The Last City

The Last City

Heinz Emigholz
D 2020, 100 min

„A revelation stuffed with every kind of surprise except the ones you expect.“

An archeologist and a weapons designer – who, in a prior life, knew each other as a filmmaker and a psychoanalyst – meet at an archeological excavation site in the Negev Desert and begin discussing love and war; a conversation they continue in the Israeli city of Be’er Sheva. The film then proceeds with changing actors in changing roles; a round dance that takes us to the cities of Athens, Berlin, Hong Kong and São Paulo. The characters include: an old artist, who meets his younger self; a mother, who lives with her two grown sons – a priest and a policeman; a Chinese woman and a Japanese woman; a curator and a cosmologist.

Their dialogues deal with now obsolete social taboos, generational conflict, war guilt and cosmological musings. The architecture of each of the five cities serves as the third participant in the protagonists' dialogues, and completes their philosophical and metaphysical journeys.

John Erdman as Archaeologist in Be’er Sheva & Artist in Athens
Jonathan Perel as Weapon Designer in Be’er Sheva & Cosmologist in São Paulo
Young Sun Han as Young Man in Athens & Priest in Berlin
Dorothy Ko as Mother in Berlin & Chinese Woman in Hong Kong
Susanne Sachsse as “Japanese” Woman in Hong Kong & Curator in São Paulo
Laurean Wagner as Policeman in Berlin

Director’s Statement

The first attempt to produce The Last City was in 2003. At that time the project was called Tale of Five Cities and was supposed to be produced by Karim Debbagh for Kasbah Films. The five cities were Alexandria, Kashan, Buenos Aires, Fez and Houston, Texas. An essay we submitted to accompany the proposal described it thus: "An anthology film in five freely combinable acts… It is about breathing and unconditional love, and therefore about natural rights in conflict with various social constraints and variously strained societal victims… The subtext is air-conditioning: every form of breathing through every stage of intoxication all the way to paralysis; the individualized farewell to the body in various societies." We were unsuccessful and unable to scrape together the little money we needed to realize the project. I construe that as the aftermath of the official thwarting of my work after the 1991 release of the feature film I produced called Der Zynische Körper ("The Holy Bunch"); the film had no finished screenplay, and I went broke making it. The danger Freud described that "the violation of a taboo makes the one who perpetrated the violation a taboo himself" had become reality; or, as Frieda Grafe put it, "If I like your films, there's a risk you'll never be able to make any more."

Now, I am eighty-three short and twelve long films older. Most of them exist with no commentary and no acting, trusting in camerawork that allows objects to speak for themselves. For the most part these films were shot in complex architectural situation, which is my preference as a cameraman. Constructing an imaginary architecture in time was and is my agenda. One of the last architecture films, a monographic film on Eladio Dieste's work in Uruguay, was also a lengthy search for locations for the feature film Streetscapes [Dialogue], which was shot in selected buildings by Dieste, Julio Vilamajó and Arno Brandlhuber. It was a continuation of Der Zynische Körper 25 years later, in which architectural works were already playing the role of protagonists.

The new, and compared to Tale of Five Cities greatly altered project The Last City, picks up where the film Streetscapes [Dialogue] leaves off – although no knowledge of the previous film is necessary. Its protagonists have changed greatly and they have changed professions. The filmmaker has become an archeologist, and the psychoanalyst a weapons designer. They meet at an excavation site in the Negev Desert and continue their discussion in the Israeli city of Be'er Sheva. The film then proceeds with changing actors in changing roles; a round dance that takes us to the cities of Athens, Berlin, Hong Kong and São Paulo. The protagonists' dialogues deal with war, now obsolete social taboos, an old man's encounter with his younger self, war guilt and cosmological musings. I lack the patience to give a more detailed summary of a film that cannot be retold. Suffice to say, one may wish to subject oneself to the experience to find out what it is about firsthand. It certainly isn't monothematic in nature.

In my mind, every film must be the beginning of an analysis that is set in motion in the film and then transpires. Its duration should be a time of grasping and understanding. The resolution of a crime, as presented in many movies, is the most vulgar iteration of this. The banality of such productions can be traced to omniscient screenplays. Let us abandon such wretchedness, which – blessed by audience ratings – drifts on eternally in its own idiocy. As a cognitive tool, film has the capacity to delve much deeper. The film itself must become a screenplay, scripted on the basis of the insights it provides. A screenplay written after the fact, something akin to what Hellmuth Costard did in exemplary fashion when penning Der kleine Godard an das Kuratorium junger deutscher Film ("Little Godard to the Production Board for Young German Film") after having shot and completed the movie.

My vision is for the cinematographer to probe the surfaces of a monstrous reality in order to depict its current state of dim-wittedness. The surfaces of what is real are turned around and thoughts become surfaces that can be read. An artificially enigmatic depth in which the outcome of those thoughts has already been arrived at is lost in the process; that merely renders the refinement of a screenplay akin to the gimmicky ideas inherent in conceptual art. Like such art, it would have a static persistence – as superfluous as a worn-out convention. We've had enough of that, including in the sense that it bores us to death. That is, at least, how I feel. The taboos that must be broken are found on a completely different level than that of recounting scandals or injustice. Filmic narrative as a form has itself become a taboo, or injustice, that must be broken. That is why I have nothing left but icy-cold feelings for a camera that tells stories via conventionally driven illustration. It is a battle of cultures, perhaps even a curious one – futile, in any case, given the many revolutions that weren't or aren't. But, who cares? I see no alternative.

Obviously, The Last City was "written." Suggesting anything else would be lying. That happened over a period of 15 years while making the aforementioned architecture films. The cities and themes constantly changed. I finished writing the film in March 2018 in Nadur, in Gozo, where there is still a real spring and not just an ideological one. With a camerawork in my mind that lends its voice and speaks as an equal partner.

Heinz Emigholz, January 2020