Documentary, 115’, Austria
Humans move 156m tons of rock and soil a day, making our species the most decisive geological factor of our time. This is the opening title card of the film Erde (Earth), laid in a soft black font against a landscape that could be mistaken for a planet other than our own. And it is this that is the film’s focus: the irreversible effects of large-scale mining that is transforming our habitat into something unrecognisable; perhaps soon to be uninhabitable.
The meditative way in which Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter presents the ravaging of Earth’s natural resources reflects the complacency with which we sit by and watch, convinced of our own powerlessness. He shows us mountains being moved in California, a train tunnel being created deep in the Brenner Pass, an open-cast mine in Hungary, a treacherous marble quarry in Italy, a salt mine full of radioactive waste in Wolfenbüttel, a copper mine in Spain and tar sands in Canada. The wide, observational images of destruction are presented against a score of diegetic sound; a monstrous symphony of diesel engines and robotic drills. The lack of music emphasises the creepy, alien-like aerial views of the carnage, accentuated by the absolute silence of the audience throughout; the viewer has no choice but to sit and watch the mayhem from a distance. Between each new location, we’re presented with what appear to extreme close-ups of rock formations, but are soon revealed to be drone shots of the ground from the sky: dynamite planted below the dirt detonates and rumbles the entire space, spewing dark dust into the air. Down below, four Spanish workers watch from behind a 4x4, before hopping in and driving towards the wreckage like soldiers running towards battle.
Narrated by the machinery operators and engineers themselves, Geyrhalter puts no words into his subjects’ mouths, yet engages in such a way to find the truth of what they feel about the processes they’re all engaged in, and allows the images of devastation to speak for themselves. “There is always a bigger machine, a bigger engine and when all fails there is dynamite. We always win,” laughs an American mountain-mover, whose joy contradicts the preceding footage of Californian hills being upturned, shifted and flattened to make way for a new housing development. Almost all of those interviewed lucidly accept the violent nature and the detrimental effects of their work, but (necessarily?) excuse its damaging effects as either vital for human survival or intrinsic to human nature; inevitable. One Hungarian crane operator describes the horror he felt upon seeing the melting of glaciers with his own eyes. He explains how, due to his large salary, he can (and must) escape into the wilderness between jobs to clear his mind of his everyday work; himself a victim of the indifferent and arrogant industrial companies and governments that engage in and allow such activity.
In one section, the camera descends with two engineers deep into the Asse Mountains of Wolfenbüttel, where they’ve been tasked with fortifying the old salt mine to ensure that radioactive materials dumped there decades earlier will not become damaged by brine for the next million years. On a small projection screen, a young worker watches footage from a ‘70s documentary cockily illustrating the supposedly “full proof” operation that created the mess. The worker smiles slightly, speechless at the short-sightedness that his grandfather’s generation demonstrated. I only hope that this film does not serve the same function another fifty years down the line; a melancholic historical document begging the question, “What on Earth were we thinking?”
Erde is an urgent portrait of Earth in the Anthropocene presented without the emotionally manipulative tropes of other climate change documentaries or activist films. While the movie itself is overwhelming in its sheer vastness, by ending with footage of Indigenous Canadian protesters it reminds us that we are obliged to never stop fighting a system that enables a handful of humans to recklessly mutilate our only planet for profit, indifferent to the kind of world they leave behind for future inhabitants.
- George Bartlett