Cinéma du Réel 2023 review: Slaughterhouses of Modernity (Heinz Emigholz)

“It is a beautiful, quietly poetic and brilliantly complex film about our shared past, which is carefully pieced together by a director with a profound interest in those intricate details that accumulate to form the entire history of humanity.”

In what is bound to be one of the year’s most fascinating and deeply captivating documentaries, the brilliant Heinz Emigholz goes in search of the meaning behind the architecture littered across two continents. His primary intentions in making Slaughterhouses of Modernity are not particularly clear at the outset, and it takes some time for the viewer to acclimate to his vision, which is seemingly motivated by a sense of navigating a very different perspective of art, blending visual composition with architecture, focusing on the buildings in the metropoles of both South America and Europe, drawing correlations between them in terms of their shared past as well as their relevance in the modern world. Much like some of the remarkable documentaries by filmmakers like Agnès Varda (whose Murs Murs and Daguerréotypes are subtly evoked, almost as if Emigholz was trying to make a film that exists in dialogue with her work, since the two filmmakers were spiritual and temporal contemporaries), Slaughterhouses of Modernity is centred on the process of conveying the cultural history of a particular place through buildings and man-made structures, which the director believes say more about a society than its written history ever could, especially since these are often the last vestiges of bygone eras, carrying with them a historical significance bound to particular periods. Emigholz takes a concept that many may consider banal or tedious, and makes it extraordinarily hypnotic and engaging, using striking images and powerful commentary to discuss the past critically and compellingly.

The key to finding the value in a film such as Slaughterhouses of Modernity is discovering the overall thesis statement that drives the documentary, inspiring its creation and motivating the director to explore a particular subject. Emigholz is fascinated with the concept of “brutal monumentalism”, which is not given a concise definition, but which we can easily determine as being the relationship between a contemporary society moving towards the future, and the physical structures that exist around them, many of which have stood for decades, if not centuries, creating a strange psychological and cultural disconnect between the past and present. Essentially, what the director is aiming to convey is that it is impossible to separate buildings from their past, since they are not only iconic symbols of particular locations and the people who populated those spaces, but are embedded with a rich and evocative history. The film is primarily interested in the darker moments associated with these buildings, such as the traumatic incidents that surround them, or the institutions that they represented, whether they still exist or only remain in the public consciousness as a result of these buildings continuing to stand, despite the systems having evaporated into the past, only represented by these seemingly infallible fortresses.

A cursory glance at these buildings may not inspire any lingering interest, and even after being introduced to them, we view these structures as mere remnants of the past – but this is the starting point for Emigholz’s intriguing examination of the architectural history of these two regions, focusing on the buildings that we initially see as nothing more than brick-and-mortar constructions, but which we soon learn have a much deeper meaning, even more than just carrying historical significance. This is most evident in the active avoidance of people in this film – for most of the documentary, the only people we see are in the background, distant silhouettes that never catch our eye, and just exist as incidental presences that barely register as anything more than faceless, inconsequential entities. In fact, the first moment we encounter a person (outside of Emigholz’s narrator) is nearly an hour into the film, when Stefan Kolosko and Arno Brandlhuber (an actor and architect respectively) are brought in to offer fascinating lectures that cover the literary, political and social cadences of these buildings and what they represent. These fascinating cultural interludes add layers of meaning to an already compelling film, constantly drawing on the feeling of isolation to create the sensation of detachment from both the past and present, which is integral to the experience of this entire film.

Slaughterhouses of Modernity is a frustrating film, but this is entirely by design, as it is aiming to be a challenging and thought-provoking exercise in blurring together the past and present into a stream-of-consciousness narrative that leaps between continents and eras as it pursues fascinating depictions of historical monuments and their rich, evocative histories. When setting out to explore this subject, it was clear that Emigholz had broader intentions than simply discussing the history of buildings, many of which are not even notable enough to be instantly recognizable to the general population. Instead, it was not the buildings he was interested in, but rather what they represented, which is why the film is so incredibly layered. The director is undergoing a process of excavating the past, capturing these buildings in vibrant detail and discussing their origins in a way that is best described as orbiting the mythology of history, those factual details that are repurposed to evoke the feeling of being told a sensationalistic story that skirts around the edges of plausibility, but ultimately turns out to be purely factual. It may seem like Slaughterhouses of Modernity is merely 80 minutes of stagnant photography of buildings, but there is a meaning behind this, especially as the director portrays the geopolitical and cultural history of the places he visits, and which form the foundation of his work, which is the primary reason this film feels so rich and vibrant. The cinematography is simple but effective, and there is a wealth of detail, both visually and in terms of the concurrent narration, in which anecdotes and historical commentary are provided to supplement (rather than shape) our perception of the images we are seeing. It is a beautiful, quietly poetic and brilliantly complex film about our shared past, which is carefully pieced together by a director with a profound interest in those intricate details that accumulate to form the entire history of humanity, as seen through the buildings that were built long before we were born, and will likely stand for centuries after our demise, our lives just coinciding with the growing legacy these buildings and their architects have left behind in human history.