Last and First Men (2017)

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This was the first time at MIFF 68.5 that I really missed being in a cinema. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson directs his only feature, bringing together three distinct and disparate components to create an emotional experience that cries out for sensory immersion.

Listen carefully. We who are the last men, earnestly desire to communicate with you.

Last and First Men

Based on the 1930 novel Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, a disembodied narrator (Tilda Swinton) recounts to us in measured tones the end of human kind, sending wisdom back from thousands of millions of years in the future. Surging in and around her voice is the otherworldly score by Jóhannsson, sometimes guttural, sometimes transcendent and evocative of limitless space as well as the tectonic groan of the Earth. The third component is the visual imagery; filmed in high-contract black and white, a slowly moving camera pulls us in, around and through gargantuan, brutalist monuments in an empty landscape.

The other benefit of being in a cinema is the lack of distraction, the forced concentration. At first I struggled to engage; the lack of visual dramatic tension encourages your mind to wander as you think about what has past and what is to come. But then the music gets in to your body, wrapping you in something that is not warm but is elemental, something that feels like it is vibrating within you. And the story begins to take hold. We are beyond our galaxy, imagining stars and planets and creatures like us but completely alien. The monuments we watch seem to echo what we are seeing, as if they are the vestiges of the people from the future.

At 70 minutes, it ends too soon. It has become a meditation on civilisation, on collective thought and acceptance of death, of the separation of humankind from its planet. It is utterly sad that Jóhannsson didn’t live to see this completed, dying at age 48. And when the world gets back to a semblance of normal, I want to go see those monuments in the Balkans, many by Serbian architect Bogdan Bogdanović. Here is an interesting article that will give you an overview: The Spomenik.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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