Based on Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 science fiction novel of the same name, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s posthumous directorial debut is anything but a traditional film adaptation. Instead, the trinity of ethereal score, overpowering images of surreal war memorials and Tilda Swinton’s ominous narration of the book’s final chapters forms an abstract piece of future history.
The shape of the first concrete sculpture the camera’s slow tilt examines resembles a coffin. The structure in the following shot is reminiscent of a gravestone, with a hole in the space usually reserved for the deceased’s name. Even without the knowledge that we are looking at so-called Spomeniks, World War II monuments in former Yugoslavia, the sentiment of bereavement, of commemoration is present. At the same time, the peculiarity of their designs, which become more and more abstruse as the film progresses, feels alien and futuristic.
A recurring motif in the sculptures is circles, symbolic of infinity and eternity, and yet the voice that speaks to us informs us that our species, the “first humans”, has become extinct. But while man-made structures are at a standstill, the nature surrounding them has not yet ceased moving. The wind rattles the branches of a tree, carries clouds across the sky. Despite the desolate information we learn about our planet’s future, there is an underlying tone of hope to these little visual details.
Last and First Men is comprised of a multitude of layers and lends itself to a variety of readings. Nevertheless its poignancy is indisputable. The grainy imagery, shot by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen on 16mm film, is visually compelling and reflective. Swinton’s narration has the perfect aloof quality of an evolved being speaking from the future to its ancestors. Jóhannsson’s score, completed by Yair Elazar Glotman, provides the emotional depth to balance the cerebral quality of this haunting piece of filmmaking. It is a requiem for mankind and particularly apt to the current struggles we are facing.
Last and First Men does not have a UK release date set.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.