Life After Us: Geyrhalter’s 'Homo Sapiens' Surveys Humanity’s Ruins

For his latest documentary, Austria's Nikolaus Geyrhalter quite justifiably could have borrowed the title of Chinua Achebe's best-known novel: Things Fall Apart. But the fact that a ninety-minute film completely devoid of human presence is called Homo Sapiens is hardly coincidental. As the deconstructionists might say, human beings are the structuring absence in this film. From Russia and Japan, through the U.S. and across Europe, the film surveys various ways that we have intervened in the landscape: shopping malls, hospitals, prisons, agriculture, and a great deal more. The common denominator is that every site, every building is in catastrophic disrepair, being reclaimed by the natural forces that human industry once overcame.

Typically, Geyrhalter's films teem with human life. One of the premier nonfiction filmmakers working today, he came to global attention with Pripyat, a rigorous exploration of the restricted zone around Chernobyl. Other key works include Our Daily Bread (a mosaic on contemporary food production), 7915 Km (which traces the route of the Dakar Rally), and Abendland (an impressionist study of night labor across Europe). If Geyrhalter's work isn't as well-known as it should be, it's probably because his films fall somewhere between the "slow cinema" of fellow countryman Ulrich Seidl and the observational avant-garde of James Benning. With their fixed-frame camerawork, meticulous composition, and patient, nonjudgmental gaze, these films stake out a territory all their own: clearly documentary, but in no sense expository.

Even still, Homo Sapiens is something very different for Geyrhalter. In it, we appear to be witnessing a vague future after our species has exited the planet. Landscapes are marked by the lumbering remains of human endeavor, entangled with their surroundings like earthworks. (Geyrhalter includes rather direct references to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria's Lightning Field.) But this sense of future-tense extinction is only a metaphor, as there are many concrete, in-the-present reasons for this advanced decay.

Some structures, like a school and a library, bear the blackened edges that indicate fire damage. Others, like a coastal shopping area in Japan, are waterlogged, with DVDs or bags of topsoil in shambles, the likely aftermath of a large hurricane. But still other non-scapes — a collapsing mall cinema; some overgrown railroad tracks; a dry, fallow field — tell the more prosaic tale of shifting economic fortunes, post-industrial/pre-tech-sector malaise, boats not lifted by the rising tide of neoliberal capital.

There is a tragic beauty to it all. Wide-angle shots of moss-covered apartment blocks and factory floors recall the modular photography of Andreas Gursky. High ceilings with papers and rags piled high after fire and rain tend to resemble Christian Boltanski's installations of clothing piles, synecdochical markers of the Holocaust. Collapsed, half-lit junk piles, varied objects standing amid running ditchwater, inevitably call to mind Tarkovsky's images of the "Zone," an area unfit for human life but paradoxically replete with our strangest dreams. But above all, Geyrhalter discovers that the places we built to learn, to make, to eat, to sleep, look like the art of Anselm Kiefer when reclaimed by fire, water, air, and earth. Instead of uncovering artifacts from long ago, Homo Sapiens shows us our own relics in the making.


Homo Sapiens
Directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Opens July 29
Anthology Film Archives

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