'Last and First Men': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Sturla Brandth Grovlen
Requiem for a doomed world.

Narrated by Tilda Swinton, Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s posthumous film is a cerebral sci-fi fantasy set on the dying Earth two billion years in the future.

Running a concise 70 minutes, Last and First Men remains the only feature-length film directed by Johann Johannsson (1969-2018), the Icelandic composer who received Academy Award nominations for The Theory of Everything and Sicario. It was first presented at the Manchester International Festival as a symphonic performance with a live BBC orchestra, and made its official film bow as a Berlinale Special.

Though the screenplay is based on a sci-fi classic and may well attract some genre fans, Johannsson’s beautifully written text and score, along with the stark black and gray images, earmark it as a festival and museum piece for cultured audiences like concert-goers and lovers of modern art.

The narration is based on a seminal 1930 novel by the influential British author of science fiction Olaf Stapledon and recounts how, two billion years from now, humanity will have evolved over 18 distinct human species. A voice from the 18th species, visualized as a green ray, addresses the first species, our own.

In an urgent voiceover, Tilda Swinton describes how she and other immortal human beings in the distant future have joined their telepathic brains together in a “group mind.” It’s their last-ditch attempt to solve the alarming discoveries of their astronomers that life on the planet is soon to become extinct. With awe-inspiring finality, the group mind concludes there is no solution. But there is still value in calling out over time to their distant ancestors — us — as inheritors of their wisdom.

Halfway between fiction and documentary, Last and First Men is a visionary work about the final days of humankind that stretches the audience’s ability to imagine not only an immense time frame reaching over billions of years, but huge steps in human evolution. There are no people in the film, no actors. In their place, uncommunicative monuments squat on the ground, colossi filmed from surreal angles and accompanied by Johannsson’s hypnotic orchestral soundtrack.

These giant monuments of reinforced concrete were shot in the Balkans. They were commissioned during the time of Yugoslav President Tito as memorials to World War II and his partisan fighters. Located deep in the mountains and now largely forgotten, these enormous tributes (so bizarre looking they could be mistaken for CGI work) no longer commemorate anything other than human vanity. Their silent abstraction and general ugliness seem like a bad joke — they have become pointless symbols that will remain as the last trace of human civilization, after our sun unites with a cloud of gas and wipes out all organic life. Slowly the camera rotates around them, as incomprehensible voices sing and chant in the background. Perhaps the most intriguing of these are the twin exploding forms of Zivkovic’s Monument of Sutjeska, while another winged monstrosity (the monument to the Revolution of the People of Moslavina) looks like an Aztec aberration.

Sturla Brandth Grovlen's photography boldly cut out geometrical forms of concrete against a light gray sky, giving them an aloof, almost spiritual dimension. Swinton’s crisp, clear, unhurried English is a real pleasure to listen to. Her future wisdom is addressed to the people of our time, to “past minds” who can be directed toward great truths and change the course of history. She reminds us that humans are a mere flash in the lifetime of our cosmos and we had better go into that good night philosophically: “Great are the stars, and humankind is of no account to them.”

Production company: Zik Zak Filmworks
Cast: Tilda Swinton
Director: Johann Johannsson
Screenwriters: Johann Johannsson, Jose Enrique Macian, based on Olaf Stapledon’s novel
Producers: Johann Johannsson, Thor Sigurjonsson, Sturla Brandth Grovlen
Executive producers: Tim Husom, Karolina Johannsdottir
Director of photography: Sturla Brandth Grovlen
Editors: Mark Bukdahl
Music: Johann Johannsson, Yair Elazar Glotman
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
World sales: Films Boutique

70 minutes