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NYFF 2020: ‘The Last City’ Review: A Metaphysical Construction of Our Place in the Universe

two men stand by a statue
Heinz Emigholz

Heinz Emigholz’s The Last City is ostensibly set in five cities around the globe: Be’er Sheva, Athens, Berlin, Hong Kong, and São Paulo. But it may as well be set at the ends of the earth — we journey across continents with existential questions remaining our one constant as the film tries in vain to determine our role in life’s grand scheme. While the scenery is important, it’s the dialogue that drives this story. Conversations wrestle with the biggest issues that are facing humanity: genocide, systemic racism, family, sexuality, and why we were put on this earth — all of which are discussed with a sharp sardonic wit.

The Last City often seems as if Emigholz is playing a game of mad libs as he fills in the characters’ identities and their topics of conversation. In Athens, an artist (John Erdman) talks to a vision of his former self (Young Sun Han); in Berlin, two brothers (Young and Laurean Wagner) chat about their taboo sexual desires; in Be’er Sheva, an archaeologist (Erdman) and a weapons designer (Jonathan Perel) discuss the war in Israel; in Hong Kong, a woman (Dorothy Ko) pushes another (Susanne Sachsse) to atone for Japanese war crimes; and, in São Paulo, an art curator (Sachsse) and a cosmologist (Perel) converse about extraterrestrial life and intergalactic travel.

Their talks whirl around in a spiral as the characters, and, by extension, the audience, struggle to situate themselves in deep time and space. What is our metaphysical place in the universe? How do we acknowledge the creations and potential crimes of our ancestors? Where is humanity headed? Each weighty topic is delivered in dry deadpan by the expansive and unfaltering cast — many of whom take on more than one character, and with each new scene partner, the verbal dances begin anew.

Heinz Emigholz

As The Last City traverse’s between cities, there’s a sense we are venturing into sites of inscrutable origin and indeterminate location; these are dream cities where the coordinates keep changing and the streets keep rearranging. The Last City gives its narrative threads the look and logic of a dream, moving through various storylines as if they’re buried in a surrealistic labyrinth or the frames of a comic book — the stories are not too far away from reality, but everything is a little more saturated, a little less scrutable, leaving us struggling to get our bearings among the film’s architecture and anatomy. At times, it’s cold and unsatisfying despite its wit and freewheeling; the characters talk in heightened and hyper-academic language, and the dialogue’s meaning can sometimes go over heads or lose impact because of its abstraction.

Cinematographer and editor Till Beckmann help launch us headfirst into an absurd and fragmented reality, and the ruptures and disjointedness of the editing, when paired with the polyrhythmic sound design, further destabilize.

Emigholz depicts five cities and five topics — family, aging, weaponry, cosmology, and war guilt — in a project that seems more narratively inclined than his previous architecture films. Yet setting is as important as ever, and Emigholz is a master architect even if the layout of his dream logic isn’t always visible to his audience as he carries us into seemingly endless dimensions that keep opening up in front of us.

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