'Earth' ('Erde'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
Quietly urgent dispatches from a planet under siege.

The latest by prolific Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter examines man's drastic impact on our home planet.

Cementing his status as Austria's most eminent and important documentary filmmaker, Nikolaus Geyrhalter maintains his startling work-rate with Earth (Erde), his eighth feature-length film of the decade. This achievement is all the more remarkable in light of his preference for epic, globe-trotting subject matter which demands a high degree of logistical organization. The doc, divided into seven chapters, examines nothing less than man's dramatic impact on the physical state of his home planet. High ambition is matched by impressive execution, resulting in a thought-provoking contribution to ongoing ecological debates.

While perhaps unlikely to repeat the unexpectedly widespread exposure afforded to Geyrhalter's Homo Sapiens (2016), the new film is rather more accessible than its daunting outline might first suggest. Niche release in receptive territories can follow what is likely to be a busy spin around the festival circuit.

The seven sections are all around 15 minutes in length, starting and ending with North American locations (the San Fernando Valley in California and Fort McKay, Alberta). The five sections between are all in Europe: the Brenner Pass (focus for Geyrhalter's previous production, the relatively intimate The Border Fence) that spans Austria and Italy; Gyongos, Hungary; Carrara, Italy; Rio Tinto, Spain; and Wolfenbuttel, Germany. Each site is a place where industry has wreaked enormous change — some would say devastation — on the landscape, often resulting in vistas of a chillingly alien grandeur (perhaps in a sequel Geyrhalter can get further afield, to Russia, China, Africa, South America...).

But from the first section it's clear that Geyrhalter is less concerned with the landscapes and locations themselves than with the way they are viewed by those working amidst them. Earth is generously studded with interviews in which Geyrhalter, off camera, inquisitively and intelligently probes the men and women (mainly men, mostly bearded and burly) who earn their living via various challenging and hazardous means. "I don't think the earth is giving us anything easily," notes one. Many voice personal regrets and qualms, apologizing for their small but crucial contributions to the despoliation of pristine environments ("Once we get here, it's not nature anymore").

As the episodes accumulate, these ethical questions become increasingly urgent — the finale, concentrating on the testimony of Jean L'Hommecourt, whose life is dedicated to exposing the downsides of the exploitation of the Athabasca tar sands, is unambiguous in its editorial opposition to the callous, myopically money-mad ways of big business. But Geyrhalter's approach eschews simple hand-wringing, expanding into complex philosophical terrain: "Are we a good species?" one of his interviewees asks in the Hungarian segment. "It is rather unlikely we are on the right path."

By its nature and its likely distribution patterns unlikely to win many new converts to ecological causes, Earth is of intrinsic value and interest as a record of mankind's spectacular capacity for colossal endeavors. The Gyongos chapter is dominated by an awe-inspiring behemoth of an earth-mover, which looks like it has trundled in from Mortal Engines, while the carving of giant marble blocks in Carrara results in temporary architectural spaces of eerie beauty. In the Rio Tinto sequence, controlled explosions provide periodic, picturesque blasts of ecstatic intensity.

Avoiding the temptation to linger on the vistas depicted, Niki Mossboeck's editing is a matter of brief shots, punctuating the interview sequences with brief blackouts and generally maintaining a relatively high, non-ruminative tempo throughout. Geyrhalter's own cinematography, meanwhile, profitably eschews the widescreen formats many landscape-oriented directors instinctively prefer. It's a further reminder that this study of the planet's current "Anthropocene" era is essentially a study of people, toilers engaged in an incalculably vast collective effort whose individual participants can only very dimly grasp this apocalyptic bigger picture.

Production company: NGF (Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion)
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Producers: Michael Kitzberger, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Wolfgang Widerhofer
Editor: Niki Mossboeck
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: Autlook, Vienna

In German, English, Spanish, Hungarian, Italian
116 minutes