Last and First Men (2020) by Jóhann Jóhannsson
February 22nd, 2024
Via Wikipedia: "Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson directed and scored a multimedia Last and First Men, 'combining a film narrated by actress Tilda Swinton and accompanying score played by the BBC Philharmonic' at the 2017 Manchester International Festival. The 16mm black-and-white film is predominantly of memorial sculptures erected in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Jóhann collaborated with José Enrique Macián on writing the narration adapted from Stapledon's novel. [...] In 2020, a film of this work was released as Jóhann's debut and final directorial work, with composer and sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman completing the work after Jóhann's death in February 2018."
Outstanding cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.
Via The New York Times: "Based on the 1930 science fiction novel by Olaf Stapledon, the film mainly consists of 16-millimeter black-and-white images of abandoned monuments, identified in the credits as being in the Balkans. No humans appear. While the camera surveys the asymmetries of the monolithic sculptures, often pondering the sky through negative space in the stonework, Tilda Swinton delivers a voice-over that begins with an epic poem-style invocation ('listen patiently') and is framed as a dispatch from two billion years from now, when our descendants, bracing for extinction, share a telepathic hive mind and have appearances that would look grotesque to us."
Via Variety: "To the accompaniment of Swinton’s measured voiceover and Jóhannsson’s alternately shiver-soft and stormy score, Grøvlen’s camera slowly and gradually explores these vast, eerie forms of stone and concrete as if they were natural wonders, sometimes opening on peculiar, unidentifiable architectural details before revealing their looming place in the landscape. That no historical or even geographical context is given for these harsh, magnificent tableaux of indestructible human folly is somehow apt: Their meaning will inevitably be as lost and open to interpretation by future generations (or, in our narrator’s wording, 'species') as they are here. The crisp, hard lines and contrasts of Grøvlen’s monochrome compositions allude to the Spomeniks’ stubborn permanence: Perhaps they’re all the eighteenth species has left of ours, after however many intervening apocalypses.
That underlying theme of what we leave, of endurance in the face of the ephemeral, is hard not to consider in the light of Jóhannsson’s own 2018 passing. Intended or otherwise, Last and First Men finally stands as a brutally beautiful memorial to his own life and artistry, ready to be reinterpreted and appropriated by any audiences who stumble upon it in years to come. That makes it a severe work, but not a bleak one:
As it prompts consideration of how and when our species will end — see it as a tactful climate change warning if you will — it also invites wonder at our capacity to evolve and invent, and a kind of zen respect for the universe that, as Swinton’s unnervingly unfazed messenger gently reminds us, will outlive us all, even when our mightiest monuments tumble."