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Last and First Men

Entry updated 12 November 2020. Tagged: Film.

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Film (2017). Icelandic Film Centre, Zik Zak Filmworks. Directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Written by Jóhannsson. From Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapledon. Music by Jóhannsson. Cast consists of Tilda Swinton (voice only). 70 minutes. Black and white.

All that can be seen for the seventy minute duration of Last and First Men, via slow tracking shots in black and white, is nothing more than a series of anti-fascist memorials commissioned by Josip Broz Tito (1882-1980) and constructed across Yugoslavia over a thirty-year period from the late 1940s to about 1980 on the sites of Yugoslavian victories against the occupying Nazi forces during World War Two, several thousand of them scattered across the whole territory that after the 1990s wars became Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. These vast obelisk-like free-standing commemorative sculptures, known as spomeniks (Serbo-Croatian for "memorials"), were designed by various hands in styles deliberately at odds with Soviet socialist realist precepts, a bracing mélange of approaches that came officially to be labelled socialist Modernism. They are sometimes reminiscent of Easter Island sculptures and of works by Henry Moore evocative of those sculptures; they also evoke abandoned flyovers, bandstands, surreal gazebos, jungle gyms, freestanding mall logos; some are upward-thrustingly brutalist and aspirational, others reveal omphalos-like cenotaphic innards. No two are alike. Many were destroyed during the internecine horrors of the 1990s, to a large degree because they represented an imposed Utopianism that became anathema after Tito's death, though none of the successor nations destroyed them all. Their impact from the first was intensified and surrealized by the fact that almost all of them were erected in isolated venues, many in rough country. The accumulative impact of their presence in Last and First Men is much increased by viewers' recognition of the spomeniks' heavily charged prescriptive history, their cod-mythopoeic assertion of future-control; they have a narrative effect uncannily similar to visions of past "memorials" in the later moments of La Jetée (1962). Their location in time, in terms of the film, seems to slide from our Near Future into distant coigns of futurity: but the effect throughout is of a gaze backwards from a time (see Ruins and Futurity) very distant from our own. The futurity they seem to ordinate has been long abandoned.

A voiceover narrator (Swinton, not seen at any point) speaks to us from the remote Far Future, a period (it seems evident) long after any era represented by the spomeniks; her message is taken directly from the final chapters of Olaf Stapledon's Scientific Romance Last and First Men (1930), a Future History told by one of the Posthuman Last Men two billion years hence, as conveyed through the mind of a First Man (ie contemporary Homo sapiens). The Ages of Man are coming to an end, Entropy is all-devouring, the Sun is suffering heat-death; the spomeniks, we may be inclined to think, are all that is left of the seventeen stages of civilization between 1930 and the Last Man, whose message to us is farewell. His Last Man message seems to ask, almost scrutably, for help; though Stapledon's sequel, Last Men in London (1931), seems to indicate that any attempt to manipulate the future by rewriting Homo sapiens's deadly behaviour would be doomed.

The score was composed by Jóhannsson (1969-2018), and his death left both edit and music technically unfinished, though its incompletion may be hard to discern given the agglutinative nature of the visual element, along with his occasionally clichéd "futuristic" style; in any case, no great distinction seems audible between the complex effect of the score here and that of his previous sf music, for Arrival (2016). In the end, music, Stapledon and spomeniks seem one thing: a seamless binding into one adhesive presentational entity of the unutterable: almost seen, almost heard, almost uttered. [JC]

further reading

  • Jan Kempenaers. Spomenik ~1-26 (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Roma Publications, 2010) [nonfiction: graph: illus/hb/Jan Kempenaers]
  • Donald Niebyl. Spomenik Monument Database (London: FUEL Publishing, 2018) [nonfiction: graph: illus/hb/Donald Niebyl]


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