HOMO SAPIENS: A Portrait Of Humanity In Absentia

One definition of irony lies in the fact that the meaning of what is said ironically, is deferred elsewhere: it is not located where you would expect to find it and it cannot be understood at the usual face value. A wider context is required to understand the meaning of something when it is deployed as an ironic concept. Can it then be possible that with Homo Sapiens, Nikolaus Geyrhalter has created a film that is at once the epitome of irony and a sincere, heart-tugging statement about what it means to be human?

As director, cinematographer and writer (that is, he conceived the idea of the film), this is very much the work of an auteur. Yet, the strength of this documentary is that, although we must view it as a work over which Geyrhalter had considerable control, the presentational style of a succession of live static scenes of abandoned interiors and exteriors is not weighed down by the dogma of any grand narrative. Instead, it is the contemplative space – both literally and cerebrally – that Geyrhalter allows us to imbue with our own interpretations.

So how can an unconventional documentary lasting 134 minutes and consisting entirely of the juxtaposition of naturalistic scenes be a compelling and rewarding cinematic journey capable of matching the most innovative 3D IMAX movie for sheer scale, awe and engagement?

An Invitation To Question

As Homo Sapiens begins, we see a mosaic submerged beneath clear water, no music, just the presentation of Guernica-esque depictions of humanity – before we see a wider shot that reveals the location to be the interior of a dilapidated, abandoned arena. Already, like mushrooms appearing through the grass in the morning, you find yourself asking silent questions, wondering: what is culture? What is identity? Who am I?

And perhaps most importantly, who are we? For although we may view this film in private and we may feel a long way from the environments it depicts, it is as the title suggests, our common humanity that Geyrhalter expertly asks us to question.

HOMO SAPIENS: A Portrait Of Humanity In Absentia
source: Icarus Films

Geyrhalter’s lens takes us from weed strewn, rain-drenched train stations and bicycle depots to car parks where nature is staging an insidious vegetative coup. The unmistakable right angles and grids of the human abound, despite the fact that, contrary to our expectations given the title, humans are totally absent from the whole film. Are we receiving these pictures from the future, from some alien visitors’ dossier of our long-since abandoned planet?

Soundtracked only by the wind, the rain and the buzzing of insects, even the residential properties are vacant, all artifacts rendered meaningless because the lives that gave them purpose have now moved on.  Why is this so powerful? Anyone who’s ever moved out or been forced to leave a place where they’ve stayed for a significant period, maybe due to a bereavement or sale, will be familiar with the struggle that ensues trying to disentangle oneself from years of emotional investment in a place.

Despite being only bricks and mortar, it’s hard to separate one’s identity and the identity of loved ones from the buildings and places that are formative in our lives. In this juxtaposition of images of abandoned places, the director has created a poignant and thought-provoking meditation on identity by tapping into that emotional investment on a universal scale.

The Cinema of Empathy

It takes real courage to pursue Homo Sapiens as a filmmaker, with the possibility that devoid of the audience’s personal emotional investment in the places now abandoned, then this would possess no emotional clout at all. On the contrary, Geyrhalter has used the power of film to tap into what is universal in the human experience – film as empathy – recognition, through these images, of who we are collectively, as a species, rather than who I am. However lonely our experience may sometimes be, film, like life itself, is a shared experience, proof of networks and interdependence for its production.

HOMO SAPIENS: A Portrait Of Humanity In Absentia
source: Icarus Films

So what is the substance of that shared experience? Repeatedly, Geyrhalter presents us with a sense of forlorn beauty that finds its zenith in scenes such as the now landlocked boats listing hopelessly in meadows miles from the receding shore. In shots of almost entirely preserved auditoria, we are reminded of the ephemeral transience of our lives – a prospect of such extreme ambivalence that it can paralyse us with despair or spur us on with urgency to make the most of each moment, not knowing what radical break with normality may be just around the corner.

In testament to this, so many of the places seem to have been hurriedly abandoned, as we see heavy tools and other equipment simply left in the middle of interiors, their sagging cables still stretching to powerless sockets.

Information Deficit?

Unless you are accustomed to having your spiritual thoughts force-fed to you, few could reasonably expect Geyrhalter to present more substantial and definite answers to the many questions his film provokes, indeed the open-ended quality of his inquiry seems to represent the human condition with great likeness in that respect. Yet scene after scene, particularly in this age of finger-tip information access, cried out for a caption displaying the location for the viewer, meaning that the question I am sure I will not be alone in asking most often was: where is this incredible place? Yet on the other hand, the absence of captions adds to the enigmatic quality of Homo Sapiens.

I imagine a dialogue took place amongst the production team, or possibly even between Geyrhalter the director, Geyrhalter the writer and Geyrhalter the cinematographer, similar to that which often occurs amongst curators of exhibitions as to how much information is necessary or whether to even label the work at all – there are arguments both for and against. Maybe the best to hope for would be an info track option on the DVD/Blu-Ray?

source: ASC Distribution/Kimstim Films
source: Icarus Films

On the positive side, as well as retaining the enigma, the absence of any particular language and even of any music only seems to underline the film’s articulation of the primitively universal: a sense of belonging, association of place and identity, and the extent to which our environments are loaded with things that only possess meaning because we invest it in them. We yearn to find meaning beyond ourselves, but when confronted with the detritus of entire civilizations we realise that so much of our time, energy and meaning is derived from things and projects we bring into the world: it’s like trying to escape a closed circuit.

This film would more than satisfy the most avid consumer of ruin porn, but although it will have all the urban explorers packing extra batteries for their torches and Googling contenders for the locations, I can’t help wondering what a seasoned examiner of anthropology such as Werner Herzog would have done with this footage, for this is a kind of contemporary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a real life presentation of scenes that could have inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

In terms of its situation in the context of cinema, this beautifully shot mediation on the intricacies and often gigantic scale of the built environment is evocative of Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, films that have achieved a mythos beyond mere cult status.


I imagine critics accusing Geyrhalter of lazy filmmaking, in the way that Andre’s Bricks were dismissed, but aside from scenes of fleeting beauty such as the delicate dusty blue of a car in an underground cavern, or a rusting rail infrastructure disintegrating into a forest, it takes guts and belief to present all these scenes without a single person, while calling the film Homo Sapiens. But that is the point, that’s what connects human culture and technology to the spectacle of non-human splendours such as waterfalls, sunsets and canyons: they allow us to transcend ourselves and reach out for something sublime.

In the final scenes of Homo Sapiens, we return to the auditorium from the beginning of the film, but now the water has become ice, and we understand that the human world we share is exposed to external forces, beyond our control.

Can you spot any people, inadvertently caught in the background of any of the shots? Do you feel that the director’s sequencing of images was driven by a different, more tangible narrative? Do you think that Geyrhalter’s selection of locations makes us nostalgic for a world that is still largely intact, in which case he may be manipulating our sentiments like Disney or Spielberg? If so, then tell me in the comments below.

Homo Sapiens is coming to DVD and VOD on November 22.

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