I want the scenes to allow you to breathe, says Nikolaus Geyrhalter

17. 7. 2017

Author: Tereza Ritterová, Marta Obršálová

The first session of Ex Oriente Film workshop was hosted by Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter, who had created a visually extraordinary film Homo Sapiens, composed simply of static (20-30 seconds long) shots of abandoned human constructions: railway stations, malls, hospitals, swimming pools and theatres. The film was screened for the workshop's participants and the Croatian audience in the city of Split. During his master class he explained his motivation to make such a film: “I want the scenes to allow you to breathe. I don’t want to stress the audience and I also want to create a little bit of a meditative rhythm because daily life is also not edited into bits and peaces. Rather then filming a scene and having six different takes and then putting them together, which will take the same amount of time, I decided to take one frame, which says it all.” After his lecture we took the opportunity to ask Nikolaus a few questions.

Your film ‘Homo Sapiens’ is taking us on a voyage of discovery to different places - ruins, abandoned places and cities. For me personally, it is more of a meditative mode, where I can read between the lines. What is the aim - is it to ask questions between two frames or is it just to be present with every new frame and let it act more on the unconscious level?

Absolutely, I have a lot of questions in my mind and I was trying to guide the audience towards those questions - by the choice of locations. We tried to basically represent the state of human beings, our civilization - by what we leave behind. We just stressed how we live and what we do. But yes, you have to be ready to read between the lines, you know. Otherwise, you will just see a film about abandoned places, which can still be fun, but actually for me it is more statement about the state of our civilization.

Is your view optimistic or pessimistic? Is your film looking into the future?

Strangely this film makes me optimistic. Not that I don´t like to have humans on the planet and I really enjoy my life but in general if you see what would happen if we were disappearing - there is nothing to be afraid, nature will cope with it.

What was the process of making the film? Did you first search for locations and then try to put it together? 

It was parallel work of searching for locations, editing and sound designing. But basically we had a list of topics that I wanted to have there to be mentioned. And then we looked specifically for a location that would contribute to this topic. The entire process took nearly five years.

Looking for locations must have taken a lot of time. Who did the research?

Actually a lot of people were involved, but especially one man - Simon Graf, who focused on location research.

We can see many different locations around the world in your film. Did you ever find a location that you could not put into your film?

Actually, there is only one location I always wanted to include but I simply did not get the permission and I still regret it, but it was just impossible. It was in Baikonur Cosmodrome, where Russia’s satellite and space missions start. They have one complete space shuttle decaying in an abandoned hangar, and that one could have contributed greatly to the film.

The sound design work seems crucial. You did not record at the same place as you shot, did you?

No, we did not usually record the sound on location because it was not clear enough. In the first stage we tried with our sound designers (Florian Kindlinger and Peter Kutin) just to construct the sound that would give the impression of the original. In the second stage, we sat with the editor and worked out what else needed to be added. Our sound designers travelled a lot, sometimes just to record missing parts. We really needed to have sound without human noises. They also used archives and foley artists. It was very important not to have any human noises - no cars, no airplanes - which would still be audible in the original locationsound.

How you did you stage the “shots”?

There was no general rule. We tried to respond correctly to the architecture and created a photography with no bent lines etc.  And we also had the concept to raise the camera higher than the normal eye level. These were the basic rules we used quite often.

How difficult was the editing process? Five years — you must have collected a lot of materials.

It was a long process and there were a lot of discussions - it took some time to find the structure and the length of the images. The first half of the film is more like chapters telling about human beings - you see more details: buildings that are still recognizable (schools, shopping malls, hospitals etc.) and later on the film is more about the state of the key elements - about the wind, the sun, the rain, the snow. It means, it goes from a detailed image to a wider picture.

How do you categorize your work? Do you focus on environmental issues or is it more anthropology?

Usually after a festival my films end up at universities, especially in these fields and they work with them. Nevertheless, whatever film I make I have the feeling that it is designated for the archives, for future generations. I try to make films, which if they are found in a hundred years from now, will still be readable and have a universal language. I am not making films only for the present audience but I try to preserve mainly environmental circumstances.

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