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Review: Nikolaus Geyrhalter's "Earth" Observes the World Torn Apart

An epic globetrotting documentary finds humankind's impact on the landscape as impressive as it is disturbing.
Daniel Kasman
If you have become numb to television's preference for narrow-minded camerawork that frequently gets so close as to kiss its actors, you will be refreshed by immersing yourself in the gargantuan images of Earth, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s latest wide-widescreen landscape documentary. No mere glorification of nature’s ambiance, it is instead a distressing dispatch of violent upheaval, capturing the magnitude of the displacement of earth on a massive scale in such places as a San Fernando Valley real estate development, Italian marble quarry, and Hungarian strip mine. For those who have seen Geyrhalter’s other highly politicized landscape films, like Our Daily Bread (2005) and Homo Sapiens (2016), the scope of Earth’s images may seem familiar: an immense pictorial canvas so filled with detail as to surpass the maximalism of any Hollywood epic, yet a framing of the land that is inextricable from understanding its use and exploitation by man. Earth opens with title cards explaining the sheer quantity of land moved by humans, and indeed while the film’s subsequent globetrotting visions are impressive, it is a stunning scale that Geyrhalter emphasizes in order to showcase the extreme impact we are having on our planet in order to obtain oil, slather our kitchens in marble, expand towns into the middle of nowhere, and electrify everything with copper wiring. “All human actions on this planet are violent,” muses an archeologist who has found an old Roman mining ruin inside a modern Spanish copper mining site, and the huge heaps of dirt exploded, dug, gouged, amassed, and expelled elsewhere nearly defies visualization.
Earth’s epic observational shots, often made up of muscular machines and bizarre and bespoke mechanical  rigs—a unique Hungarian monster is an early highlight, with a mouth of churning teeth-like buckets, tearing up earth and sending it 16 stories skywards only to have the refuse shit out its back, dropping hundreds of feet—as well as other construction-site pornography are mixed with direct interviews with workers at each location, asked what they think of their job and the impact it has on the land. One, joyous in his easy love for the work, says it’s like playing with his childhood Tonka Toys, and indeed even the film too seems boyishly impressed, and rightfully so, by the overbearing power and ingenuity we employ to rip up the earth for the needs of our comfort and others’ profit. Each interviewee easily acknowledges the almost mind-boggling scale of their jobs and, distressingly, how its speed and scale has greatly increased over recent years. Each, too, justifies the displacement and disruption of nature in their own way, some citing humans’ insatiable need to maintain their lifestyle, others a march of progress, one Italian marble worker exclaiming his almost sexual passion for the adrenaline rush of the job, and several others explaining that if they don’t do it, someone else will. “Today, as we know, it’s the same everywhere,” says one man. Indeed, but the monumentality of the impact is difficult to comprehend, and it is precisely this hope for awesome revelation that Earth chases from land to land.


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