Photo credit: Jónatan Grétarsson
The narrator, who is only heard and never seen, is a being living two billion years from now, who addresses the audience directly. The text is formal and academic and sometimes reads more like a historical treatise or an anthropological study than as a science fiction novel, but it also has a poetic and elegiac tone in places and sometimes it seems like we’re listening to an oracle.
The last part of the narrative describes the Last Men’s current predicament: the realization that their part of the universe is nearing the end of its life cycle and thattheir existence is threatened by the extinction of the sun. The narrator details the ways in which the Last Men react to this momentous fact and the two tasks they set themselves as a consequence: one, their plan to disseminate “among the stars the seeds of a new humanity” and the other, to “enter into past minds and participate in their experience” – to conjure up and communicate with the ghosts of their past.
The third layer is music. It is an important layer and there are long sections wherethe images and music stand alone. The music is elegiac and somber, giving the filmsome aspects of a requiem - a requiem for the Last Men and for the ideals of afailed socialist Utopia.
The three main layers flow apparently independently of each other, but sometimesthey meet and intersect and create sudden, startling consonances. The film focuses on the abstract, otherworldly power and alien beauty of the monuments and the way their current decaying and neglected state infuses them with a new essence - now that the political and social context in which they were created has been thrown out of joint.
The film explores zones of decay and ruin where great tragedies have occurred -places charged with symbolism. We sense a spectral presence, an entity that isattempting to communicate with us.
Last and First Men creates a dialogue between the images and Stapledon’s text, a poetic relationship between these decaying concrete structures and Stapledon’s story of a crumbling future civilization.
Shot on 16 millimeter anamorphic, with a nostalgic and elegiac tone and a slow,measured pace, the images bring out the inherent rawness of analog film, pushing the grain and contrast. There is a constant sense of movement throughout the film and the camera is like a perpetually moving observer.
Director: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Last and First Men is a film that straddles the border of fiction and documentary. It is a meditation on memory and failed Utopia, contextualized through the literary mode of science fiction.
The film has three principal layers. The first layer is a visual exploration of the“Spomenik”: futuristic, abstract stone monuments erected during the communist erain the former Yugoslavian republics. Built to commemorate some of the great tragedies of the Balkan’s history - WWII battle sites, concentration camps andgenocides - they are charged with symbolic meaning, reflecting the enormously complex ethnic and political dynamics of the region. They were intended as symbols of the ideals of the Yugoslavian Federation, whose aim was to unify the historically divided ethnic groups of the Balkans.
Today, they stand in the wilderness of the now disunited Balkan republics,sometimes overgrown with vegetation, sometimes covered in graffiti, oftenneglected and abandoned. Yet they are still there, as lone beacons reaching out,still beaming their message of unity, even though it falls on mostly deaf ears thesedays - or it is only heard in distorted form, as one of Nationalism and Separatism.
Echoing Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Herzog’s Lesson in Darkness,the film juxtaposes these extremely charged images with a text that at first seems to have little relation to the visuals, but whose relevance to them slowly becomes apparent.
The text - the second layer - draws on a novel by Olaf Stapledon, written in 1930,which describes the history of humanity from the author’s present time across two billion years and eighteen distinct human species. The film focuses on the book’slast two chapters, which tell the story of the Last Men - man’s final civilization -describing their society, philosophy, mores and ultimate extinction.