At this year’s Berlinale, the most easily recognizable cliché has been the obligatory scene of a character so frustrated they start breaking furniture or throwing objects against a wall and out a window. This has been true for Lily Lane, I, Olga Hepnarová, Don’t Call Me Son, Jonathan, and Boris Without Béatrice. It isn’t without irony, then, that Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s dialogue-less Homo Sapiens features 94 minutes’ worth of destroyed, decayed, and looted environments. There are no humans in this world, only the traces of our violence and neglect. This experimental gem from Austria portrays a planet as if abandoned by people who made sure to ransack it on their way out to brighter galaxies. There are deserted Japanese-style rooms filled with hundreds of chaotically stacked books; wrecked movie theaters with rotting film projectors; bars invaded by mold and moss; flooded auditoriums; and dilapidated hospitals, corporate offices, prisons cells, and bowling alleys.
For a film so committed to observation, its shots can sometimes feel too brief, making us yearn for the temporal fearlessness of James Benning’s Ten Skies. Instead of surveying landscape, Geyrhalter seems to treat a decomposed space as a form of letter for some kind of alphabet to emerge. Homo Sapiens becomes an exercise in spectatorial endurance not because of its pacing, but due to the filmmaker’s refusal to offer any sense of orientation (are we in Korea? Japan? Siberia?) or progress; the only movement Geyrhalter is interested in is the intransitivity of circles. The film’s non-narrative advances only ever conceptually. What at first looks like the examination of the deterioration of one single village grows into a painterly inspection of the four corners of the world, and throughout the four seasons.
The most beautiful moments from Homo Sapiens are of birds flying indoors, sometimes coming in and out of soulless structures in a game of hide-and-go-seek with the camera lens. These creatures are the only things that breathe, and that actually move, in Geyrhalter’s rotting planet. They’re caught in a real-life version of Bill Morrison’s Decasia, where it’s human creation in all of its superfluousness, not the artistry of celluloid, that crumbles. The birds also exist in a playful, yet mournful, register akin to René Clair’s 1924 masterpiece Paris Qui Dort, a short film about a group of people who’re left to roam around the city of light while everyone and everything else stops for a few hours. Except that in Homo Sapiens the pause isn’t an intermission, but a worldwide burial with only avian witnesses.
Berlinale runs from February 11—21.