Directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter
July 29-August 4 at Anthology Film Archives
An eerily serene whistle-stop tour of abandoned built environments, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s estimable Homo Sapiens imagines a purely (if not outlandishly) speculative scenario: a near-future world from which humans have vanished. The Austrian filmmaker, who here keeps his camera motionless, shuttles among depopulated contemporary ruins as far-flung as Fukushima and a stateside mall, where the movie theater will forevermore be advertising showtimes for Happy Feet 2. The loose-leaf papers and beyond-repair equipment strewn about within such spaces suggests the human evacuation from them was sudden and swift. Now, in the becalmed, erosive aftermath, the only creaturely sound audible is the occasional birdsong.
Long since stripped of their intended short-term utility, many of the structures on display in Homo Sapiens—crumbling auditoriums, medical offices, and seaside amusement parks, to name a few additional locations—have in the meantime developed an instrumental function. A beam of light angles through a caved-in roof and onto the floor of a nightclub as if the place has become a sort of sundial. In still other interiors, the wind rattles shades against open windows and water drips like clockwork, suggestions that our most lasting legacy might well be acoustic: Emptied of inhabitants, every room has its own unique way of reverberating ambient noise. (Peter Kutin and Florian Kindlinger designed the film’s trickling yet enveloping soundscape.) These ad hoc ecosystems spring up as the elements gradually seep their way indoors. But nature doesn’t reclaim the man-made here so much as join forces with it: Disused train lines provide a latticework for the creeping vegetation to enfold; a military vehicle peeks out from behind some trees, its khaki camo seeming less a strategic disguise at this post-human point in time than some sort of bargained acquiescence to the surroundings.
Geyrhalter—one of the world’s pre-eminent documentarians, still best known in this country for 2005’s Our Daily Bread, a rigorously droll look at depersonalized processes of industrial food production—has himself expressed the view that Homo Sapiens falls somewhere on the fictional end of the spectrum. Indeed, it’s a feat of framing to go right alongside Werner Herzog’s 1992 Lessons of Darkness or Patrick Keiller’s turn-of-the-century Robinson trilogy, films that filter documentary footage of human infrastructure in states of collapse through an invented perspective, either to uncover subterranean histories (in the latter case) or to recast our Sisyphean day-to-day as the stuff of clarion mythology (in the former). Unlike those films, Geyrhalter’s isn’t tied to a particular place and doesn’t rely on voiceover, instead leaving it up to the viewer to step into the role of a visiting intelligence, differentiating between species of spaces and assessing the cumulative damage with each new disarranged tableau. Its portentous title notwithstanding, the knockout Homo Sapiens often plays less like a post-apocalyptic vision than a weirdly consolatory thought experiment: What kind of monuments have we been building—and how will the earth assimilate them in our absence?