‘Homo Sapiens’: Berlin Review

Director Nikolaus Geyrhalter (‘Our Daily Bread’) screened his new documentary in Berlin.

Homo Sapiens are conspicuously absent in Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s latest film, which chronicles a series of manmade structures that have been left to rot after natural disasters, human neglect or time itself have taken their toll.

Similar in form to the director’s previous nonfiction studies (Our Daily Bread, Over the Years), this wordless assemblage of fixed shots is as much a museum piece as it is a strictly art-house item, inviting viewers to sit back and let the imagery consume them. Far from commercial, it’s still a compelling modern study of man vs. nature, with the latter clearly getting the upper hand.

The Bottom Line

An aesthetically austere catalog of contemporary ruin.

Filming in places ranging from Fukushima to Bulgaria, with stops in the U.S., South America and parts of Europe, Geyrhalter – who shot all the material himself – presents us with an array of homes, offices, shopping malls, hospitals, schools, churches, movie theaters and military installations in various states of decay. Where they are located and why they have been abandoned is never explained, nor does the filmmaker attempt to appease us with scenes of people rebuilding or moving on: there are simply no people to speak of, and at best one can see a few birds or frogs enjoying their new habitats.

Reminiscent of photos by Allan Sekula and Andreas Gursky, or else of the book The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, Homo Sapiens manages to find much beauty in the sight of destruction, with each image a skillfully lit and framed composition underlining both the absence of humans and the fact that Mother Nature is slowly claiming back what may be rightfully hers. Weeds sprout up in the middle of untended parking lots, water flows across wrecked lobbies and, in one exquisite shot, an old car lies at the bottom of a cave, as if returning to the prehistoric age.

Working again with sound designer Peter Kutin, Geyrhalter eschews any music or explanatory voiceover, building a dense soundscape out of blowing wind, leaky roofs and other reminders that the earth can never be turned off like all the powerless structures on display. If the imagery can be at once breathtaking and disconcerting – one devastated seaside city looks like the set of Inception, another wreck in the desert belongs in Planet of the Apes – there’s a sort of consolation in the fact that the natural world will continue to live on despite us. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Production companies: Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion
Director: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Producers: Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Michael Kitzberger, Markus Glaser, Wolfgang Widerhofer
Director of photography: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Editor: Michael Palm
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: Autlook Filmsales

94 minutes