It was only recently, after spending some time in Berlin over the summer that I began to fully appreciate both Nicolas Roeg's The Man who Fell to Earth and David Bowie as the actor in its starring role. I stood at the door of Bowie's old Altbau period flat at Hauptstrasse 155 and thought back to the first time I heard Low, and had seen Bowie's frail profile burned against the pastel orange of the cover. Low had been my first introduction to Bowie's music proper, an admittedly oblique starting point to a vast discography, and though I had been thoroughly appreciative of his music and contributions to culture at large, I was never the dedicated, involved fan I find myself today.

At some point, long before putting in the hours to wholly immerse myself in his music, I had been introduced to a different dimension of Bowie's talent through Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, the hypnotic 1976 arthouse film that captures Bowie pre-Berlin, post-rapid ascent to fame, and in the midst of a diet comprised mainly of high-grade cocaine.

Bowie's startling Berlin trilogy, Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979), immediately followed his work on Roeg's film, and I believe that the themes of The Man who Fell to Earth acted as a direct catalyst for the introspection that was to come. It charts the life of a humanoid alien-cum-international CEO as he attempts to find a way home to his family, and we are audience to an otherwise pure being relentlessly exposed to the corrupting influence of the human race.


The alien, with the adopted named Thomas Jerome Newton, falls in love, is betrayed and imprisoned, performs as an avant-garde recording artist, sees through time and space, and becomes an alcoholic - a rock star narrative if ever there was one. But the casting of Bowie was the masterstroke, and I suspect that Roeg knew all too well how closely Bowie, the actor, would come to identify with his eponymous role.

Low is undoubtedly the work of an incredibly lonely individual. Bowie had relocated to Berlin to escape the hellish fever of Los Angeles, a place he would eventually suggest be "wiped off the face of the Earth", where had been living reclusively during the recording of Station to Station (1975). Bowie had steadily alienated himself from fans and loved ones alike, and if you already see where I'm going with this then you'll probably understand why, at that time, Bowie was the most suitable actor for this challenging role, despite having exceptionally little experience in film.


Not to say that Bowie is a bad actor - his distinctive character changes and chameleon-like approach to public persona have come to define his life, and now even his death - but the etiquette of Arthouse acting is a very different beast, and often the result of either absolute dedication to realism, or extremely detailed direction. The genius of Bowie's role in The Man who Fell to Earth is that he is both perfectly suited to the part, and equally that he has no idea what he's doing. It results in a natural performance, one that does not require the divide between actor and character, as in this case both are interchangeable.

It has been reported that between takes Bowie would write songs and poetry, he would paint, and he would shoot sequences on a camera given to him by Roeg. He was still ingesting the extremely potent cocaine, but in a period of absolute chaos, his revitalised artistic expression was a light at the end of the tunnel. The period of shooting TMWFTE acted as something of a transition between eras in Bowie's life, and I would not be surprised if many of the ideas formed during this shoot went on to be the defining cruxes of the output that followed.

In the eventual tragic ending to the film's narrative Bowie may have seen a warning of sorts, a prediction of his fate if he continued down his current path, and the image of a hell that would come entirely too soon. On the now classic trilogy of albums, there is an underlying sense of dread, of loneliness and of unbearable isolation, but is 'Heroes' not the most triumphant song in Bowie's entire discography? Does 'Sound and Vision' not sound like the work of a man who has finally lost the monkey on his back? Yes, the Berlin trilogy is full of dark, brooding moments, but there is, again, occasional light at the end of the tunnel.


I submit that there is natural symmetry to be found between Bowie's work during the period of 1975 - 1979 and the film The Man who Fell to Earth. The themes of isolation, loneliness and desperation are prevalent through both fictional narrative and reality, and the blurring of the lines between the two could have allowed Bowie to observe an aspect of his being that had up to that point been invisible. The reading and interpretation of this concept is the definitive nature of the Berlin Trilogy, and I imagine formed as sound whilst Bowie looked back at the turbulent period he had just emerged from.

The film depicts a man who literally fell to earth; a figure entirely separated from the human race but forced to interact with them and their hedonistic ways. And while there is a good joke about PR in that last sentence, the fact remains that Bowie was, and still is, especially now, looked upon as a deity. Both he and his character were depicted as the assigned ethereal figure of a particular era and way of life and it is a position that is both exhausting to the point of lethality, and tedious to the point of numbing. The Man who fell to Earth depicts Bowie in this position, as did society, and the result was the merging of reality and fiction, a film that explores the concept of Bowie as a man, followed by a trilogy of albums that explored Bowie as a character.

But in this film, and in the scope of his career, Bowie fell to earth and lead the best of us through the worst of times.

R.I.P., Starman.