Berlinale 2020: Jóhann Jóhannsson's Entrancing 'Last and First Men'
by Alex Billington
February 26, 2020
The iconic Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson passed away with a few years ago, but he has left us with something timeless and extraordinary – an awe-inspiring work of cinematic brilliance, both aurally and visually. Last and First Men is a 70-minute documentary feature that Jóhannsson originally created as a visual piece to accompany his live concerts. The finished "documentary" film was put together by Icelandic producer Thor Sigurjonsson and Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, and it has just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival – two years after his death. Maybe it helped that I was deliriously tired (film fest exhaustion) when I watched this but… This is one of the most entrancing cinematic experiences I have ever had. I feel like I stopped caring about time and was completely lost in the footage and the music and the words. My mind melded with the screen on this journey. I loved every last second of this experience.
"Two billion years ahead of us, a future race of humans finds itself on the verge of extinction. Almost all that is left in the world are lone and surreal monuments, beaming their message into the wilderness." The spoken narration from the film comes directly from Olaf Stapledon's novel "Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future". Tilda Swinton delivers the narration and speaks about how the last men, far in the future, are trying to communicate with us here in the past. To try and teach us lessons about life, about the cosmos, about our solar system, about time itself; and to also help them, in hopes that they can help us in return. This film is exactly my kind of hypnotizing existential filmmaking and it rules. A perfect harmony of awe-inspiring philosophical narration, mesmerizing grainy B&W abstract cinematography, and Jóhann Jóhannsson's profoundly stunning, chilling music. Watch without distractions and be lulled into its trance.
There's so much grain in the 16mm footage shot by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, I could almost taste the grain on the screen. The never-ending swirling, staticky visual buzz of the millions of minuscule dots. It's all part of the experience of watching Last and First Men, and goodness does it make a difference to see this on a big screen with full sound. When Jóhannsson's score comes sweeping in at big moments, its an adrenaline rush. Watching this film gave me the chills. I was completely and totally lost in it. It made me wonder about our place in the universe, about the cosmos and the grandiosity of the stars, about how humanity will last for so many generations beyond my own. I want to sit through it all again right away, as a spiritual experience, to feel the same awe and intrigue that I did this first time around. It's a film that makes you wonder about this vast universe we exist in, and whether humanity matters in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps we don't…?
The cinematography works wonders because it's not about actually trying to figure out what you're looking at. The abstract landscape and sky footage is mostly of various objects and memorial sculptures built in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. The shots, the composition with subtle movements make it seem as if you're staring into the cosmos, drifting through space. Lost in time. Or more specifically: time no longer matters. You don't need to know what it is you're looking at because it's the mesmerizing experience of looking that matters. And in conjunction with the narration it seems as if a few shots are showing us monuments to men, left millions of years ago, captured now in this time capsule video as lonely objects to provide a momentary reference to the human race that once was. It reminded me of the few sci-fi novels that explore this very idea of long lost monuments, like Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama", and Jack McDevitt's "The Engines of God."
Ultimately, this is Jóhann Jóhannsson's creation, and it is his music that makes it the sensational spiritual experience that it is. He composed the score with Yair Elazar Glotman, and it features angelic vocals with the usual bevy of string instruments that define Jóhannsson's style. It's a beautiful thing to listen to on its own, as an album, but it's not the same as experiencing the film and all three distinct aspects of it together. I'm always seeking exhilarating cinematic experiences, but rarely are they ever this enchanting. It's possible for this 70 minute film to be a life-changing experience. It may make you forget about time and life and the limits of humanity on Earth, and wonder what more you can achieve, and how we can push beyond these limits. But your experience is your experience. Let it be whatever it will be. I am happy that Jóhannsson has left us with such a colossally limitless slice of cinema that will live on forever, well beyond our own lifetimes.