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Nikolaus Geyrhalter • Director of Earth

"Earth can be regarded as a description of the state of things, but also as a fundamental critique of civilisation"


- Nikolaus Geyrhalter talks about his most recent documentary, Earth, which screened at the Diagonale after competing in the Forum section of this year’s Berlinale

Nikolaus Geyrhalter  • Director of Earth
(© Simon Graf)

We spoke to Nikolaus Geyrhalter, whose most recent film, Earth [+see also:
film review
interview: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
film profile
, explores the fact that humans are now physically influencing and shaping the planet more than nature itself. After competing in the Forum section of this year’s Berlin Film Festival and winning the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, the film celebrated its Austrian premiere at the recent Diagonale.

Cineuropa: How did you become interested in making a film on this subject?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: A huge number of studies have been conducted on this subject, and they’ve all come to the same conclusion: that since the beginning of this century, man has been moving more earth than nature. I had wanted to take a closer look at that for quite some time: at where it happens, at how it happens and, also, at what it actually looks like, technically. These are immense operations that one cannot easily gain access to. The idea was that we would look for places where a lot of material gets moved, where you could also actually see it and feel it. They had to be places where we could understand why it was happening. We were also looking for places while bearing in mind that there should be a critical element contained in each chapter, for each location.

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How did you decide on the order in which the excavation and mining sites should be presented in the film?
It was a long process. I always shoot a bit, edit the material, and then continue researching – that way, everything just keeps adding up, and the direction it’s heading in becomes clearer. The decision regarding the order in which they would be shown was not made at one specific moment; it entailed a long process.

You have been active in the field of documentary filmmaking for a long time. How much of what is actually going to happen while filming are you able to anticipate?
A lot can be anticipated, yes, and one absolutely has to remain open to those things that can’t be foreseen. What can be anticipated helps on a smaller scale; it helps you to decide more efficiently where to position the camera. What cannot be predicted is the way in which a location is going to develop, the manner in which interviews will evolve and branch out, and then, what can be done with all of that. It’s good to have some parameters for where you want the film to go and to know what your expectations of it are, but at the same time, you have to remain open to everything that may possibly come your way. Because the initial findings are not sufficient. We also have to keep up because everything is continuously changing and gaining complexity. One has to be ready to embrace surprises, adjust one’s position and react to them. 

Your film strikes a balance between the attention it pays to the greater overarching topic and the attention it pays to each of the interviewees. Was it important for you to successfully achieve that?
Yes, that’s because if you only look at the bigger picture, you can’t get up close to the details, and if you only look at the smaller picture, then you do not get to see the greater implications. The idea was to compare and contrast the two. In Earth, first you see these massive procedures that involve big machines, but people are the ones who are controlling them, and they are also the ones who reflect on what is happening. The two cannot be separated. Oddly, the people who do this work never get asked for their opinion on it. One never sees them in front of a camera.

You’re not attempting to present a range of different opinions in the film.
No, of course not; I’m not doing a survey. I have my own opinion on the subject, naturally; there is a critical element that isn’t presented directly, but which one can feel. But my opinion is not that important. To me, it’s more important to let the audience form their own opinion. Then, one can of course encourage the viewers to form one. So, the movie has an objective, a meaning and a certain direction, but the audience has to discover it on their own.

How did you decide on the title?
Well, it’s a good one, isn’t it? I mean, it has a double meaning, which is fitting. On the one hand, the film is about earth on a smaller scale. On the other hand, it’s about much more than that, and you can see it as a bigger movie that deals with a lot of subjects. It can be regarded as a description of the state of things, but also as a fundamental critique of civilisation.

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