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by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

grade: 8

With Earth, Geyrhalter picks up on a discourse he had already begun in 2016 with Homo Sapiens (also presented at the Berlinale), staging the human/environment combination and closely analysing the consequences it can bring.

The destroyer-man

Together with Ulrich Seidl, one of the most famous contemporary Austrian documentary filmmakers is undoubtedly Nikolaus Geyrhalter. His cinema, made up of long shots and silences, at times obsequious, at times judgmental (in the positive sense, of course), has so far been able to give us real jewels, as well as important documents of the history of our times. And now, after more than three years of work, his latest film has finally arrived on the screens of the 69th Berlin Film Festival – in the Forum section – as well as in the section dedicated to documentaries at the Diagonale 2019. This is the painful and sorrowful Earth (Erde in the original version), in which – as the title itself suggests – what is shown us is the earth and what remains of the vast natural landscapes, which have been practically reduced to the bone by human intervention.

The discourse – divided into seven sections – opens in California, where we see workers digging up stretches of sand and rocks and preparing the ground for the construction of new homes and shopping centres. “It’s going to be as good as people can expect,’ one of the workers says proudly in front of the camera. Our film crew then moves on to the Austrian-Italian border (inside the Brenner tunnel), to Hungary, back to Italy (inside the Carrara marble quarries), to Spain and Germany, before finally stopping in Canada, where it seems there is still someone who realises the importance of environmental protection.

With this topical and important documentary, Geyrhalter actually picks up on a discourse he had already begun in 2016 with Homo Sapiens (also presented at the Berlinale), staging the human/environment combination and closely analysing the consequences it can bring. In this Earth, however, he abandons (at least in part) the completely silent and strongly contemplative mise-en-scene that has always characterised the author’s work, inserting, from time to time, interviews with people from the places filmed and making the whole thing more discursive.

But what are these people really like? In order to arrive at this, we must make a premise: starting from the first section, and as we approach the end, it seems that we slowly become more and more aware of the problem dealt with and its urgency. In the same way, therefore, the characters interviewed each time change their attitude in front of the camera. Or rather, it is the very way Geyrhalter wants to portray them that changes. While, in fact, especially in the first sections (and, more specifically, in the section dedicated to California) the workers appear excessively static, filmed rigorously in medium-long shot, and almost devoid of feelings or personality (it is impossible not to think, in this case, of the works of his countryman Ulrich Seidl), they gradually acquire humanity as the different sections progress.

Yet Geyrhalter doesn’t seem at all judgmental. With his usual intellectual honesty, the director wants to show us the urgency of protecting our environment and the risks that we all run if we overlook this matter (the moment in which we are shown the holes dug in Germany to deposit radioactive material is particularly significant).

A film of social denunciation, Earth. Yet, on the other hand, one must acknowledge the strong authorial imprint of the Viennese filmmaker. The care for images here reaches its peak when – at the opening of each section – we see evocative paintings of the areas visited by the troupe on which, in post-production, machines intent on carrying out their work have been added. The same happens when we see scenes of machines demolishing the ground, which is as apparently solid as it is easy to turn into dust. And while the strong contemplative character (made up of obsequious silences and images that give the spectator important emotional jolts each time) is partly softened by the interaction of the characters with the camera, the communicative effectiveness is always strong. Strong and clear. And it hurts very, very much.

Original title: Erde
Directed by: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Country/year: Austria / 2019
Running time: 115’
Genre: documentary
Screenplay: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Cinematography: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Produced by: Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion

Info: Earth’s page on the website of the Austrian Film Commission; Earth’s page on Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s website