This sense of vague recognition that often characterizes the horror genre’s approach to space is in many respects built on the inherent instability of architectural meaning, as Anthony Vidler reminds us in The Architectural Uncanny:

The very act of impressing meaning on meaningless material, the fact that, however embedded in form, this meaning will remain always external to the material, gives a particular instability to the artistic process. […] Unlike sculpture, painting, and the other arts, architecture’s forms are abstract, generalized, and vague, in comparison to words or visual signs, and suitable thereby only to convey ideas of similar generality and vagueness.[32]

At the same time, this permeability of a structure’s meaning that erodes over time somehow possesses the equally unsettling capacity to retain some of its history, some unwanted afterlife that rears its ugly head. Indeed, learning, as we do in the film, that the inhabitants of the ruins on which the wellness center was built are still its principal dwellers, the generic spatiality of the center as a vaguely Gothic hospital referent is suddenly upended by a disturbing re-inscription of meaning from the distant past. As a consequence, the paratext of the real-life sanatorium becomes firmly foregrounded as a reminder that the spaces we leave behind and strip of their meaning can, at the hands of humans, have those meanings renewed and reinvigorated. As Vidler says, it’s just material, after all.

Of course, in between the reinscription of architectural meaning over time is a sense of emptiness and dormancy. In his essay on vacant spaces, Schoonover asks us to consider the possibility that “horror’s privileging of such locations is trying to tell us something about the world and about the tensions that are overlooked when we leave such sites behind and out of purview.”[33] Here, he suggests that buildings can become surplus to requirements of the humans that created them, and made to become waste at the mercy of time. This is an issue that features in Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing’s Horror in Architecture, in which they argue that the accelerated passage of time consequential of modernity can inflect certain structures with an almost spectral quality:

Horror is ever emergent. It reasserts itself whenever the established language of building is overtaken by the historical rate of change, and by the constant requirement of new typologies. It is a chronic symptom of modernity’s violent and cyclical dynamism, its expansions and convulsions and metamorphoses.[34]

Of fewer buildings could this be truer than the long-since abandoned, but rife with unsavoury history, Beelitz-Heilstätten complex. The complex is most famous for having treated the wounds of Adolf Hitler in World War 1, before being used as a medical center for Nazi soldiers in World War 2. Its grisly associations left it abandoned for decades, becoming decrepit in the process and developing the kind of reputation that generates article titles such as “18 Haunting Photos Of An Abandoned Nazi Hospital.”[35]

The interiors for the wellness clinic in the film were predominantly shot inside the complex, while the exteriors were taken from the Gothic Revivalist Hohenzollern Castle. When quizzed about the technical challenges of walking the tonal line between a spooky insane asylum and somewhere that is posited a luxurious, inviting spa in the countryside, Bazelli explained: “We did do some major renovation…over $2 million.”[36] He tells us that the hospital complex, built in the late 19th century as a treatment centre for tuberculosis, looked anything like a spa, and was practically falling apart. He recalls that the crew themselves implemented the grass and pond that we see in the film (Fig. 10-11), aiming for it to look “on the surface idyllic and clean.”[37] Eve Stewart, the production designer who oversaw the renovation, reveals how the perfect cleanliness we see in the film was achieved:

Figure 10 – A Cure for Wellness, 1.66:1.
Figure 11 – A Cure for Wellness, 1.66:1.

We spent months cleaning because we were so careful to retain the wonderful flaky patina on the rooms…We added colors and sheen to the corridors and polished miles of floor using trompe l’oeil painting where architectural details such as cornices and tiles were missing.[38] (Fig.12-13).

Figure 12 – A corridor inside the Beelitz-Heilstätten Hospital
Figure 13 – A Cure for Wellness, 1.66:1.

At the same time, she highlights the decay and decomposition that has long plagued the sanatorium as providing the film with “a sense of history.”[39] This reveals a peculiar instance in which an act of filmmaking left a severe footprint on the history of a building, reinvigorating it from abandonment to a pristine state. At the same time, it is almost tempting to imagine the villainous actions of Dr. Volmer in the film as representing a kind of satirical continuation of what has preceded, in a curious blurring of a film’s diegesis and a building’s ‘life,’ or as embodying a re-habitation of an empty space that actively tries to remain true to its history.

In an enlightening study, Eva Eylers charts the sanatorium movement (responsible for the construction of the Beelitz-Heilstätten) that swept Germany in the 19th century, in which several complexes were erected in rural areas away from cities, considered the “true breeding grounds for disease.”[40] The initial belief, according to Eylers, was that the countryside possessed natural healing qualities the city could not provide. Further, the logic driving the sanatorium movement positioned the complexes as explicitly ‘other’ to the city, in the hope of counteracting the disease. The preference was for “an almost untouched pastoral landscape…the mountain setting became the site par excellence for the place of health, ultimately the only place considered appropriate for the TB patient.”[41] In A Cure for Wellness, these 19th century notions of medicine are openly repurposed and posed, villainously, as an antidote to the 21st century.

Indeed, Lockhart, “a man ruled by logic and reason, firmly fixed in the modern world,”[42] slowly becomes subject to experimental torture that expresses an obsession with the malleability of the human body: his tooth is drilled for sport, he becomes trapped in a water tank full of eels, and later has an eel forced down his throat and into his body. Given the film’s intriguing handling of the natural landscape as something subject to manipulation and exploitation, Lockhart’s torture serves as a cruel reminder by the film that, despite the capacity of the human species to dominate and conquer our surroundings, in the end, we are just as subject to such mishandling. As Bozelli mentions when discussing his instructions to his crew, a consequence of the 1.66:1 aspect ratio is that more and more of Lockhart’s vulnerable body is on display, and we cant help but notice the stretches of space above his head – to look beyond his body, and down the corridor of the clinic (Fig. 14). By foregrounding the renovated hospital in this way, the film effectively activates the imminence of an empty space in ways that both colour within the lines of the genre, while also marking an unprecedented material impact of a film production on the environment. The textual meanings and the materials required to produce them become, in this instance, eerily inseparable.

Figure 14 – A Cure for Wellness, 1.66:1.


The story of this film’s production is a deeply strange one: a film crew inhabited this structure, this monument to various kinds of sickness, for several months. They painted, they swept, they dusted, and recast the sanatorium from a vacant structure to a site of experimental medicine and cult-like manipulation. Further, they had us, the audience, experience this site from the perspective of a corporate errand boy who spends more time on his laptop in the train journey than he does noticing the surrounding greenery that we see so strikingly reflected in the window. In addition to rendering the characters miniscule in the midst of expansive landscapes, and emphasising their height, and seeming unknowability, before reminding us of their susceptibility to exploitation, A Cure for Wellness uses reflections in its box-like imagery (composed with a balance between height and width) to compliment the rural retreat narrative as a way of asking how best to think about our environment when it has been so frequently reproduced and exploited by artificial means. Further, the squared framing constantly places the characters as dwarfed and enveloped by the structures they inhabit, in a way that activates what might normally be empty space by gesturing towards the specificity of the sites themselves, and allowing their own architectural histories to breath in the frame. The physical reality of the remarkable sanatorium is not only redeemed, but accentuated, and serves as a reminder that our attitudes towards landscape and disease, between rural and urban, and sick and well, are far from new, and have had centuries to foster.

  1. Bojan Bazelli, quoted in Emily Buder, “‘A Cure for Wellness’ DP Bojan Bazelli: Verbinski’s Demented, Wild Ride is an Homage to ‘The Ring,’” No Film School. 16 February 2017. Date accessed: 21 April 2019. https://nofilmschool.com/2017/02/bojan-bazelli-a-cure-for-wellness-cinematographer-gore-verbinski-interview
  2. Ben Consoli, “The Cinematography of A Cure for Wellness (Bojan Bazelli) GCS115,” Go Creative Show. 28 February 2017. Date accessed: 28 April 2019. https://gocreativeshow.com/the-cinematography-of-a-cure-for-wellness-with-bojan-bazelli-gcs115/
  3. Consoli, “The Cinematography of A Cure for Wellness.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Mary Ann Doane, “The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14, no. 3 (2003): 91.
  6. See Daniel Dayan, “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema,” Film Quarterly 28, no. 1 (1974): pp. 22-31; and Jean-Pierre Oudart, (1977) “Cinema and Suture,” Screen 18, no. 4, (1977): 35–47.
  7. David Bordwell, “Camera Movement and Cinematic Space,” Cine-Tracts 1, no. 2 (1977): 19.
  8. David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film. (London: Routledge, [1985] 1993), 119-120.
  9. André Bazin, “New Screen Technologies,” André Bazin’s New Media, ed. and trans. Dudley Andew. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014), 218. Originally published as “Techniques nouvelles,” Arts 518 (1 June 1955).
  10. André Bazin, “The Trial of CinemaScope: It Didn’t Kill the Close-Up,” André Bazin’s New Media, ed. and Trans. Dudley Andrew. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014), 294. Originally published as “Le Procès du CinémaScope: Il n’a pas tué le gros plan,” Radio-Cinéma-Télévision 257 (7 November 1954).
  11. Bazin, “The Trial of CinemaScope,” 296.
  12. Charles Barr, “‘CinemaScope’ Before and After,” Film Quarterly 19, no. 4 (1963): 15.
  13. Bazin, “The Trial of CinemaScope,” 296.
  14. Barr, “‘CinemaScope’ Before and After,” 16.
  15. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960)
  16. Sergei Eisenstein, “The Dynamic Square,” Film Essays and a Lecture, ed. Jay Leyda. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1968] 1982), 49.
  17. Eisenstein, “The Dynamic Square,” 55.
  18. Gilberto Perez, “Landscape and Fiction: Jean Renoir’s Country Excursion,” The Hudson Review 42, no. 2 (1989): 242-243.
  19. Kate Soper, What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human. (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995), 71.
  20. Of course, for many filmmakers across film history, such choices were a distant privilege, and thus out of their control. My argument here does not account for the industrial and historical conditions that led to certain aspect ratios becoming normalized, but rather focuses on how individual filmmakers can represent the environment either in conjunction with or in spite of the ratio itself.
  21. Tom Vincent, “Standing tall and wide: the selling of VistaVision,” Widescreen Worldwide, ed. John Belton, Sheldon Hall, and Steve Neale. (New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing, 2010), 30-31.
  22. André Bazin, “The 3D Revolution Did Not Take Place,” André Bazin’s New Media, ed. and trans. Dudley Andew. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014), 230. Originally published as “La Révolution par la relief n’a pas eu lieu,” Radio-Cinéma-Télévision 324 (1 April 1956).
  23. Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 4.
  24. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964)
  25. Kay Vandette, “Eels as Ideologies: A Cure for Wellness,” Film Criticism 41, no. 3 (2017).
  26. Raymond Williams, “Ideas of Nature,” Problems in Materialism and Culture (London, UK: Verso Books, 1980): 67-85.
  27. Nadia Bozak, The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011)
  28. Hunter Vaughan, Hollywood’s dirtiest secret: the hidden environmental costs of the movies. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019)
  29. Karl Schoonover, “What Do We Do with Vacant Space in Horror Films?” Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 40, no. 3 (2018): 345.
  30. Charlotte Brunsdon, “Towards a History of Empty Spaces,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 4, no. 2 (2007): 228.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 123.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing, Horror in Architecture. (ORO Editions. Novato, 2013), 40.
  35. Lindsay Matthews, “18 Haunting Photos Of An Abandoned Nazi Hospital,” Popular Mechanics. 4 October 2016. Date accessed: 2 May 2019.https://www.popularmechanics.com/adventure/outdoors/a23193/beelitz-heilstatten-abandoned-nazi-hospital/ Date accessed: 2 May 2019
  36. Consoli, “The Cinematography of A Cure for Wellness.”
  37. Ibid.
  38. Eve Stewart, quoted in Melissa Minton, “How A Cure for Wellness Marries Horror and Beauty in Set Design,” Architectural Digest. 14 February 2017. Date accessed: 29 April 2019.https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/a-cure-for-wellness-set-design-filming-locations Date accessed: 29 April 2019
  39. Ibid.
  40. Eva Eylers, “Planning the Nation: the sanatorium movement in Germany,” The Journal of Architecture 19, no. 5 (2014): 667.
  41. Eylers, “Planning the Nation,” 671.
  42. Vandette, “Eels as Ideologies”

Joshua Schulze

Contributing Writer

Joshua Schulze is a doctoral student in the department of Film, Television, and Media at the University of Michigan. His research concerns the materiality and environmental impact of film culture, and his work has appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Horror Studies, and the Journal of Popular Film and Television

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