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115 min. English, German, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian.

A portrait of the Earth in the Anthropocene – at seven locations that humans have transformed on a grand scale: Entire mountains being moved in California, a tunnel being sliced through rock at the Brenner Pass, an open-cast mine in Hungary, a marble quarry in Italy, a copper mine in Spain, the salt mine used to store radioactive waste in Wolfenbüttel and a tar sands landscape in Canada. Initially shown from above as abstract paintings, these terrains are subsequently explored on the ground: The film weaves together observational footage of machines in operation with conversations with the workers. Alongside statements on work processes, environmental damage and technological change, Erde makes this constructed world visible in unique fashion by subtly paring it down: the piles of grey matter, hills and mountains. The blackness and the cracks. The sandy landscapes, criss-crossed by an array of mechanical devices that scuttle about like caterpillars or worms. The dimensions are gigantic, the proportions out of control; the world has slipped from humanity’s grasp. “There is always a bigger machine, a bigger engine and when all fails there is dynamite. We always win.” Or do we? (Alejandro Bachmann)

Nikolaus Geyrhalter was born in Vienna in 1972. Since 1992 he has worked as a director, cinematographer and screenwriter. He started his own production company in 1994. Since then, he has also produced numerous films.

Conversation with Nikolaus Geyrhalter: “Our end as humanity is not the end of the world”

Karin Schiefer: Thematically, each of your films stands on its own, and yet I cannot help drawing a bridge from ERDE to your previous film, HOMO SAPIENS. HOMO SAPIENS uses isolated situations to point to a possible ‘after’ of human civilisation. In ERDE, are you turning your gaze to the ‘before’? To the planet as living raw material that has been at humankind’s disposal since its beginnings?

Nikolaus Geyrhalter: I actually prefer to let my audience find their own connections between my films. As a filmmaker, I devote myself to themes as they present themselves to me and when I feel they are relevant. The topic of the Earth has interested me for a long time, especially in connection with the concept of the Anthropocene, a term that designates a new era in which mankind has become the most influential factor on the planet. To depict the Anthropocene in all its complexity would be too expansive for a film, and therefore probably also too superficial. One of the essential aspects of the concept of the Anthropocene is geology: human beings are now shifting much more of the Earth’s surface than nature does. I wanted to take a closer look at that.

The title, ERDE (‘Earth’), triggers a wide range of associations. Why do you exclusively focus on geological circumstances in the film?

If we regard the Earth as an organism, then its crust, its skin, is the most delicate organ. I wanted to take a closer look at the wounds we inflict on the Earth. It was important to me to show places and actions that trigger associations and make us think. If you go into these huge mines, or these huge construction sites, you are overwhelmed at first and have a hard time grasping the dimensions of the serious changes we humans have caused to the Earth’s surface in a short time. We are all partly responsible for the fact that our way of life would hardly be possible without these ‘scars’ on the Earth’s crust. It was in no way my intention to hold the people who work there accountable – they are the least responsible.
I think it is cinema’s task to take the audience to places that are otherwise difficult to see. We are familiar with the surface of the Earth. The moment an earthmover sinks its teeth into the Earth, the image of the unscathed Earth is automatically supplemented in the audience’s mind. But the places that are being manipulated on a grand scale are normally difficult to access. I think it is fascinating to bring these pictures into the cinema – reflection then occurs automatically.

From the very beginning, humanity’s development and progress have been closely tied to the discovery and use of natural resources. Despite the extremely technologically advanced machines we have today, did you have the impression of approaching an archaic dimension of human activity?

It was a strange mixture of very archaic and simultaneously absolutely banal. This dimension only becomes clear when you view it all from a distance. I do not think that people who sit on an excavator all day every day, carrying away the landscape, have an idea of the dimensions of their work. They see their own site of operation, their own work equipment, their own job. But, as a matter of fact, despite their routine, people reflect deeply on what they are doing – in a way, this surprised and reassured me. At every location we met people who, at the very least, critically questioned their own actions and, by extension, those of our society.

Having already filmed so many work processes, did you have the feeling that these workers have a very special relationship to their work? Here we get a stronger impression of a symbiosis between human and machine than in your other films.

That is right. I think these people for the most part like their work and their machines. I can understand that. The machines, however enormous they may be, are extremely sensitive devices. I have great respect for the people who are able to steer these huge earthmovers. To master a machine, whose operation is fundamentally banal, with such precision comes very close to meditation. I met no one who did not like their work. On the one hand, it is often very lonely; on the other hand, it requires extreme teamwork, and everybody involved has to be thoroughly familiar with the work procedures and the people behind them. There is little communication, and I think that functions better than if there were a lot of talking.

You divided ERDE into seven chapters. You start by addressing humanity’s massive interventions in the landscape, showing extremely impressive extraction sites, and at the end you deal above all with the massive consequences that burden the planet and its inhabitants every day and to an ever-increasing degree. What were your criteria when selecting locations?

We first relied on an English study that tried to register every form of earth movement and also provided numbers. We took a prototypical look at some of them. Many things happen on a small scale, so it is not very interesting cinematically. A first decisive criterion was therefore the size of the sites. (…) Another criterion were the actual possibilities of shooting. We must not forget that in recent years industry has grown ever more restrictive and you can hardly get permission to film anymore. Whether the copper mine was located in Spain or South Africa was not decisive for our film. What was important was finding a large mine and a mine operator who understood our film, who trusted us and let us work without trying to influence us. Of course, the visual aspect also played a role. After all, this is cinema. And I have to say that, despite all the destruction, these images have an impressive aesthetic. We need not be afraid of that. It could be a trap, but it is definitely a reality we have to deal with. We looked for sites where the surface of the Earth is manipulated and which, of course, were supposed to make people think.

Very impressive in ERDE are also the images of explosions. How close did you want to get to the violence that was inflicted on the ‘flesh’ of the mountain, as one of your interviewees calls it?

The idea was that if we were going to talk about explosions in cinema, then they should be rendered vividly, from an unusually close perspective. We used cameras that were not terribly valuable for the experiment, mounting three cameras each on a steel pole, hoping that one of them would survive the explosion. Interestingly, all of them did. But I was also amazed by how peaceful such an explosion looks from up close. It is like a wave, as if all the violence had turned the solid matter into a sea.

Did shooting deep underground make you experience the Earth differently, in a special way?

Not just in this film. This subject also has something to do with my personal history. Almost twenty years ago, we acquired an abandoned farm that had no sewage system and whose wells had dried up. To somehow manage the necessary renovations, the next logical step was to buy an excavator. That was a singular experience: without any physical effort, we were be able to reach layers of earth that had remained untouched for thousands of years and that no one had ever seen. In the film, one of the workers mentions that he sometimes feels like an astronaut – on a small scale, that is also what I experienced. At first, it felt like sacrilege to tear up the undamaged earth just to lay a pipe. There is a huge difference between watching an earthmover and having operated one, having experienced that by simply moving the joysticks with your hands, without exerting strength, you can release enormous forces. You get used to it quickly. And that is precisely what the people in the film also experience: this work seems normal to them, because they believe it to be necessary. Since then, I have been waiting for an opportunity to put these experiences into one of my films.

With the chapter in Wolfenbüttel, where radioactive waste has been stored in an old salt mine for decades, and must now be taken out, we venture into territory of irrecoverable damage, addressing the theme of limits that have long been breached.

Together with the contemporary images, we also show excerpts from a publicity film from the 1970s that claimed that this storage facility is absolutely safe. If you consider how much people believed in the future at the time, you can envision what people in forty or fifty years will think about the things we are doing today. Technological progress is faster than humanity can grasp. Nuclear energy is also a good example to illustrate this. In the Wolfenbüttel episode, I am also addressing other dimensions of time. Decades after nuclear energy was introduced, and after it was clear that it produces radioactive waste, Germany is still looking for a suitable permanent repository. Here the film is about our dealings with the surface of the Earth in a wider sense. We not only take things out of the Earth, we also stuff things into it. We have to keep in mind that the amount of nuclear waste we produced over the last hundred years will remain radioactive for a period that corresponds to the entire history of humankind. We still do not have a concept for its disposal. We ask ourselves, appalled, how this can be, and at the same time we constantly enjoy its advantages. Just condemning things is too simple. Each of my films contains a critique of civilisation, and at the same time I want them to help us understand why things are as they are. Because we are a world population of about 7.5 billion people. We can make an effort to live in a way that reduces our impact, that would delay destructive processes, but ultimately the world functions the way it functions. And, unfortunately, only this way and not another.

The last chapter, filmed in Canada, differs from the others in that it does not show the workers of the shale oil extraction plant, but a person who is a victim of this intervention into her former home.

That was not a voluntary decision from the start. Ever since we started developing this project, we tried in vain to get permission to shoot there. With this sequence, I also want to show that the shale oil industry works extremely hermetically and that there probably have not been any media representatives allowed there for ten years. That, of course, makes you think. But that is just how things turned out and now I find that it fits quite well. We do still show the industry – in the only way possible, namely by flying over it. The shale oil industry had promised to cultivate the landscape anew after it had been successfully exploited. Not even the small factory from the 1940s was rebuilt. So, how credible are the promises that these hundreds of square kilometres of operations will ever be transformed back into forest? If everything were returned to its original state, the extraction would no longer be profitable. The oil extraction processes leave huge artificial basins into which the waste water seeps, and from there, the carcinogenic substances leak into the river and thus into the environment. The state tolerates this pollution, because it seems to benefit the majority of society. A very high price for a few more years with diesel or petrol.

For whom is the barrier in your final image intended?

That remains open. It is not a real barrier. It is a barrier for people like our protagonist Jean, who set out her traplines in these areas and is now prohibited to enter her traditional land. A small excavator could push this barrier away at any time. So, this barrier does not block out everyone. Of course, it is suitable as an ending for a film. But for whom is this really an end? Since HOMO SAPIENS, I have a very relaxed view of all this, because the film taught me that the world and nature will manage somehow. We always talk about the end of the world, but in truth we mean our end as humanity. That is not the end of the world by a long shot.

(Interview: Karin Schiefer, January 2019)

Production Michael Kitzberger, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Wolfgang Widerhofer. Production company Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion (Vienna, Austria). Written and directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Cinematography Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Editing Niki Mossböck. Sound design Florian Kindlinger. Sound Pavel Cuzuioc, Simon Graf, Lenka Mikulová, Hjalti Bager-Jonathansson, Nora Czamler.

World sales Autlook Filmsales
Premiere February 08, 2019, Forum


1994: Angeschwemmt / Washed Ashore (86 min.). 1997: Das Jahr nach Dayton / The Year After Dayton (204 min., Forum 1998). 1999: Pripyat (100 min., Forum 1999). 2001: Elsewhere (240 min.). 2005: Unser täglich Brot / Our Daily Bread (90 min.). 2008: 7915 km (106 min.). 2010: Allentsteig (79 min.). 2011: Abendland (90 min.). 2012: SMZ OST – Donauspital / Danube Hospital (80 min.). 2013: Cern (80 min.). 2015: Über die Jahre / Over the Years (188 min., Forum 2015). 2016: Homo sapiens / Homo Sapiens (94 min., Forum 2016). 2018: Die bauliche Maßnahme / The Border Fence (112 Min.). 2019: Erde / Earth.

Photo: © Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur