Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire

Director: Andreas Hykade (Germany)
2000 Grand Prize Winner

Ottawa 00: Ring of Fire
Essay by Ruth Lingford

Ring of Fire is the second film in Hykade’s “Country Trilogy”, comprising We Lived in Grass, Ring of Fire and The Runt, in which he explores what it means for him to be a man in the context of his Catholic upbringing in Altotting, Bavaria.


Hykade subjects male sexuality to merciless scrutiny. In his world, masculinity is a problematic burden, and its integration into a fully functioning selfhood is a moral challenge. Hykade has been accused of misogyny, but in fact he tends to idealize women – Ring of Fire’s water-haired love object is a personification of the female principle as life-giving and of central importance. And the gipsy prostitute is a majestic figure, allowing access to her mysteries only on her own terms.


The women denote strength and power on the one hand and joyful kindness on the other. Meanwhile, the men are abject creatures, slaves to their gonads. The clumsy cowboy is the hopeless husband on TV ads, incapable of living without leadership. The sharp competent cowboy is the Id-man, un-conflicted in the pursuit of his own desires. To him, sex is conquest and penetration is the angry fist. The clumsy one ultimately attains nobility through embracing his female side, while the sharp one is destroyed through his inability to acknowledge the power of the female principle.


If there are any dodgy sexual politics here, it is in Hykade’s idealization of the female.


The more abject images of sex seem to be clearly a projection of male desire. The world the two cowboys live in is a sexual fairground. It is all about the moving parts, friction and lubrication. There is pleasure, but no joy. Through their eyes, we see the world of sexual relations as an excessive carnival of disembodied body parts offered for commerce. This commerce depends on a performance of masculinity, from which the inept cowboy runs, humiliated, only to stray into the heroine’s territory, marked by a vagina of architectural proportions. Here, he is bathed in the generous waters of the female principle. The beautiful heroine is suborned and raped by the competently evil cowboy, while the inept cowboy enters the gipsy’s tent, where he is awe-struck and overwhelmed by the infinite revelation of her sexual mysteries.


Hykade’s ability to balance the drawn line on the point between figuration and abstraction allows us to be involved with the characters’ story, and simultaneously to meditate on what he is telling us on a more universal level. His drawing is permitted by its extreme stylization to show sex graphically and in a perverse and dizzying variety. But the most intense expression of eroticism in his film comes in the form of a metaphor, that of the pouring of water. The end of the film, where the softer cowboy washes the damaged heroine, is at once erotic and moving. Here we see the equal erotic exchange between a man and a woman as healing and life-giving.


For Hykade, sound and music are at the center of emotional life. And for him, Americana has been a powerful formative influence. The film is, in a way, a love poem to the music of Elvis, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, (who is referenced in the title, but who refused to do the voice-over once he had read the script). These singers surely provided him with early ideals of masculinity. The composed music and the bass American voice of the spoken soundtrack evoke the world of the Western, with its portentous privileging of the masculine.


A decade and a half later, Ring of Fire is still an exciting and challenging film, but it marks an early point in Hykade’s still-growing career. This was his first film after college, supported by the Mercedes Benz Award on the strength of his graduation film, the chaotic masterpiece We Lived in Grass.  Hykade is surely one of our most exciting contemporary animators. His work seems to speak loudly and clearly from the Id, but is mediated through a strong intellect, a muscular morality and a sense of humanism, which puts him, for me, on a par with Yuri Norstein and Caroline Leaf. Maybe this becomes clear only when we see his work as a whole. Each film seems progressively simple, even simplistic, but what is happening is, I think, Hykade paring his work down to essentials as he becomes a better film maker. His films have become lighter on the surface, while (even in his delightful children’s series, Tom) the undercurrents of the power and complexity visible in his early work remain.


Hykade always depicts himself in his drawings as a small and insignificant manchild, with genitals dangling ridiculously below his triangular shift as he looks, bemused, at the world. And his worldview is maybe that of a child savant, an earthy innocent.


Ring of Fire is a film, in the end, about the centrality of love in any worthwhile life.


Ruth Lingford was born in London, and taught Animation at the Royal College of Art, the National Film and Television School and, since 2005, at Harvard University. She has made several award-winning short films and Music Videos, and has worked on several documentary productions.