by William Stupp
Every year, Movies That Matter brings important films from all over the world to The Hague. The festival puts emphasis on screening films which respond to issues of human rights and sustainability. This year, due to ongoing restrictions on public gatherings, the festival is being held online from March 20th till April 19th. The festival includes dozens of films which grapple with a host of important issues. Among them I review four movies. Antigone, No Gold For Kalsaka, Earth, and When Are You Coming Back, Kees? Though the films are differentiated by their subject matter, style and narrative forms, each represents a director’s creative take on an important subject. Each is a movie that matters.
While taking in and trying to make sense of Earth, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary feature from 2019, it is useful to recall the film’s title. The movie takes the viewer to seven different locations across Europe and North America. There are obvious similarities between most of the backdrops; each is the site of a battle between the earth and humans seeking to expand their infrastructure. We witness the digging of a large tunnel through a gargantuan mountain, the machinery of strip mines in action, and the destruction of hills slated to be replaced by suburbs. We hear from the men and women who work at these sites, tearing holes in the earth and meandering through its bowels. Everywhere, in long shots which mesmerize and stir a sense of alienation, we feel the rumble of machinery and the sudden, gory eruption of earth when humans resort to explosives, our crudest weapon in the battle against the earth.
That there must be an ecological message in Earth is readily apparent. The message itself, and the way the film’s narrative, such as it is, allows it to unfold, is much more subtle. The film’s title, and the text which opens the film, set everything up. We are informed that natural forces move an estimated 60 million tons of soil everyday, during which time humans move about 156 million tons. This makes our species “the most decisive geological factor of our time.”
Central to the film are the meanings of the word ‘earth’, namely that which is synonymous with the soil referred to in the opening text. Earth focuses intently on its titular subject. Each scene deals with the movement of large amounts of earth through remarkable feats of engineering. The soil and rock represented by the word ‘earth’ are of course the origin for the name of the planet. These days ‘earth’ also often holds an environmentalist connotation, alluding to a conception of the planet not as a space where we all live, but a vast organic system that supports us all. The brilliance of Geyrhalter’s film is the way he employs the synecdoche in which soil and rock represent our planet and its ecosystems.
Though there is clearly a dire message about the damage humans do to the earth, the film itself is subdued. The cold precision and the predictability of the machines which populate the film do not lend themselves to drama (though they do invoke a sense of awe and other-worldliness). Most importantly, with its focus on tunneling and mining, Earth lacks the sort of emotion-inducing images one might see in an environmentalist polemic. There are no shots of polluted rivers or wretched animals deprived of habitats. It is not immediately clear how the digging of a tunnel through a barren mountain and the cutting of marble blocks are harmful to life on earth. Earth then, seems a straightforward exploration of the remarkable ability we now possess to move earth.
But there is more going on, for the film motions toward the way these movements of earth might affect the larger Earth. Scenes of earthworks in action are interspersed with interviews of workers. In some of these, the front-line soldiers of battle against earth use such warlike metaphors to describe their labor. Prompted by the filmmaker, some reflect on their need to swallow internal conflict about what they are doing. Such observations and concerns pointedly focus on what is immediately accessible: workers fret a little about destroying a scenic hill, and less still about the broader environmental situation.
It is a situation which might be treated apocalyptically, but Earth takes a different route. Marble workers note the rapid expansion of their quarry. An employee at a coal strip mine with an interest in geology guides us through the hundreds of millions of years of geological history visible at the mine, including a tropical episode evidenced by a petrified forest; another recalls traveling abroad to see glaciers and the sorrow he felt noting how quickly they have shrunk. The coal that he mines, he acknowledges with sadness at the end of the segment, plays a part in this destruction.
The narrative about earth created by the film hovers around compelling ideas. Each worksite is captured in such a way that it appears a visual wonder. The size and performances of the machines inspire an oddly satisfying mixture of the wonder and disturbance. The workers, for the most part, have interesting things to say. As the film draws to a close, it becomes less coy in addressing the broader destructive impulses of mankind. The second-to-last segment deals with a former salt mine now used to store nuclear waste. The final section finally moves beyond the worksite, including for the first time indigenous environmental activists instead of miners.
The turn is a bit jarring for the viewer, but becomes less so when the film is viewed as the series of vignettes that it is. Like a collection of short stories, the segments come together to form a narrative. It is cohesive, but one should resist the temptation to tie each episode together and merge their contexts to create a strong, immutable meaning. Better to admire the film’s stunning scenes and let its messages seep in without trying to insert too strong a narrative into it.