Last and First Men – Listen and Watch Patiently, or Spomenik, Tilda Swinton and Music


On 6 August, within the framework of the Beat Film Festival, the Icelandic film Last and First Men (2020) was premiered. Right after the festival, A-ONE came up with the film in limited release. The world premiere took place on February 25, 2020 at the Berlinale as a part of Berlinale Special. The movie is based on a novel of the same name by British writer Olaf Stapledon. However, this is not a film adaptation or even something similar. Let me walk you through this in an orderly manner.

by Sandra Kuznetsova


We'll start from the beginning – namely, with the novel. The full title is «Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future». This is a fairly large book, and what you can see in the film is only a small part from the last two chapters. The novel describes the development of humanity over 2 billion years. During this time, 18 species of people changed from the first men – our contemporaries – to the eighteenth men and a huge number of civilizations.

The book is full of details. It impresses the reader with the scale of the events described. Despite the fact that it was written as early as 1930 (just think about it, almost a hundred years ago), Olaf Stapledon showed a large number of new fantastic and futurological ideas of his time, many of which have already come true. He was able to predict such things as the rise of Communists to power in China, the establishment of the European Union, the Americanization of culture throughout the planet, the Cold War and nuclear weapons, pandemics of new type, the development of hydrocarbon reserves in Antarctica, wars over oil shortages, architectural megalomania, alternative energy, genetic engineering, synthetic food, space sail and much more. And if all that came true, then could all the rest come true as well? However, as I said before, none of this is included into the film. The movie is the message of one of the Last men, it's a squeeze from the last chapters and the quintessence of the main idea of Stapledon – the evolution of body and spirit.

This is understandable, you will say. But what are these piles of concrete that we were forced to look at? This is what the people call Spomenik.
Spomenik (Serbo-Croatian/Slovenian for "monument") is a series of memorial structures built in the 1950s-1990s, when Josip Broz «Tito» ruled the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Spomenik's primary aim was to honor the resistance struggle during the National Liberation War against Axis occupation (WWII) in 1939-1945. It not only commemorates the crimes which occurred during the region's brutal occupation, but also celebrates the Revolution which defeated it, all lead by Tito's Partisan Army of rebels and fighters. However, these monuments were, and still are, more than just a sum of their parts.
At the outset of Tito's new Republic, established from the ashes of that revolution, ambitious plans were laid to create something new, something brave and adventurous – a classless country ruled by the principles of socialism, a population free of ethnic tension, brought together by brotherhood and unity. Yugoslavia's Spomenik project was a part of that grand plan. By 1961, over 14,000 memorial objects had already been constructed across Yugoslavia. By the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, although it's not known for sure how many memorial objects have been created, the total number would be well over 40,000 if their creation was at the same rate as in 1945-1961. Such a phenomenal wellspring of memorial construction and the magnitude which the Yugoslav government regarded this project with is distinct and unique, especially compared to other European countries at that time period.
Exhibitions with these photos were organized several times. One of them was held in Amsterdam in 2010. Apparently it was then that the future director of the film Jóhann Jóhannsson found out about Spomenik. Jóhann was a great admirer of Stapledon's works, and he had read the novel before he knew about the spomeniks. After seeing them, he came up with a way to create a dialogue between these monuments and the book. Then he began to study the issue and even went to the former Yugoslavia for a few weeks. There Jóhann was shooting spomeniks, and gradually the idea of the film began to crystallize in his mind. When he turned to the operator Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, he already had a clear concept of the future movie.

Shooting began in December, 2014 and didn't last long. The operator described it as follows: "We prepared for a day or two, and then went on a short trip for three weeks. I, Jóhann, assistant cameraman, producer-coordinator and driver. All in all, five guys on the bus and a camera. It was like a tour by a rock band."
Tito constructed this artificial state, a Utopian experiment uniting these Slavic nations, with so many differences in religion. The spomeniks were the symbols of unification or symbolized unification. The architects couldn't use religious iconography, so, instead, they referred to prehistoric, Mayan and Sumerian art. That's why the spomeniks look so alien and otherworldly.
Sometimes the actions of one person prompt an unexpected chain of events, and it is clear that, without the initial action, everything else simply wouldn't happen. This is exactly what we see here.

From 2006 to 2009, the Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers toured the former Yugoslavia with a map of memorials published in 1975. As a result, the book «Spomenik: The End of History», which shows melancholic but striking images, was published. He raised the question: can the monuments exist without their symbolic meaning, just like sculptures? On the one hand, their physical condition is dilapidated, it reflects the dissipation of the socio-historical layer. On the other hand, they are still incredibly impressive, and you can find new meanings in them.
It was a colossal contribution in monument building, unparalleled in Europe. The monoliths towered from seasides to barren mountain-tops, standing as forces which outshone the landscape. In the 1980s, these monuments were visited by millions of people every year, especially by the pioneers for Patriotic education. But many monuments have now been destroyed and left derelict after the war and ethnic conflict in the 1990s which led to the breakup of Yugoslavia into six independent countries and one partially recognized state. Now Spomenik represents the frozen greatness and power of a defunct country. Some monuments are better preserved and some are worse, but they've all almost lost their original meaning, since very few people know about their existence.
They travelled through the Balkans, filming the spomeniks in black-and-white using a motorised zoom and a small dolly to move the camera slowly and precisely across the surface of the structures, Grøvlen and Jóhann shot the movie in the "golden hours", and almost entirely against the sky, in order to show a little more than just the monuments - the sun, clouds and surrounding nature.
With no digital embellishments and no grading – just the 16mm film scanned in high definition – the black-and-white footage recalls science fiction of the 1960s and 70s, the slow deliberate movement of the camera across the massive spaceship exteriors in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running (1972) and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972). Jóhann also cites the influence of Fred Kelemen's crawling dolly movements in Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky's The Man from London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011).

"We wanted to film these sculptures in a very formalistic manner," says Jóhann, "to emphasise their strange asymmetrical beauty. We woke every morning at four o'clock to be ready for the sunrise and stayed outside filming all day until there was no light. It was one of the most happy experiences in my life, and one of the most gruelling."

When it came to voice acting, Jóhann had no doubts. "I wanted it to be read like someone reading from a manual," he says. "From the very first moment, I knew it just had to be Tilda Swinton. There was no one else I imagined. I wanted her narration to sound like a strange academic lecture, tinged with a melancholy lyricism, read by an authoritative voice from the future."
Prior to this film, Jóhann already had directing experience. In 2014 he directed End of Summer, an audio-visual project about his journey to Antarctica. But Last and First Men was his first and his last feature film. On February 9, 2018, Jóhann died at his home in Berlin where he had lived for the past ten years. He was 48 years old. The cause of death was an overdose of cocaine during a treatment process. Jóhann was primarily a musician and a composer. He has many solo albums, but he is widely known as the author of the soundtracks for The Theory of Everything (2014) and the three films by Denis Villeneuve – Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016). He also wrote the soundtrack for Blade Runner 2049 (2017), but it was not included into the film.
Last and First Men was not originally conceived a film, but a multimedia show – fusion of Tilda Swinton's agender voice, spomenik's symbolic complexity and versatility and extremely emotional music that conveys all the spectrum of feelings. The show premiered on 16 July 2017 at the Manchester International Festival, a biannual international art festival, with a special focus on outstanding new works.

Subsequently, it was decided to shoot a film. All the time before Jóhann passed away, he was engaged in editing, music writing and post-production, but he managed to edit about seventy percent of the film, and most of the remaining work concerned music. It was finalized by a Berlin-based composer and musician Yair Elazar Glotman, who is also listed as the author of the music in the film's credits.
Before the film's world premiere at Berlinale 2020, the multimedia work, accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra efforts, was shown at Vivid LIVE, a contemporary music festival curated by the Sydney Opera House.
Now that we have sorted out the creation history of the Last and First Men, we can get to the film itself.

It's definitely not for everyone. The pace of the story is very slow – so that you could understand the scale of what is being told, carefully consider the parts of spomeniks, shot close-up. Some people might be annoyed by the rather long pauses between sentences, but it may be not so bad to slow down for a while at this frenzied modern pace of life.

Watching and listening, you gradually realize that what is on the screen almost literally (as literally as possible when we consider metaphors) reflects the words. These are the new meanings that can be discovered in spomeniks. It's amazing how well they fit the text. One of the most striking aspects of the work is how Jóhann's weightless, mournful score accompanies Swinton's elegiac delivery and the camera's slow exploratory movement through these alien landscapes, in harmony with both.
I think Last and First Men is the kind of piece that will live on in many different incarnations, but this is important, because this is its first one. Maybe it's a big ask for people to sit for 70 minutes and look at concrete and hear about the end of humanity, but hopefully we've taken all these elements and made something that is beautiful and poignant. Something like a requiem.

– Jóhann Jóhannsson

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