Monday, July 25, 2016

Beauty in desolation: Nikolaus Geyrhalter's exquisite photographic study, HOMO SAPIENS

Our species appears nowhere in Nikolaus Geyrhalter's brilliant and breathtakingly beautiful, if ironically titled documentary, HOMO SAPIENS, yet our mark is all over the place. In this, the latest film from Herr Geyrhalter, who has already given us a couple of whoppingly good docs -- Our Daily Bread and Abenland -- the Austrian filmmaker who conceived, directed and shot this stunning piece of work (with the prodigious help of Simon Graf in scouting the amazing locations used here) has compiled a series of what could almost be -- were it not for the occasional wind, waves and birds -- still-life photography of empty, desolate but stunning exteriors, interiors and sometimes a combo of the two in which nature seems to be re-enforcing her domain on ours.

The filmmaker, pictured at right, lets his camera remain stationary as it gazes at scene after scene, location after location, for anywhere from 15 to 30-or-more seconds. This gives the viewer ample time to take it all in. And how very much there is to take. Geyrhalter is an artist. His compositions are wonderful: rich and detailed, forcing us to observe closely, think about what we're seeing, then make all kinds of connections.
We go from a gorgeous, decrepit amphitheatre to a deserted (for quite some length of time, it seems) railway station and shopping mall (in Japan, perhaps? The writing we see would indicate somewhere Asian) to an auditorium or two, hospitals, even a roller coaster seemingly positioned in the sea. The locations are bizarre and amazing, and the cinematography is, too. Yet it is not simply beautiful (that might very well be enough), it is also about as artful and thoughtful as photography can get.

There is no dialog here, no sound save the ambient ones: wind, gulls cawing, pigeons cooing, Music? You know, I cannot now remember. The movie was that hypnotic. But yet I never felt sleepy in the least. I would imagine that photography buffs will make a bee line for the documentary, which opens this week in New York City at Anthology Film Archives.

Although there is great beauty here (and Geyrhalter seems incapable of not zeroing in on it with simplicity, always capturing the right composition, angle and even color (or lack of it). He finds his beauty in desolation, and this is the way in which he gets us to considering what homo sapiens have to do with all this. How did the hospital room (above) come into such disrepair, for example? Was that empty shopping mall too near Fukushima? (One of these malls may be closer to the USA, as it bears the name Woodville.)

A house of religion is just as likely to have emptied out as has the mall. Or a prison. Or an office, below, full of aged computers. For me the most beautiful shots of all seems to have been taken in an empty planetarium. Even a greenhouse has gone to seed. The movie offers its own special pacing and an odd kind of momentum. There's dark humor, too: in the loudspeakers atop poles wrapped in vines (or in the winter, snow). Interestingly, the shots taken in the desert seem not as memorable as the others (the desert is already desolate, right?). Ditto the wintertime scenes, where snow can more easily mask the desolation.

And then we've come full circle, back to that original amphitheater. What a journey! Perhaps I missed them, but I tried to check the credits for a listing of locations where the movie was filmed. I am pretty sure Japan, Germany (or Austria) and the USA are among them -- and maybe other countries, too. Whatever, Herr Geyrhalter has graced us with one wonderful documentary that photo buffs will eventually want to own on disc. Unless some enterprising publisher thinks to put out the coffee-table book version.

From KimStim and running 94 minutes (TrustMovies could have watched another hour of it, at least), Homo Sapiens opens this Friday, July 29, at Anthology Film Archives in New York City for a week's run. Elsewhere? There's is nothing as yet on the KimStim site to indicate further showings. But I would hope an eventual DVD or Blu-ray is in the offing.

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