Austrian documentary filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter discusses his latest film, Homo Sapiens (2016), a fictional documentary that depicts the empty spaces of our world after humans are gone. These real spaces are linked in static shots that are grouped thematically, as sound and subtle movement texture these decaying and calmly depeopled totems to civilization.

We chatted with Nikolaus about the production of Homo Sapiens, the development of its cinematographic language, and finding an end for the end of humankind. The film plays Toronto as part of the Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival on Saturday, October 21, 2017.

The Seventh Art: Where did your interest in the subject matter originate?

Nikolaus Geyrhalter: For many people the subject is the abandoned spaces, the ruins, but that’s not my main interest. The films I make are usually films about mankind, our civilization, and this was to have a different look at what we do and how we live by using these locations to create this retrospective look at us. For me, it’s a film about homo sapiens, that’s why we chose the title. Of course, it’s interesting to see how the decay happens. It’s like a possible journey into the future, but the main focus was always on trying to find traces of humans.

Was there a direct link to filming Pripyat (1999) and the experience in the restricted zone of Chernobyl?

No, it was so long ago. It would have been very easy to shoot in Pripyat for this film, as well, because now it’s kind of open to the public, but it just seemed boring to me to repeat it.

How long were you shooting Homo Sapiens?

It was nearly five years from the very first idea until it was finished in the end. It took so long because we started shooting right away during the research phase. Usually you write the script first, but we didn’t do this. We took the money for the research and tried to shoot the first scenes, really get into it, to try to find out where we could go and if it could work at all. We got quite far, but in the end I was missing specific locations. We had a list of what I wanted to show and there were some topics that I really wanted to have in the film, that I wanted to tell about humans: the waste we produce, the fact that we are not a peaceful species, we treat other species badly. To find specific images for this, those locations, which also needed to be in the perfect state of decay. They had to be in a stat where you could still understand what the space was, self-explaining, but they couldn’t be too trashed. Once they’re full of graffiti or too demolished, the image doesn’t work any more. The end of production was looking for specific locations that we needed for the story.

When choosing your shots, were you debating how legible to make the spaces? Making it too obvious what the space is vs. too abstract?

We did a lot of research on the internet and had a database of thousands of locations, always following these UrbEx (urban exploration) photographers because those are interesting for us, the new locations that have just been found. Even if these were locations where there were nice photographs, it didn’t mean they would make sense in the movie. It also didn’t mean that these locations would be in the same state when we arrive. We usually would make contact with the photographer and ask about the accessibility, the owner of the space, and so on. With most of the locations we knew what they should stand for in the movie, so we were trying to shoot them in a specific way that tell their story between the lines. 

At what point did you know these would be locked off shots instead of moving ones?

From the very first day of shooting, because there was a theoretical, philosophical approach. The story of the film should work as if there are no humans left and if there are none left, who would move? Who is the person looking around? We wanted to create a neutral, abstract point-of-view of somebody… some creature… but didn’t want to implement any human-like movements like walking into a location. Then it would distract the audience from the idea that there is nobody there. It should be very sterile. Most of the time we were using a point-of-view that is much higher than a human’s point-of-view. We were working with ladders and scaffolding to get higher. Some people call this the ‘God point-of-view’, I don’t think it’s that, but it is an abstract point-of-view and it also has the affect of architecture photography; all the lines are not bending and you see more. You have a better overview than if you were just walking into this location. All these ideas lead to the cinematographic language: we look for the centre point-of-view, we go higher, we use total shots without details, it’s just about creating rooms in the cinema for the audience.

You mention architecture photography, were there any specific photographers you were influenced by?

I couldn’t mention names, but yes there are. I come from photography and like it, but other than that there’s UrbEx photographers, there are so many people doing this around the world. They are not famous photographers, but sometimes they do a great job. This film was in some way influenced by many people who don’t even know about it. At the same time, I know that we influenced many of those photographers. We had a lot of contact with some of them. Sometimes our work was a little bit like UrbEx photography, but with another goal in the background.

Were you in touch specifically with [Yves] Marchand & [Romain] Meffre, the ones who did the Detroit and Gunkajima series?

No, I haven’t met them in person, but I have one of their books at home and they are part of photographic history.

I find it interesting the amount of reviews that see the film as containing allusions to other filmmakers, especially the avant-garde and Tarkovsky. It’s like those images are other traces of civilization that the viewer can read into the film. Were there intentional references to filmmakers?

No, no references at all. I think especially with this film, I wouldn’t know anything like this that existed before. I don’t think I was influenced by any filmmakers, more by photography. Most of the films I do are interviews, but they’re all static and slow with wide-angle lenses, very much about exploring environments. Some people compare it to Our Daily Bread (2005) and the slaughterhouse, where there are similar, empty shots. I didn’t feel like I needed to quote anyone, though.

Our Daily Bread is another film that like this one plays with ironies, layers of meaning, but has empathy for its subject. Would you say this film that, as critical as it is, is empathetic?

Absolutely. There is a lot of empathy towards the humans. It’s hard to like them, but I do like them. I’m part of this. The funny thing that I learned from shooting and post-production, when the material was first put together with sound, was that it was so peaceful. Suddenly, this apocalyptic nightmare that everyone has was no longer a nightmare anymore, it was a kind of relief. What I learned from this film – and I didn’t expect this – was that although I really like to be alive, if you see it from a distance, if the humans were extinct, it’s nothing to be afraid of; the planet would cope with it, the plants would be very peaceful, and humans wouldn’t be missed. 

Did you feel that way when you were in these spaces shooting? I know that a lot of work went into the sound design, was there any of that peaceful aural quality in the spaces?

Not at all, because those places usually weren’t outside of civilization. We didn’t record the sound for most of the locations because there were towns, airplanes. We learned quickly that we would have to totally construct the sound, which was intended to sound as natural as possible, but there was nearly no sound we could use in the original locations. So Peter [Kutin] and Florian [Kindlinger], basically while we were travelling the world gathering images, they were travelling the images getting the sounds. Even if you took sounds from archives, there would be some kind of background noise that could sound like there was street traffic in the background. It was impossible to use those. A lot of the sounds needed to be recorded in really, really remote places. That was going on in parallel to the images for basically the same amount of time.

Did you have to intervene in the spaces while shooting to hide your own tracks?

We removed them digitally in the end, because nowadays that’s much easier. Yes, we had to influence the images. We did not alter images in a way that would be unrealistic. We removed footprints – our’s and other people’s – and we removed graffiti. They did not work in the film. We had pre-screenings while we were editing and when the first graffiti appeared, the storyline just broke. Until now, I can’t explain why that is, but right now in the film there is some kind of magic. There are no humans, no one knows what happened, but still it’s an aesthetic process. If all those locations are full of graffiti, it’s just ugly. Why did the humans disappear? We don’t know, but if before they disappeared they spray-painted tags, it would be strange. Sometimes we would add wind when there was no wind because if the image is static, we don’t want to make a slideshow. Nature is important, the way you feel nature was often wind. Often, when we entered the building by opening a door, the wind would come in and it was a magic moment, but of course you miss [filming] that. So we started to carry a leaf-blower with us to create wind sometimes. Whatever alterations we did to the images, I limited it to never being more change that could have realistically filmed in the location if we were there at another time: before somebody tagged it, trashed it, made footprints. We didn’t add anything or take away anything else. We just made the spaces, in some way, more clean just to make the story work. A lot of the magic of the film comes from this strange type of beauty. 

How did you determine what the duration of the shots would be? They all seem to be around the same length.

They’re all about 20-25 seconds. It was hard, we shot them all for a minute or so, at least. The rest occurred in the editing. Until we had the rough edit of the structure of the film, we simply used half a minute for every shot. Then when the structure was there, and when the sound was there, this changed the duration of the shots again – then we did the final adjustment. Very often the duration of the shots is not only connected to the dramaturgical storyline, but often to the sound – what happens in the sound, how much illusion does the sound create. We were not editing silently, when we were first editing we had a basic sound that we created just to have something. When the final sound was added, it was a completely different experience. We went to the cinema often to check it, because with such a film you can never make decisions such as the duration of the shot on the editing table. You need to be in a big room, you need to have the sound from all sides, and then it is easier to determine how to edit the length of the shots. 

Was the sound design created to reflect the rough edit you had, or were you given different pieces you could attach to different shots?

It was both. It was a parallel work and we needed some bits of sounds for editing, of course, so they gave us whatever they had, but it wasn’t the final sound work. When we did the final mixing, we were very careful not to use any sound material more than one time in the film.

How did you settle on the different chapters, how long each would be, and the order?

Whenever it felt right, they are not the same length. We fade to black whenever we needed to mark each chapter or when we felt we needed a break.

Were they grouped thematically when you gathering all the footage or was that something you came to later in the edit?

In the first 40% of the film, say, it is thematic groups. We had a feeling we needed to tell about humans. There are locations that are not edited together like the original locations, they’re edited together in the way that they make sense. For example, the slaughterhouse that appears to be one slaughterhouse in the film is actually put together from three different locations in Italy, Norway and then some images from Poland, because we could not find one location where we could follow the entire line. In the beginning of the film it is more about the affect of the humans, then it’s chapters about states of decay – the island in Japan, the sandstorm – those are locations that are told by different shots, but not a mixing of different real locations. It’s more about the water, the snow, the wind. It’s always getting regenerative, the humans are disappearing and it’s more about the states of nature.

A lot of your films tend to be focused on place, but this film and Over the Years (2015) have a strong element of time. How much were you thinking about the different eras or periods of the spaces?

We were looking for the more recent spaces, because they were closest to our civilization. It’s easy to find ruins of old fabrics of old companies, but they don’t attach to the audience. They will think, it’s always time to tear something down. You wouldn’t have a feeling for these locations. It’s logical, they are of no more use. We were looking for locations that looked like they were out of our recent life. We tried to find the most modern ruins, that have some degree of decay, which was harder to find, of course. Usually the buildings have some kind of lifespan. When we had the choice between different locations that could tell the same story, we would always choose the more recent.

Why did you choose the few ones that are more old and well-known, the Soviet structure in Bulgaria and the island of Gunkajima?

Yeah, we chose the Soviet structure in Bulgaria because it some ways it’s beautiful and it brought the political discussion into the movie. It’s part of history, we didn’t want to exclude history. If humans were to disappear today, there would be historical buildings left. We needed recent ones to show that our present is here in a futuristic look.

It’s easier to imagine the future if you look into the present.

Yeah, of course, in the end it is a film about the present. I think it’s very much a film about us. There’s no human in the image, no human to be heard, but for me, at least, the humans are present throughout the film.

Do you think the understanding of how we live – also the subject of Abendland (2011) – is cynical or more even-handed?

I think it’s realistic. It’s my point-of-view. I think there’s a lot of criticism to be read between the lines, by the choice of locations and the way I tell the stories in my films. But I would never scream this out to loud, that is what I want the audience to understand themselves. We lay the tracks and it’s easy to follow these tracks, but it’s not necessarily like this. The films that I make are usually an offer to the audience to think for themselves and experience whatever they do. Especially with Homo Sapiens, however hundreds of people in the cinema will see hundreds of different films. Ideally, these are somehow linked with what I want to say with it. The experiences the audience make themselves are more sustainable, not a didactic film from some director telling them what to think. The process of ending up with your own ideas are much more stronger, and if they are related to mine, I am happy, but it doesn’t have to be like this.

Is that something that informs the structure of the film, the order of the chapters and where it concludes?

We try to make the story as easy as possible with the materials we have, but a lot of it is not easy. A lot of the film is hard work in a way. You have to make your way through it, be willing, otherwise you see ruin porn for ninety minutes – which is still fun – but if you want the best out of this movie, you have to be open to creative thinking.

Did you always have the last shots in mind?

No. It’s very hard to find a conclusion, it’s very hard to end this film because it could go on forever. We were in a lucky situation where we were in this Buzludzha Monument, which opened the film, but also had scenes with different types of weather. We were shooting there for three days, but every day it was different weather. We had winter once, the ice once, the water once, the fog… It was too beautiful not to use and we thought we had to do something like this, it’s the only time in the movie where a location is repeated. This is a good way to communicate that now there is a major change and probably the end of the film. How else could you end it? If it’s a film about the end, there is no ending to it.

And nature taking over now includes the frame.

Yeah, in the end, Michael Palm, who was editing the film, said when we were fading out into the white, “This must be how dying feels.” We thought that was appropriate.