Before We Vanish by Paul Attard Film

Earth | Nikolaus Geyrhalter

Photo: KimStim

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s latest is a rhythmic, matter-of-fact portrait of economic compromise.


Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth, from the outset, frames its massive landscapes as sites of continual transformation; large-scale machinery usually litters the frame, excavating the planet indiscriminately and gradually altering its surface. Most of this ruination is done for the sake of human convenience, abusing land for the sake of more livable space in California. Occasionally, we’re taken underground (a coal mine in Hungary; copper mining in Spain) to witness the grand extent of this destruction, to understand that there’s truly no resource humans wouldn’t exploit for their own gain. Geyrhalter understands this and wisely avoids fetishizing these acts — which would be the biggest issue a film of this nature could indulge in while attempting to wrestle with the existential weight of its subject matter — by placing particular attention onto the griminess of this work: the mounds of dirt being transported, the workers often coated in layers of dust, and the never-ending oceans of sand being relocated.

The film’s general rhythm is one of alternations, shifting between the vastness of these locations and the seemingly insignificant opinions of the workers at these sites in talking-head interviews. Some have come to terms with their actions, others see it as a necessity — both in terms of human dependence and their own financial compensation. While their comments are never particularly astute or challenging in their intellectual rigor, they possess such a matter-of-factness as to provide the film a pragmatic footing. There’s never an implied sense of prosperity that comes from the drudging of Earth’s riches, just the apathy that arises from the looming hand of transnational economy pushing the planet to its breaking point till nothing remains whole. As one worker puts it, almost ironically, “once we get here, it’s not nature anymore.”


Published as part of January 2020’s Before We Vanish.

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