Either Ore

Tony Pipolo on Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Erde (Earth) (2019)

Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Erde (Earth), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 115 minutes.

FEW DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS have been as consistently preoccupied with the fate of the planet as the Austrian producer, director, writer, and cinematographer Nikolaus Geyrhalter. One wonders, in fact, why it took him so long—nearly a dozen films—before hitting upon the title Earth. Like his previous documentaries, Erde has screened at multiple film festivals and comes trailing awards: the 2019 prize of the Berlinale Ecumenical Jury, Best Green Dox at DokuFest, and even a special award for Best Film on the Topic of Soil at Innsbruck Nature Film Festival. Judging from the topical narrowness of these accolades, one might expect Erde to be another sermon on how we continue to desecrate the environment. But Geyrhalter’s perspective remains far from simplistic. His films, both aesthetically exhilarating and morally unsettling, bear despondent messages about the depletion of natural resources, even as they dare us not to gaze rapturously at images of incomparable beauty. 

This paradox does not mean that his work—any more than that of lesser talents—has helped to alleviate the problems he explores or discourage corporations and governments from pursuing enterprises hostile to the earth’s ecosystem. In fact, Geyrhalter often seems as fatalistic as some of the workers and officials he interviews, whose ambivalence about what they do yields to practical concerns of employment and personal survival. Against those who unpersuasively mouth the party line, others candidly declare that plundering the planet is both inevitable and justified.

Geyrhalter invokes the contest between nature and human intervention with words superimposed over the film’s first shots. While “sixty million tons of surface soil are moved every day by rivers, wind, and other forces of nature,” humans and advanced technology “are the most decisive geological factor of our time.” Astonishing drone shots introduce each of the seven sites visited—not one, it should be noted, is in the Middle or Far East, Australia, Africa, or South America. From this godlike perspective, each view deceptively reveals what seems to be a serene landscape laced with indecipherable swirls of topographical patterns that hint at the geological history of the earth. The minuscule vehicles and machines below convey an impression akin to one articulated by a construction worker in the San Fernando Valley, in which he likens himself to a kid riding a Tonka toy truck and playing in a big sandbox. Geyrhalter offers a clever visual counterpart to this fantasy in such aerial shots, which so innocently belie the nature of what is happening, rendering the activity as harmless as a child’s game.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Erde (Earth), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 115 minutes.

The film immerses the viewer in experiences as formidable as they are incomprehensible. In some cases, we watch machines we can barely identify operating flawlessly, plunging across, into, and through the earth—whether to move mountains and clear land for an inhabitable community in California; to bore underground to complete the largest railway tunnel through the Brenner Pass on the Austrian-Italian border; to improve mining practices for extracting coal or copper in Hungary and Spain; or to dynamite huge chunks off mountains in a marble quarry in Carrara. The personalities and attitudes of the workers are as surprising and varied as the materials they work with. One engineer, speaking of the world’s endless demand for copper, readily contradicts the interviewer’s remark that eventually the supply will be depleted: “No,” she says. “In fact, we don’t know what is down there. There might even be an ore or a resource we have no knowledge of that might be superior.” A museum staff member stands before a display of fossilized trees exhumed from a forest buried in the earth for millions of years, only discovered through the technological innovations of copper mining. Geyrhalter’s inclusion of such observations suggests that the earth’s history has much more to tell us, and that its mysteries might only be revealed through the practices of extraction—however deplorable. This double-edged quality suffuses Erde, whose reliance on drones to seize its spectacular shots is itself a compromise, reaping the rewards of a technology associated with violence.  

Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Erde (Earth), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 115 minutes.

That the film does not appear to settle comfortably into a single, unflinching point of view is to its credit. If one factor stands out in marking the greatest difference between the practices of ancient Rome, let’s say, and the present, it’s the speed at which everything is done—a reality that adds to the present a sense of urgency, which our ancestors may never have felt. The man toiling in the marble quarry says as much when he notes that if we continue at the current rate, marble will disappear in three hundred years. At the same time, he speaks of the adrenaline rush he gets every time he touches things that no human has ever touched before. It’s an attitude echoed by miners, bulldozer drivers, and workers across the West as they pause in their tasks to speak of what they do with gusto, despite their uncertainty about the harm it wreaks upon the planet.             

But Erde concludes on a different note, one much closer to the conventions of socially concerned documentary. The film’s final section takes place in Fort McKay, Canada, and relies on the accounts of indigenous inhabitants who have been driven off their land by oil companies and refused admittance to their sites. Does Geyrhalter’s choice to end his film with one of the more notorious and publicized examples of environmental abuse suggest he does not trust us to parse the subtleties he offers earlier? One can understand the sentiment without endorsing the choice. For this viewer, the final aerial shots of a bleak ashen terrain strike a chord that may demonstrate where his true convictions lie, but compromise the power and resonance of the film’s more troubling contradictions.

Erde runs at Anthology Film Archives in New York from January 10 to January 16.