How difficult can it be to categorize a film. The answer is: quite.
Umfeld as a project lives somewhere between the realm of film and music video. Its abstract, musical roots put it in the same league as Autechre's Gantz Graf video. Its length and structure are reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi. Umfeld is a project that draws heavily on its score, but is visualized in such a way that it plays like a movie. And above all, it's just insanely awesome.
When reviewing a film, you can go on about storylines and actors and interpretations etc. When reviewing Umfeld that is a tad more difficult. The film has nothing beyond a soundtrack and abstract visuals. That is literally it. From time to time you can make out some actual objects (like shots of buildings and factories), but they're morphed, altered and transposed so heavily that there's hardly anything left of their tangible qualities.
The film thrives on the synergy between the music and the visuals, and that's where it truly excels. A music video like Gantz Graf makes the music accessible by toning down the visual intensity and showing an abstract figure reacting to the music. Umfeld is way more complex than that, as almost all frames consist of visuals layered on top of each other, morphing and twisting and bulging away. By doing this, the visuals give little aid in placing the music, but at the same time it makes it more of a film, more of a wholesome experience.
Umfeld really is a project where the music feeds on the visuals, and the visuals are enhanced by the music. It a perfect merge between two media that complement each other wonderfully.
That is not to say Umfeld is perfect. When looking at both aspects separately, improvements could surely be made. While the music is strong and emotive, there are better artists out there to handle the glitchy, distorted ambient sounds that drive the visuals. The music is constructed by Speedy J/Jochem Paap, a techno natural, who lacks the finesse of an artist like Richard Devine when creating obscure, dark and glitchy soundscapes. Though Paap himself admits that the project could do with some extra subtlety, I'm not sure he's the man for the job.
In the same way, the visuals feel a tad too random at times. The coherence is not always optimal, which is a shame when doing a project like this. I think it would've been nicer if the film had featured a naturally evolving one hour song with matching visuals. As it is now, the moments where the film switches between segments stick out like a sore thumb and do take you out of the film, if only for a short while.
That said, you won't find anything that comes close to what Umfeld has to offer, which makes it a great milestone project. There's simply nothing out there that matches the experience of submerging yourself in 56 minutes of moody, ambient glitches tailored to wildly morphing abstract visuals. For some people that will be a comforting thought, for me it's a big disappointment. I really hope this catches on, so we might see more and better. Until that time, this will remain one of my favorite films.