Invisible Frame: Starring Tilda Swinton

In June 2009, Tilda Swinton and filmmaker Cynthia Beatt returned to Berlin to revisit a short film they collaborated on in 1988, “Cycling the Frame.” In both that film and its update, “The Invisible Frame,” Swinton rides a bicycle around the city and its outskirts. Some of the same locations are visited then and now.

She enjoys both urban and natural settings, while occasionally ruminating on the possible meanings of the Berlin Wall and walls in general. At times, she quotes writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, William Butler Yeats, and Anna Akhmatova.

Not much else happens, but there is a wonderful sense in both films—recently released together on one DVD by Icarus—of exploring a city you do not know, not having a clear plan or idea of what you will find. The bicycle itself is the one in charge.

The difference, of course, is that in the 1988 film, the wall is still standing, one year to go. In the 2009 film, it is long gone, although what Swinton terms the “ghost wall” still makes its presence felt everywhere. In the first film, she imagines the wall falling; in the second, she sees the fallout.

Another difference is that Swinton is no longer a young, virtually unknown actor in the second film—she has become an international icon. She still looks otherworldly, even more so than her younger self. A principle pleasure of these films is seeing Swinton just being her uniquely glamorous self.

“The Invisible Frame,” which was shown at a number of European festivals in 2009 and 2010, begins with Swinton asking herself, with a trace of melancholy, “What have I learned in twenty-one years?”

The film, which is much more of an essay than a documentary, offers no easy answers, although Swinton winds up centering on the importance of openness to her, which includes having an open heart and mind, not just an open city and nation.

The Berlin of today is probably as strange as the Berlin of 1988: it seems in “The Invisible Frame” to have become a Jacques Tati fantasy of what a modern city should be, overly bright and tidy. This new Berlin is altogether too clean, too quiet, too much at peace, as if hiding its own past. Swinton and Beatt raise the question of how long all that tragic history can remain hidden.

Swinton’s journey in both films is solitary, and she totes a copy of “Alone in Berlin” by Hans Fallada in the new film. She barely interacts with any Berliners, who are almost running away from the camera when it comes anywhere near them.

At one point Swinton asks, “Where are the people who manned these watchtowers?” But she makes no effort to seek them out—this is not investigative reporting.

Perhaps these two films are as much about Tilda Swinton and her way of looking at the world as they are about the Berlin Wall. She certainly sees a lot.


An Icarus Films release.

Directed by Cynthia Beatt.

Running times:

“The Invisible Frame,” 60 minutes.

“Cycling the Frame,” 28 minutes.