Earth (2019)

Humans move 156 million tons of rock and earth every day, according to the opening titles of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth. This documentary visits seven vast locations – quarries, earthworks, tunnels – to confront us with images of these large-scale sites, interviews some of the people who work there, and ponders the ethics of mankind’s interventions on the planet.

The film seems to be striving for a Werner Herzog-style rapture and although it ultimately fails to reach these heights what remains is a succession of beautiful images – massive machinery dwarfed by vast otherworldly landscapes – and a vague environmental message that seems strangely banal.

The six sites, all from Western Europe and north America, were presumably chosen for their vastness and range. We see acres of Californian countryside in the San Fernando Valley stripped in preparation for a new town, the boring of the Brenner Pass tunnel deep in a mountain on the Austrian / Italian border and the vast Gyöngyös open-cast lignite mine in Hungary. The film also visits the famous and literally monumental Carrara marble quarry, the Rio Tinto copper mine in Spain that dates back to Roman times, an eerie nuclear waste storage facility deep in a repurposed salt mine in Wolfenbüttel, Germany and polluted oil sands in Fort McKay, Alberta.

All these places have been ravaged by mankind for their utility, and we are simultaneously invited appreciate their desolate beauty, marvel at the engineering ingenuity and scale, and mourn the environmental damage they wreak.

An aerial shot of the vast marble terraces cut into the Carrara mine in Italy

The images are indeed beautiful, although I’d question the ethics of aestheticising man-made environmental destruction. Shot in a tasteful National Geographic style, each of the seven segments are introduced by stunning aerial shots, the landscape ravaged and almost unrecognisable, images perfectly still except for the tiny yellow excavators and lorries moving across them like ants.

It’s often quite breath-taking and the compositions are made with a photographer’s eye for visual balance and symmetry. There seems to be a lot of drone footage; as well as the overhead establishing shots, the camera occasionally gently glides across the quarries and mines. Sometimes we sit for a while in the cabin of an excavator, or witness a dynamite explosion at close quarters, the flying rock careering into the camera. And we are regularly taken aback by the juxtaposition of these vast scarred landscapes stripped of natural life, and the hi-vis clad workers who inhabit them.

Machines carving marble blocks at the Carrara mine

We are treated to insights of the engineering and (de)construction techniques and are invited to appreciate the scale and might. How fascinating you find this will depend on whether you enjoy this sort of thing – I did, but if you get bored by tunnel boring maybe isn’t the documentary for you. However, this is mostly expressed by beautifully composed visuals of mega-machines, so you are (mostly) spared endless talk of material properties and engineering method statements. And mercifully, this film is entirely free from the excessive, hyper-energetic editing and adrenaline-fuelled tacky soundtrack that bedevils many cheap documentaries about large-scale engineering.

The massive conveyor carrying rock bored from the 55 km Brenner Pass tunnel construction in Italian / Austrian alps

The footage is interspersed with interviews of people who interact with these sites, mostly workers in-situ wearing their overalls and hard-hats. Sadly, these rarely offer much insight. There are one or two interesting characters – a passionate Italian at the Carrara mine comes to mind – but mostly these interviewees’ personal insights are repetitive and interchangeable. The interviewer seems to give them time between questions, perhaps in the vain hope of striking gold. However, most just say they find their work satisfying, they mildly regret being part of the environmental destruction, and ultimately a job’s a job and somebody’s got to do it.

A filmmaker like Werner Herzog would ask an occasional unexpected question to jolt them out of complacency and provoke a spontaneous glimpse at deeper humanity. Sadly, the talking-heads in Earth seem mostly uninspired, flat and perhaps over-rehearsed – you get the feeling most of this footage was captured after several takes.

A worker at the Gyöngyös open-cast mine

It seems working in these environments gives a wider perspective on time. The discovery of crystallised ancient tree trunks, fossils and geological strata seem to inspire an appreciation of mankind’s relatively brief time on the planet. And some of these sites are centuries old – the copper from the Rio Tinto was used to forge coins that funded the expansion of the Roman Empire. Although not mentioned in the film, the marble from the Carrara mine was used for ancient Greek sculptures and Michelangelo’s ‘David’. One person talks about the next 300 years as if it’s a blink of the eye.

There are some expressive moments that capture the poetry of how mankind interacts with these inhuman environments. One tunneller, as he stands in the core of the mountain, observes that he feels a bit like an astronaut because he’s the first human to come across this spot. We see a surreal religious dedication in the tunnel mouth for Saint Barbara, the saint of miners, tunnellers and explosives workers, the oratory ending with a ceremonial dynamite detonation heralded by a short burst from a bugle. And in the caverns of the nuclear storage facility, the filmmaker set up an antiquated table-top projector and fold-down screen that shows archive documentary footage brimming with reassuring pride and misguided optimism about its long-term safety; it’s a contrived but imaginative conceit.

But mostly this film fails to capture a sense of awe and deeper meaning. The imagery is impressive, but nothing more. I expect that’s partly because the day-to-day work is far from dramatic, despite the scale of these places. Other contemplative documentaries manage it. A recent film like Aquarella can impress us with the drama of big waves or waterfalls by virtue of its subject matter. And Werner Herzog turned footage of capping the Kuwaiti oil fields in Lessons in Darkness into a philosophical science-fiction odyssey with Wagnerian score and immersive footage. Earth manages none of that.

Excavators scouring the San Fernando valley in Earth

In the end, Earth was a wasted opportunity. Although I was initially captivated by the stunning visuals, for me it quickly became repetitive and tedious and had little depth. Somewhere hidden in here might be an important environmental message, but what we get is vague and facile. And our interactions with these vast, otherworldly sites offer little in the way of poetic engagement or insight. And that’s a shame.

For me, the Earth did not move.

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