Van Diemen’s Land (Jonathan auf der Heide, 2009)

“A grey, horribly-beautiful vision of Hell.” – Simon Foster, SBS.

Drafthouse Films LogoNow called Tasmania, Van Diemen’s Land was originally a feared and dreaded penal settlement, a final stop at the edge of the world for those convicts unwanted by the British Empire. In 1822, eight convicts escaped the brutal Macquarie Harbour penal station and were forced into the brutal Tasmanian wilderness when their plan went awry. With little food and equipment, these Irish, English, and Scottish fugitives battled harsh conditions and aching hunger in a merciless and unforgiving land – a land where God wields an axe. Director Jonathan auf der Heide and actor Oscar Redding create a grimly poetic retelling of Alexander Pearce’s infamous escape from Macquarie Harbour and the unthinkable acts he committed during his 113 days at large.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary with director and co-writer Jonathan auf der Heide, co-writer and lead actor Oscar Redding, and cinematographer Ellery Ryan
  • A Journey Up River: Making Van Diemen’s Land
  • Three additional featurettes: The Battle of the Beards, Subtleties of the Slate, and From Bailbo to Van Diemen’s Land
  • Hell’s Gates, Jonathan auf der Heide’s 2008 short film
  • Two Devils, Jonathan auf der Heide and Gregory Erdstein’s 2014 short film
  • Theatrical teaser and trailer
  • Original storyboards
  • A 24 page booklet featuring production photos and a new essay by film scholar Roderick Heath

Deluxe Edition – Package Includes:

  • Van Diemen’s Land on Blu-ray or Standard DVD featuring over 2½ hours of bonus material
  • DRM-free Digital Download of the film on 1080p, 720p and mobile/tablet formats
  • 27″ x 40″ Movie Poster


Jointly written by director Jonathan auf der Heide and actor Oscar Redding and elaborating upon their 2008 short film Hell’s Gates, Van Diemen’s Land (2009) presents the 1822 escape of 8 convicts from the brutal Macquarie Harbour penal station in colonial Tasmania. The incident is an infamous one in Australian history as an Irish fugitive, Alexander Pearce (played in the film by Oscar Redding), was the only survivor of a 113 day slog through the unforgiving wilderness that left the prisoners resorting to cannibalism to survive.

vdl-plateThe film offers a trimmed account of the escape, showing how the men’s plan to steal a boat was frustrated by the unexpected presence of two armed soldiers and their unintended flight into the wilderness with little in the way of food or supplies. One of the convicts, Robert Greenhill (Arthur Angel), leads the men on a death march east that is represented in the movie as being of indeterminate length and obvious hardship. A subgroup decides that one man must be sacrificed for the others to survive and it is the charismatic Alexander Dalton (Mark Leonard Winter) who dies an ugly death under the blows of an axe. The shock is enough to cause two of the group, William Kennerly (Greg Stone) and “Little” Brown (John Francis Howard), to flee the other five outright, not to be seen again. Two more men, John Mather (Torquil Neilson) and Thomas Bodenham (Thomas Wright), are sacrificed to the bloody bag that carries their meat for the survivors, leaving the taciturn Pearce as the presumable next victim of Greenhill and his partner Matthew Travers (Paul Ashcroft), but when Travers is bitten by a snake and can’t be dragged along any farther, Pearce takes his opportunity to ensure his survival above all others.

vdl-bleedVan Diemen’s Land draws easy comparisons to Werner Herzog, as a film about men attempting to coexist with/overcome the natural world through grueling effort and to their own folly, and to Andrei Tarkovsky, for the film’s methodical pace and sulking existential concerns, but auf der Heide’s strongest kinship is to Terrence Malick, an acknowledged influence. The film is loaded with Malickian hallmarks – a contemplative narration, extended views of the natural world, a poetically open form that portrays a brutal story with a terrible beauty, an evocative context that frames its actions without justifying them. Perhaps the greatest debt to Malick is found in the similar treatment of genre. As various writers describe, Malick’s early films (Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005)) take established genres (the road movie/the juvenile delinquent film, the social realist picture, the war film, the historical drama) and removes key semantic content to subvert archetypical expectations and interrogate more personal concerns. Van Diemen’s Land operates in a similar fashion, taking what is essentially a cannibal horror movie and removing from it a large amount of its terrible spectacle. And by severely limiting its scenes of violence and gore as well as transitions and expositions (something Michael Atkinson coincidentally calls in his discussion of The Thin Red Line the “connective tissue” of genre), auf der Heide creates something notably different, even uncanny.

vdl-axeIn many important ways, however, Van Diemen’s Land exists in opposition to the cinema of Terrence Malick, portraying an inversion of the esteemed director’s philosophical yearning. Jonathan auf der Heide presents a spiritual journey in its worst sense; something better called a dispiriting journey. The natural world, which in a Malick film represents some view toward grace or alludes to something transcendental or immortal, exists in resistance to the characters of Van Diemen’s Land. There is no “beautiful indifference” to humanity that locates it within a vast and infinite continuum, but rather a fearsome impermeability that is foreign and primordial. The Tasmanian wilderness is a desolate space in auf der Heide’s film. Its forest stands like an imposing edifice against which the convicts are impossibly small. It is grey and nearly lifeless; these woods offer no sound of fauna until late in the film and even then the call heard sounds unnatural and unsettling. Instead of offering connection to Malick’s “Oversoul,” this land reflect back on the fugitives their own failings like a dark mirror, portraying a harsh physicality that strays into nearly unreal spaces of psychic distortion. (auf der Heide notes that the forest of Manna Gums, where Pearce hallucinates finding a bloody axe embedded in a tree, is obviously footage shot in Victoria, not Tasmania, but desired the confusion to reflect a kind of dream sequence told at the level of the landscape.) The world of Van Diemen’s Land has no utility to the prisoners, being impassive to their hardship and suffering, and ultimately empties them while they traverse it. With nothing beyond themselves to connect with, auf der Heide’s prisoners cannot commune with each other and collapse under their personal survival instincts and darker compulsions.

vdl-forestFor the director, Van Diemen’s Land provides a forum for postcolonialist interrogation by looking back on an unsettling corner of Australian history and focusing upon an early exchange with the landscape ahead of an established national identity. auf der Heide finds in this wilderness a “Gothic darkness … that stems from the alienation and fear experienced by settlers and convicts in the early days of European settlement.” There is a geographic and temporal imbalance between these newcomers, accustomed to rolling green fields and arable lands waiting to be uncovered, and this land, nearly prehistoric in its design and accommodation. There are no indigenous people living in some “pure state” to leverage any survival tactics. It is a colonial dream, empty and ready to be claimed, and a nightmare, dead and unconquerable.

Culture and language offer further alienation, as their English, Scottish, and Irish backgrounds divide the prisoners and set them apart from contemporary Australian society. Pearce’s narration, which in a Malick film would offer some subconscious impression and spiritual purity within the character, is spoken in Gaelic, another step in the audience’s distanciation that further elaborates on something dark and ancient hidden in plain view by the film. As noted by auf der Heide, it serves as a reminder “that English wasn’t the first language spoken by many of our ancestors who arrived here.” Van Diemen’s Land searches for Australia’s heart of darkness and finds itself trespassing in a land that has no use for it. There is no transcendent elemental context, no sensed-at community-in-waiting, no greater cause or plan. It is anti-sublime – lonely, brutal, unforgiving.

van-diemens-land-posterVan Diemen’s Land still has no North American release, which is a shame given the brooding beauty and bracing distress that auf der Heide conjures. Drafthouse Films promotes movies that blur the line “between grindhouse and art-house” and few films seem to embody this nexus as perfectly as Van Diemen’s Land. This high art cannibal film not only deserves to be seen, but needs a forum that will allow its poetic open form to be attended to, given its deserved credence, and not be choked out by the movie’s more visceral elements. Drafthouse Films exists for movies like Van Diemen’s Land and would seem a welcome fellow traveler willing to carry that bloody bag.

Credits: This proposal ports over the special features included on the Australian DVD released by Madman Entertainment and adds auf der Heide’s more recent 2014 short film, Two Devils. Roderick Heath was selected to provide an essay based on his thoughtful review of the film at Ferdy on Films.

First and foremost, this post was inspired by Cole Roulain’s choice of Van Diemen’s Land for episode 28 of The Magic Lantern podcast, reminding me of my intention to write about the film here. Roulain and his wife Ericca Long alternate movie selections and provide informed appreciations of the films they select. Their easy rapport and insightful takes make for consistently enjoyable shows, so go check them out. This post also owes debts to Jonathan auf der Heide’s article for Senses of Cinema, Guinevere Narraway’s highly informative “Eating and Othering in Jonathan auf der Heide’s Van Diemen’s Land for Senses of CinemaSimon Foster’s review of the film for SBS, and various essays on Terrence Malick including Michael Atkinson’s “The Shadow Army” and Bilge Ebiri’s “English Speakers” for Moving Image Source, John Bleasdale’s “Please Make More Films: On The Cinema of Terrence Malick,” Simon Critchley’s “Calm — On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” Adrian Danks’s “Death Comes as an End: Temporality, Domesticity and Photography in Terrence Malick’s Badlands for Senses of Cinema, and Adrian Martin’s “Things to Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick” for Rouge.

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