The day after I watched the documentary “Earth,” I spent time working in my garden, digging, planting, getting my hands dirty. I didn’t grow up gardening, and I’m not especially good at it. Even so, when I’m not inadvertently killing plants, I find it satisfying tending the yard. It’s a small pleasure, though given what the domination of nature has wrought, also a paradoxical one. Millions of acres have burned in Australia and, as this movie reminds you, there is no escaping complicity in what environmentalist Bill McKibben has called “the end of nature.”
While gardening, I kept thinking about “Earth,” which offers a look at how humans — by excavating, by tunneling, by fetishizing Carrara marble countertops — are changing material existence. The displacement of earth in the documentary is on a far larger, more dramatic scale than what any casual gardener does, true, but the movie is a stark reminder that someone, at some point, cleared and gouged the land to build that gardener’s house, streets and city. This isn’t news, but it is still sobering to see the planet ruined one backhoe at a time.
The movie opens with a fixed, perfectly framed shot of a dun-colored, gently sloping terrain. The place is somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, a huge swath just north of the Los Angeles basin. Centuries ago, the area was a prairie alive with people, flora and fauna, including the now-extinct California grizzly. Over time, much of this life was supplanted by nonnative settlers, livestock, citrus groves, film studios and tract housing. In “Earth,” the area’s continued expansion is bleakly expressed by a parade of bulldozers and backhoes that, from a distance, appear to be engaged in a perverse, choreographed dance.
The men operating those machines are cutting mountains for a development, which is as mesmerizing to watch as it is appalling to think about. You grasp the enormous scale of this project from the long shots that director Nikolaus Geyrhalter (“Our Daily Bread”) liberally uses. These shots tend either to render people invisible (when inside the machines they operate) or to turn them into undifferentiated specks. There’s a strangely paradoxical and dystopian quality to these visions, which are at once wholly human and inhuman. If this were science fiction, you could say the machines had already risen, which would be almost reassuring in its nihilistic finality.
Geyrhalter’s filmmaking is cool, measured and almost clinical. Serving as his own cinematographer, he gives the movie pictorial grace and balance (his framing is impeccable) but not too much beauty, as is appropriate given the material. You marvel at, and think about, the sites instead of the virtuosity of his filmmaking and listen to the people he interviews, what they say and what they pointedly don’t. Here and there — in a Spanish copper mine, an Austrian tunnel, an Italian quarry — earth moving, digging and drilling is taking place on a staggering scale. It’s altering the planet’s crust, that thin outermost layer which constitutes about 1% of its volume.
Geyrhalter introduces each of the seven sites in the movie with an overhead shot, the kind that’s often called a bird’s-eye view but is now more associated with Google Earth. This shift in how we describe our world (from birds to software) is itself instructive. “Earth” belongs to an unsettling group of movies about the Anthropocene, a classification that’s used to distinguish our human-influenced geological epoch. In 2000, scientists Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer traced the start of this new era to the latter part of the 18th century, noting the ravages that have come since: a human population explosion, species extinctions, greenhouse gases and all the grim rest.
“Without major catastrophes like an enormous volcanic eruption,” Crutzen and Stoermer wrote, “mankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years, to come.”
You would think from this diagnosis and from everything in “Earth,” with its eerily ravaged landscapes, that Geyrhalter’s documentary would be too painful to watch. And it can be tough going. Yet, despite its apocalyptic visions, it feels curiously optimistic because Geyrhalter hasn’t given up on us. It would have been easy to rile us up, to exploit our tears and fears. But only an idealist treats his audience with as much respect as he does here. And only an idealist invites his audience to look at the world as closely and deeply as he does. He reminds us that it is only by seeing — really seeing — the world as it exists that we stand any chance at all of saving it.
“Earth,” a documentary directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter. 115 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In English, German, Spanish, Hungarian and Italian, with subtitles. Opens Feb. 8 at Northwest Film Forum.