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“Slaughterhouses of modernity describes two things places where modernism commits slaughter, and places where it is slaughtered.”
– Heinz Emigholz
Making its world premiere in the CURRENTS section of the New York Film Festival this year is the newest structural treatise by acclaimed documentarian Heinz Emigholz: the brutally titled Slaughterhouses of Modernity. Intellectual and equally poetic, one need not carry a comprehensive understanding of modernism vis-à-vis postmodernism to be enraptured by Emigholz’s gift for montage. With canted camera angles and heroic close ups, Slaughterhouses of Modernity unfolds as a transfixing travelogue through the boundaries of nature and industry. Past and future. Civilization and apocalypse. Portraits of architecture that jut out like scars of a faded eon amidst indifferent topographies seeking to reclaim it.
Beginning in South America and eventually landing in Berlin, Emigholz surveys a cross-section of early 20th-century modern architecture without the use of archive footage. Except for a preamble that establishes some of the political context that Emigholz is exploring, most of the film plays without narration. The accumulation of shots, instead, commune with each other to tell the story of each structure. In patient long takes, the camera scrapes the modern-day veneer off the cityscapes it captures, revealing a haunted history underneath. Anesthetizing in its durational gaze, impressionist in its metered cutting, the film effectively produces a feeling of time travel in the viewer as each space is calmly photographed before unceremoniously moving on to the next one.
A pastoral sound design composed of weather and animal sounds underscore the state of nature that now surrounds these 90-year-old structures that stand completely divorced from their original context, if not outright abandoned. Some of these places, like the rural slaughterhouses of the title, become Emigholz’s primary symbol for the paradox of civilization, where sites of government sanctioned execution are transformed into aesthetic objects over time. Central to this is the connection between cultural modernism and the fascist ideologies of Nazi Germany in this same time period. It was the same modernism that built churches and schools that built the concentration camps. Advancements in engineering and technology insidiously hijacked to perfect human extermination – “Advancements for whom?” the film seems to ask.
Are these design practices inextricable from their cursed roots, or can they be reclaimed from their fascist mold? Emigholz has an answer, but the film isn’t just an 80-minute yes-or-no question. It’s a document of now, a history all its own. The film’s dynamic structural tableaus offer an unimpeded view of the present cast perpetually into the future. Like the structures photographed within it, Slaughterhouses of Modernity will also age out of the context it was made – to resist is to misunderstand the lessons of history. What will be left behind are breathtaking images of cinema’s most essential themes: that of time and space.
Produced by Filmgalerie 451. The film is pending theatrical/streaming distribution.