Simultaneously stoic and anguished, “Earth” takes a determined, unrelenting look at what Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter calls “the wounds we are inflicting” on our planet.
Like his previous documentaries (“Homo Sapiens,” “Our Daily Bread”), this one is forcefully experimental, rejecting what the film’s press materials disdain as “familiar rhetorical devices” and “uninspired formal qualities of more run-of-the-mill ‘social issues’ docs.” Because the result is an experience that was not made for the masses, he is likely to preach primarily to the converted. But anyone willing to submit to the urgent exactitude of his methods will walk away deeply unsettled.
The film is divided into seven chapters, each of which brings us to a different location, but the overarching vision is always the same: In any economic or ecological battle between nature and humankind, the latter will do anything necessary to win.
Geyrhalter travels through Europe and North America, recording the progress and damage that many of his subjects acknowledge go hand-in-hand. He talks to Carrara marble miners in Italy, and a metallurgist mining for copper in Spain. In the San Fernando Valley, enormous trucks move across brown, denuded masses of dirt, as a driver ruefully recalls the “acres and acres of trees” that were removed to make way for more housing.
A machine operator in Hungary has a more prosaic response, noting that “if we feel sorry for the trees, we will not produce any energy. They are just obstacles in our way.” In Austria, an engineer inside a hollowed-out mountain core agrees that her project is environmentally problematic. But also, she adds, “we can’t stop transporting goods, so….” And all the while, machines beep and rumble and push, inexorably, through the land.
Some of the interviews are more trenchant than others; we don’t really need the Hungarian museum docent to remind us that dinosaurs existed on the planet longer than humans have. And it’s sad but hardly surprising to hear a Spanish archaeologist muse that “humankind doesn’t learn, neither from history nor from anything else. I don’t know why.”
The interviews with the workers are generally more complex and insightful. Geyrhalter’s intent is clearly to give voice to people who are most often overlooked. But the palpable absence of decision-makers — CEOs, stockholders, politicians — winds up inadvertently allowing them to bypass responsibility, while placing an enormous onus on the laborers.
For much of the movie, though, we don’t hear from anyone at all. Geyrhalter, who does his own camerawork, is equally interested in both the micro (every shovelful of earth) and the macro (the immense impairment to Earth itself). He generally starts each chapter with an establishing shot overhead, so we can see some extent of the scarring. Then he comes in close for interviews, before purposefully testing our patience with wordless, intensely repetitive long shots of machinery and technology.
Because he rejects a straightforward, fact-packed documentary approach in favor of a more elemental one, we feel both the emotional impact and the practical deficiency more keenly. After several minutes watching trucks move back and forth, we’re left wishing we knew more about the decisions that led to each project. And because he focuses so intently on particular methodologies while deliberately avoiding others, the balance can feel off. There is little space for scientific, economic, or legal information, but plenty to learn that each stroke of a strip-mining gripper measures 1.7 meters, while the excavated material is transported outside on a conveyor belt that’s 22 meters long.
Though Geyrhalter shoots from seemingly every angle, the cinematography itself is equally clinical. This leads to a harshly striking — and strikingly harsh — tableau, which aptly reflects his intentions. But when the movie brings to mind Ai Weiwei’s similarly urgent epic “Human Flow,” it’s hard to avoid wondering whether a broader visual approach might have pulled us in further. The same is true for the rigorously parallel interviews, in which the workers often reflect a notably similar ambivalence about what they’re doing.
But, of course, the numbing sameness of that work, and the deathly gray banality each excavation accomplishes, are the point. It’s easy to drive to a relative’s new suburban housing community, or admire a friend’s Carrara countertop, without thinking twice about the greater costs. As Geyrhalter tells us, “Humans move 156 million tons of rock and soil per day, making humankind the most decisive geological factor of our time.” Though we leave “Earth” feeling overwhelmed, we’re also more aware than ever that he’s only shown us the tiniest fraction of our impact.