The Otherworldly Last and First Men
Across the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia colossal monuments are scattered in some of the most breath-taking scenic locations. Dedicated to a ’third-way,’ Soviet socialism but with an openness to the West, these creations appear otherworldly in their hybridisation of Soviet and Modernist styles — particularly as they were built between 1950-1980s, aligning with the Cold War.
It seems that this idealism, subsequent decay, and almost alien nature must’ve appealed to the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. In his first, and only, feature film Last and First Men he pairs slow-moving cinematic footage of these monuments with an edited narration of the 1930 novel Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future by Olaf Stapledon. Voiced by Tilda Swinton the story is never explicitly connected to the exquisite black and white 16mm footage, but the conceit, a broadcast back from the final evolution of humans after millions of years of war, interstellar travel, evolution and telepathy and through many cycles of civilisation draws an implicit connection to these real-world symbols of our own ambitions, failings and even moments of transcendence.
The towering sculptures in picturesque landscapes across the Balkan states, many by idealist architect Bogdan Bogdanović, perfectly meet Jóhannsson’s soaring minimalist orchestral score. Completed after Jóhannsson’s death in 2018 the film has rightly been met with much acclaim.