MOUNTAIN MUSINGS #3 - The Icy Hand of Death: Smilla’s Sense of Snow and the Art of Dramatic Winter Filming


January 26, 2022



Cesare Manansala



Aspiring filmmakers, take note: if you need an extra component to help establish your picture’s atmosphere, look no further than the weather.

If conveyed properly, the weather patterns of our planet’s four seasons can be used to generate the moods of a film’s scene or sequences of scenes for dramatic effect. For instance, the rainy days of spring provide that classic (if cliched) “dark and stormy night;” autumn creates cool crisp afternoons that are ideal for a first date scene in a rom-com; and summer can always be the backdrop of a beach-based teen musical, or better yet, a shark attack thriller. Despite the emotional impacts of these three respective seasons, however, they don’t offer quite the same kind of punch compared to the wintertime. Provided that the film in question isn’t a light-hearted Christmas family picture, winter is a season whose raw, natural elements create a special edge. This type of edge consists of physical dangers such as snow, ice, frostbite, freezing temperatures, slippery surfaces, and even the occasional avalanche, all designed to keep the hero from reaching her goal. 

Thus, wintertime is a season of both hazards and opportunities that will aid in making your film look not just interesting, but gripping as well.

Countless veteran filmmakers have used winter weather to give their pictures that sense of foreboding dread. Stanley Kubrick utilized a bleak blizzard-plagued season that led to Jack Torrance’s growing descent into insanity in The Shining. The Coen Brothers took the ice-covered frozen wastelands of Minnesota and North Dakota as the blood-soaked setting of their brilliant thriller Fargo. Even comedy legend Charlie Chaplin captured wintertime at its most overwhelming and tortuous in his masterpiece The Gold Rush. In Smilla’s Sense of Snow, director Billie August introduces audiences to wintry Denmark and Greenland, both not-often used locales as the backdrop for a spellbinding murder mystery. 

The film stars Julia Ormond as the titular character Smilla, a Greenlander ice scientist who discovers the corpse of a young Inuit boy lying on snow atop her apartment building in Copenhagen. Smilla pursues the case and finds herself constantly dismissed by the authorities who insist the boy’s death was an accident. Undeterred, Smilla doggedly continues her investigation, only to discover the boy’s death to be connected with a conspiracy involving a mysterious organism found on the icy shores of Greenland. 

Smilla’s Sense of Snow is a thriller picture that effectively emphasizes both its unusual northern European settings, and the use of an ice-cold winter season for heightened intensity. Billie August and his team took especially great care in capturing the gray dreariness of a Danish winter, along with the near-arctic conditions of Greenland during the same season. Audiences seeing this picture for the first time won’t forget the chills they will feel as they envision themselves in Smilla’s snow-caked boots when they join her in her quest to crack the case.

At Adirondack Film/Lake Placid Film Festival, we hope to accumulate the same kind of audience chills generated in Smilla’s Sense of Snow here in the Adirondacks. Our region’s mountains and rugged terrain make for great hiking, recreational activity, and filmmaking during the spring, summer, and autumn months. But the Adirondacks during greener, more pleasant seasons are not nearly as breathtaking and majestic as they are during winter. This is a land that is equally famous for skiing, sledding, and other wintry fun. Plus, with the area’s snow-capped peaks, frozen rivers & lakes, and icy landscape, the Adirondacks is a more than ideal backdrop for winter-based films.

We highly encourage all aspiring filmmakers to consider the Adirondacks as their next setting for a wintertime film, be it a Christmas family picture a la It’s a Wonderful Life, or even the next Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Whatever the film’s theme, if it involves snow and ice, then the Adirondacks Mountains awaits!