«The Earth's crust – its skin – is its most delicate organ.»

The concept of the Anthropocene Age, suggesting that humankind has become a greater influence on the planet than nature, is what prompted Nikolaus Geyrhalter to take a closer look in EARTH at the Earth's crust and the internal and external wounds which our drive for progress relentlessly requires.
Using the word "Earth" in the title opens up a wide range of associations. Why do you focus on geological aspects in EARTH?
NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: If we regard the Earth as an organism, then the Earth's crust – its skin – is its most delicate organ. I wanted to take a closer look at the wounds we are inflicting upon the Earth. It was important for me to show the places and the deeds, to trigger associations and to prompt thought. If you visit these huge mines and worksites the first impressions are overwhelming; it's really hard to comprehend the extent to which we human beings have brought about major changes to the surface of our planet within a very short time. And the point is that we are all responsible for this, because living the way we do would be virtually impossible without these "scars" on the Earth's crust. My intention wasn't at all to confront the people who work there and blame them; if anything, they bear the least responsibility. I think it is the duty of the cinema to take audiences to places that would otherwise be very difficult to see.
Despite the enormous technological progress embodied in the machines available today, did you have the impression you were confronting a very archaic side of human activity?
NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: It was a curious mixture of extremely archaic and at the same time totally banal. You can really only take in the dimensions if you step back and establish some distance. And I don't believe the people who sit on huge mechanical diggers day in and day out, removing part of the land, have a perspective on the extent of the activities they are involved in. You see your own workplace, your own machine, your own job. But despite the routine aspect, these people do think very deeply about what they're doing; to a large extent I found that surprising but also reassuring. Everywhere we filmed we encountered people whose attitude towards their own actions, and therefore the behaviour of our whole society, was extremely critical at the very least.
You have structured EARTH in seven chapters: at the beginning you talk about the massive effects mankind has had on the landscape, you show visually very distressing areas where land has been removed over the course of time, and in the end you focus predominantly on the huge consequences – growing on a daily basis – that all this will have for the planet and its inhabitants. What kind of criteria did you use in choosing locations for filming?
NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: Our initial starting point was a British study which attempted to identify every form of earth movement, with statistics. We looked at some of these examples to see how representative they were. A lot of this takes place on a very small scale, which means it's not so interesting in terms of film. So one of the first criteria we used in making decisions was simply the scale of the activity. Then we visited possible locations in various categories, to ensure that we also captured a certain spectrum. Essentially we were concerned with places where, for various reasons, the surface of the Earth is being changed to a very significant extent. Another criterion was the practical aspect of filming. You have to bear in mind that over the last few years the industry has become increasingly restrictive, and it's hard to get permission for filming these days. It didn't really matter to our film whether the copper mine was in Spain or South Africa. What was important was finding a large-scale mine, and the company operating it, that understood our film, trusted us and allowed us to work without trying to influence this. Naturally the visual aspect also has a role to play here. After all, we’re talking about the cinema. And it's also true that despite all the destruction visible in these shots, the aesthetic aspect is impressive. You can't allow yourself to be afraid of that. It could be a trap, but it's definitely a reality that we have to deal with. We looked for places where the surface of the planet is being manipulated, and of course our intention was that the film would prompt people to think about that.
In terms of the structure of each chapter, there's always a perspective at the beginning from a considerable height, as if this were showing the view of an extraterrestrial being or position. What considerations prompted you to use this stylistic device?
NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: We are all familiar with Google Earth, and we’re very accustomed to observing the world from above. But they are still photographs. In a shot from this perspective when you suddenly have people or machines moving, it makes a huge difference. Since we had to establish changes of location anyway, this approach quickly struck us as useful. And it's also a perspective which opens up the dimensions of the human activity from a distance. Then, from this starting point, you can move in for closer examination and reflections on the situation. It establishes a great distance and immediacy at the same time. And of course a camera position from a great height gives you a lot of interpretive freedom as well.
Did the experience of shooting this film, which also took you deep underground, cause you to experience the Earth somehow differently in any way?
NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: It wasn't just this film. The subject is also connected with my personal background. Almost 20 years ago we took over an abandoned farmyard which didn't have any sewers; the wells had all been sealed up. The logical first step if we wanted to get on top of the renovations that had to be done was to buy a digger. And it was a very strange experience, digging up layers of the soil – without any physical effort – which had been untouched for thousands of years, which nobody had ever seen. There was also a reference to this from one of the guys in the film, who says he sometimes feels like an astronaut. On a small scale I experienced that too. At the beginning I felt it was almost sacrilege to rip open the pristine soil just in order to lay a pipe. There's a gigantic difference between watching a digger at work and driving one yourself: discovering that without using any of your own strength, just by making small hand movements with the joystick, you can release enormous forces. And you get used to it quickly. It's exactly what the people in the film do. It becomes normal – especially because you think it's necessary. Ever since that experience of mine all those years ago I've been waiting for the opportunity to use it somehow in one of my films.
The chapter in Wolfenbüttel, where radioactive waste had been stored in an old salt mine for decades but now has to be removed because the initial geological studies were flawed, brings us to the subject of damage that can't be made good again, points of no return that were passed long ago.
NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: Alongside footage of the current situation we also show extracts from an image film made in the 1970s which insisted that this storage facility was completely safe. Seeing the kind of blind faith that people had in the future back then makes you wonder what people will think in 40 or 50 years from now about the things we're doing today. Technology progresses faster than people can really comprehend. And nuclear energy is a very good example of that. In the Wolfenbüttel episode I was also trying to present a different dimension of time. Even now, decades after we began using nuclear energy and it became apparent that radioactive waste would be created, Germany is still trying to find suitable storage facilities. We are really talking here about our treatment of the Earth’s surface on a massive scale. It's not just that we take things out: we also bury things inside it. You have to bear in mind that in 100 years we have created nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for the same length of time as the total history of mankind on our planet. We can't escape from the problem of nuclear waste – but we still don't have any concept for getting rid of it. The problem horrifies us, and we wonder how such a situation could come about… while we constantly benefit from the advantages it gives us. Just becoming outraged about things is too easy. Each of my films contains criticism of civilisation, and at the same time I would like people to understand why things are the way they are… because the population of the world is about 7.5 billion people. We can try our best to live in a way that reduces our impact, that postpones the destructive process, but essentially the world works the way it works. And apparently, unfortunately, it only works this way – no other way.
There is a barrier in the final shot: who does that apply to?
NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: That's left open. After all, it's not a real barrier. It's a barrier for people like our protagonist Jean, who has traplines in that area but is now not allowed on the traditional land. A small digger could remove the barrier at any time. So the barrier doesn't apply to everyone. Of course, the barrier was also an appropriate image for the film because it shows the end of something. But the end of what, when it comes down to it, and for whom? Ever since Homo Sapiens I've been pretty relaxed about all this, because that film taught me that the world and nature will somehow pull through. We always talk about the end of the world, but what we really mean by that is the end of us as humankind. That isn't the end of the world by any means.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
January 2019