As hinted by its title, Homo Sapiens is an observation of the collective human race, yet without containing even a single shot that features any member of this eponymous species. Nikolaus Geyrhalter photographs vast stretches of abandoned spaces, a vivid mix of natural and industrial, all of them rooted in one unifying theme ― the indelible marks leftover from mankind’s existence. By tracing the footsteps of those unseen, we are able to contemplate their absence and thus arrive at a mental visualization of their presence in the past. Deathly stillness meets desolate environments throbbing with life, in a film where every frame seems to be steeped in spiritual paradoxes.
Sound is key to Geyrhalter’s symphony of images, as is the interplay between natural and artificial elements within the frames he presents. The buzzing of flies in a dinghy room, a marker of the rot and decay caused by humans, is accompanied by the mellow chirping of birds, a signal of nature gradually recovering its once-pristine way of life. Geyrhalter demonstrates that even silence can be cacophonous, as the deserted locales seem to come alive with “conversation” between the many non-human elements ― the tapping rainwater, the rustling leaves, the roaring wind, the creaking of metal ― in a language crafted by Mother Nature herself.
By completely denying humans any space within his shots, and thereby invoking a phantom-presence of the so-called ruling species, Geyrhalter champions the fundamental Bressonian philosophy of conveying without showing anything at all. Whether it be through the images of man-made towers and buildings jutting out of canopies of trees and bushes, or miles of sand, or the way natural elements encroach upon erstwhile-human spaces like churches or schools or even server rooms, Homo Sapiens is a vision of the future ― near or distant ― one where humans have finally abandoned this planet that they exploited and abused for so long, proof of their desecration contained within the shots of garbage dumps.
Thus, Homo Sapiens is a film where the titular characters are made all the more conspicuous by their absence, their physical reality not seen but felt nevertheless, like addressing the gigantic elephant (not) in the room. The closest we ever come to anthropomorphic presence is in a chamber filled with bottled jars preserving human and animal organs. It is as picturesque as it is profound, and touches upon both the beauty and ugliness of existence, as the picture of rainwater flooding a cinema is counter-balanced by images like the very final shot: where a human settlement is slowly but steadily completely engulfed by the raging snowstorm, covering the entire screen in white, an unforgettable reminder of nature reclaiming the spaces robbed of her by mankind.