- The End of the World Viewed, or The Wind in the Things:On Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Homo Sapiens
Every image is an object, every object is an image.—André Bazin
When a photograph is cropped, the rest of the world is cut out.—Stanley Cavell
The end of the world is everywhere. Though apocalyptic representations are not exclusive to our time, there is no question that an increasing awareness of the so-called Anthropocene, according to which anthropogenic impact on Earth has become a geological force, has boosted fatalistic imaginings in cultural and knowledge production. Books such as Alan Weisman's The World without Us (2008) and Jan Zalasiewicz's The Earth after Us (2008) strive to imagine the scenarios described in their titles through an attempt to think according to a planetary rather than a human scale.1 Photographic projects such as Edward Burtynsky's series Oil (1999–2010) and Tong Lam's Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World (2013) portend a not-so-distant global cataclysm through images of [End Page 112] desolate industrial landscapes. And within the domain of cinema, a number of recent films have staged end-of-the-world catastrophes, from Hollywood blockbusters such as 2012 (2012) and After Earth (2013) to the auteurist fare of Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011) and Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011). At the same time, the idea of a "world without us" has found its philosophical iteration in contemporary branches of thought such as speculative realism, new materialisms, and object-oriented ontology.1 While these currents diverge in important respects, they are bound together through a concern with debunking what they often refer to as correlationism, according to which the world can only be grasped through the filters of human subjectivity.2 They instead emphasize that we must do well to reflect on the ontologies and materialities of nonhuman entities even if those entities are not entirely available to consciousness. Since its emergence in 2007, speculative realism has attracted both detractors and advocates, the former calling attention to the impossibility of escaping human thought, the latter underlining that this impossibility does not mean one cannot speculate about nonhuman forms, especially when humanity is under threat.3 Speculative realism has equally found a fertile ground in film studies, with a number of articles testing or critiquing its usefulness in relation to films and film theory.4
While recognizing some of speculative realism's limitations, this essay partakes in its supporting assumption that to think beyond the human is no longer something we can dismiss, given the present global ecological crisis. However, here I am less interested in championing or attacking a speculative realist thought than I am in examining the way in which a speculative realism can manifest itself in the cinema and how cinema can contribute to its program and to an ethical project committed to making us see the world-in-itself. I argue that the film Homo Sapiens (2016), by Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter, provides an especially productive lens through which to explore these questions because of its original filmic rendition of a world-without-us, which asks us to reflect on an object-oriented ontology from the ontological perspective of cinema as a recording technology.
A documentary comprising static, wordless shots of empty derelict places around the world, Homo Sapiens is simultaneously a work of fiction in its intimation of a postapocalyptic era when the human is no more. The film thus proposes a quasi-hallucinatory viewing experience in which documental images of our world are, miraculously, made available from a future world-without-us for us. This conflation of the fictional with the documentary offers the opportunity to revisit questions dear to film history and theory, including [End Page 113] spectatorship and indexicality, while at the same time opening up avenues into the conceptual domain of new realist philosophies. Looking at the film's fascination with recording the wind as a differential force that triggers encounters between material things, I contend that Homo Sapiens's version of a speculative realism is one that is articulated through the realism of the film medium; to...