Locarno 2022 review: Matter Out of Place (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

“This beautifully made film presents a multi-layered, piercingly intelligent account of waste as a formidable symbol of development and destruction caused by humankind.”

Urgent and otherworldly in equal measure, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s stunning new documentary Matter Out of Place traces, as explained early in the film, “materials not native to their immediate environments.” A more colloquial term for such materials could be waste, but Geyrhalter’s film achieves a sense of transcendence not usually associated with this word, providing a sprawling portrait realized on a global scale. Traveling from Switzerland to Albania, then from Nepal to Maldives, before reaching a memorable final destination in the US, this is a sophisticated work of non-fiction which expertly combines essential social commentary with broader conceptual ideas. Following its premiere in Locarno’s main competition it should enjoy an extensive run in prestigious festivals and substantially expand Geyrhalter’s reputation as a prolific master of the documentary form.

Inescapably for a film about waste, there is an obvious environmental dimension in Matter Out of Place, with the often-invisible cost of convenience culture laid bare in disturbingly majestic images. Beautiful beaches littered with plastic, endless barren lands covered in piles of trash, massive industrial complexes where trash is processed all point to continuous and rapid destruction caused by humans. It’s not difficult to see the causes of this damage in Geyrhalter’s superbly composed images; overpopulation, the hectic pace of modern life, and most importantly our obsession with comfort and consumption are all on display wherever the camera takes us. From the bustling streets of Kathmandu to a picturesque mountain resort in Switzerland or a gorgeous beach in Maldives, practically every corner of the planet seems to be facing a grave crisis, with no obvious solution in sight. One of the biggest assets of the film is Geyrhalter’s patient and observational approach, which completely avoids the didacticism or the simplified rhetoric that often plague comparable documentaries about environmental issues. Even during the relatively predictable sequences about volunteer work or recycling Geyrhalter lets his striking images speak for themselves rather than attempting to “teach” his audience anything specific about waste.

This level of environmental analysis alone would certainly make Matter Out of Place a noble effort. But the most noteworthy aspects of this transfixing film cannot be tied to any ongoing crisis. There is a timeless, more profound core in Geyrhalter’s exploration of concepts such as progress, control, and repetition. One of the key questions the film grapples with is about the price of technological and societal progress. Geyrhalter turns his camera to the mechanisms and individuals that keep the staggering cost of the dizzying technological advances that seem to define our era mostly out of sight: the people who clean the spotless hotel rooms more privileged visitors occupy, garbage collectors who walk narrow streets to do a very important but rarely acknowledged job, the numbingly repetitive yet crucial efforts of the workers who sort waste before recycling, the ugly but undeniably grand machines that crush tons of trash every day.

Matter Out of Place also reveals the common human fallacy about controlling nature as it becomes increasingly clear that we still know very little about how to handle waste despite all the “remarkable innovations” that result in more and more of it. One can even experience a chilling sense of smallness while watching Matter Out of Place, with mountains of trash creating overwhelming tableaux that tower above all human interventions. Whether through slow, natural degradation or through Sisyphean work performed repeatedly, we witness a cyclical process whose astonishing scale cannot be fully comprehended. This question of scale is the most spectacular (and perhaps the most harrowing) part of Matter Out of Place; the investigative trail Geyrhalter gradually builds in the film successfully demonstrates how a single bag of trash from an ordinary household becomes part of an enormous ocean of waste.

Matter Out of Place features several extraordinary images that seem to be taken out of a science fiction film. Some of the most mesmerizing scenes feature a large garbage truck suspended under an aerial lift, a group of divers who collect trash under water, and a euphoric gathering set in the deserts of Nevada. Each of these sequences is edited with great rigor, with the unhurried rhythm contributing significantly to a hypnotic cumulative effect. The mechanical sounds emerging from the industrial settings and the carefully composed images (whose architectural precision is often striking) complete an impeccable technical package. This beautifully made film presents a multi-layered, piercingly intelligent account of waste as a formidable symbol of development and destruction caused by humankind.