Train stations and car parks lay deserted under heavy grey skies. Shopping centres stand silent and empty, littered with the plastic debris of better times.
The new film from Nikolaus Geyrhalter begins as an exploration of abandoned human-made structures, an essay on how changing times quickly render the sites of social and economic life obsolete. But it is soon apparent that something else is at work here; widely categorised as a ‘documentary’, Homo Sapiens (2016) is constructed entirely of long, fixed-position shots of real-world locations, yet the cumulative effect of its sequencing and rhythm invites the kind of speculations that concern science-fiction, revealing the undeniable intent of its grandly enigmatic title.
With no narration, no music, no human voice to mediate the visuals, we are confronted by the question: What will the post-human world look like? Or, more specifically, what will the world we have made look like once we are no longer here to live in it. No argument as to the reasons for human absence or extinction is posed by the sequence of images that unfolds on screen. Instead, a world no longer populated by humans is simply posited as fact, an inevitability requiring no further explanation or context that we can then reassuringly regard as avoidable. One way or another, this will eventually happen.
Such cues as Japanese signage or former Soviet symbols may contextualise many of the earlier scenes, inviting consideration of specifics by the audience, but very soon the shattered interiors and crumbling structures come to stand for all their kind. It’s irrelevant where the uniformly blank bowling alley is, or the half-dismantled cinema, because they confirm simply that there is no longer such a thing as leisure as shaped by consumer capitalism, just as there is no entertainment, no art. Places charged with a social significance, or with a certain cultural prestige, are no longer such in a post-human world and decompose just the same as everything else. One is reminded of the meticulous scale models made by artist Lori Nix, depicting derelict museums, galleries, and libraries as heaps of objects and signs shorn of all context by human absence.
There is a startling pathos roused by the sight of VHS cassettes scattered across a floor, or the meaninglessness of folders full of paper curling and yellowing on rows of metal shelving as the wind rattles through. Elsewhere, the reinforced door of a vault has swung open, its contents no longer protected. Most provocatively, cabinets full of computer servers have fallen into severe disrepair, exposing the equipment to damage and disintegration. The notion of posterity and preservation is rendered an ultimate fallacy, having never been anything more than a delusion.
Homo Sapiens does not show the audience anything that is recognisably a representation of a person in an image or artwork. Artefacts and remnants clutter each frame, with the only memorable effigy being that of a huge pink cartoon mouse slumped in a shopping plaza, one eye missing and mouldering. Divided into unnamed sections by intermittent cuts to black, the film is organised not by the functions of human-made environments, but by the wider ecological environments that have reasserted themselves. There are recognisable phases throughout the 90-minute runtime in which a particular ecology provides the structuring motif: the incursion of plants breaking back into a concrete landscape; the constant streaming of rainwater through cracked edifices; the howl of the wind through windows; the crash of the waves; the devouring storms of sand and, finally, snow.
The film’s sequencing conveys a gradual trailing off of human presence. Early scenes that could have been snapshots of a dreary weekend have given way to images of human-made structures being swallowed whole by powerful elemental forces; what began as the abandonment and dereliction of our constructed world has culminated in its erasure. This progression is accompanied by the steady heightening of diegetic sound from scene to scene. The Dolby Atmos sound fixes our attention first on the dripping of rainwater that binds together the early passages and later the thrum of trapped flies. The warble of pigeons lends a certain continuity near the middle of the film, climaxing in the spectacle of birds divebombing through the top of an enormous dome through which the sunlight pours; they swoop in, rattle around, and each in their own time escape. The cumulative effect is a sense of reclamation by natural forces. The first time we glimpse the sea, waves rolling and crashing in the distance, is a genuinely bracing, even shocking moment as we are brought to the very edge of the world.
As a piece of filmmaking, Homo Sapiens is a distinct experience that requires a specific attentiveness from its audience and in doing so encourages certain emotional effects. The symmetry of the interiors suggests that we are to study each scene closely, like investigators. But symmetry in cinema is also insistently terrifying, something that Kubrick knew well, its precision inducing a nervous state of alert in which any disruption becomes acutely distressing.
Because Geyrhalter’s camera never moves, only travelling via hard cuts to other locations, his approach can seem cold and dispassionate, but what he taps into is our broader cultural investment in the morbid spectacle of imagining ourselves gone, that tension between aching sadness and incomparable thrill. By fixing his camera and refusing to direct the viewer through the film’s various scenes, Geyrhalter allows us to get caught up in the ebb and flow of our reactions as one moment we are soothed by relative peace and the next we are profoundly, uncannily on edge.
The very nature of watching the film as a theatrical release plays with the idea, the appeal, of having no-one around. Watching Homo Sapiens in a place where the careful sound design that immerses us in the tiny details of background noise is routinely intruded upon by the shuffling, whispering, and chewing that usually, inaudibly, accompanies any film screening invites us to consider our relationship to others in the spaces that have been built for our congregation – caught between the reassurance of human presence and the morbid speculation upon a peaceful world without it. Ω