What does the past of a distant future look like? A distant future to which humankind will be driven by the unleashed forces of neoliberal capitalism, climate change, and populism? Julian Rosefeldt's 85-minute film PENUMBRA (2019–2022) is not a work of science fiction. Instead, it points to our current situation, albeit within a fictious framework that paves the way for a paradoxical enigma: who will we be when we are gone? The new work follows up on the 43-minute film IN THE LAND OF DROUGHT (2015–2017) – the condensed version of Rosefeldt's filmic interpretation of Joseph Hayden's oratorio The Creation. In a similar vein, PENUMBRA originates from a film work, planned as a visual backdrop for Robert Schumann's oratorio, Scenes from Goethe's Faust, at the opera houses in Antwerp, Ghent, and Montpellier.
For his two key works of German literature, Faust: A Tragedy, Part I and II (1808–1832), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe created a visionary protagonist in the scientist and entrepreneur Dr. Faust. As a character, Dr. Faust anticipated the great issues of our time: capitalism, post-colonialism, the exploitation of nature, and environmental disasters. For the oratorio, Schumann selected a few fragments of Goethe's masterpiece to compose music for, and for Rosefeldt's filmic adaptation, the artist fragmented Schumann's romantic composition to use as a soundtrack.
Akin to IN THE LAND OF DROUGHT the new work PENUMBRA focuses on the notion of what happens 'after us.' Looking back from a distant, imagined future upon the post-Anthropocene – the aftermath of significant human influence on our planet–the film addresses this problematic relationship between humans and their impact on Earth. Humankind appears to have left for good. A computer-generated visualisation introduces us to their new territory, where they're found trying their luck on a faraway planet, the desert plains congested with urbanisation. But once again, failure prospers and only some frantically built space settlements seem to grant shelter. On the planet's surface, abandoned megacities linger within the dystopian landscape whilst artificial circular plantations lurk at their peripheries, nourishing their last inhabitants.
The camera hovers meditatively over the desolate landscape and the ruined megapolises. Connoting surveillance, the satellite/drone/bird's-eye view removes human perspective, keeping us onlookers at a distance. After flying across what looks like one of the last remaining artificial forest islands, the computer-generated images fade back into real camera footage and we dive deep into the woods where we finally arrive at a hidden techno rave, crowded by drugged young ravers dancing in happy ecstasy from bright daylight into the night in a kind of last escapist ritual.
When writing Faust I, and especially Faust II, Goethe possessed a clairvoyant vision of our time. He foresaw the destructive power of greed, capitalism, and globalisation, and simultaneously celebrated a utopian vision of a better world. Zooming in on this foresight, the searching camera abandons its reliance on computer-generated images to gradually reveal the remaining tenants of the barren landscape. Angles shift, perspectives enlarge, and extreme slow motion accentuates the movements of the raving youth, lost within their state of trance. A hint of optimism unfolds; their escape tentatively weighs against the threshold of their own extinction.
Press release courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE.