Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Last and First Men

In 2017 we were honoured to present the world symphonic performance premiere of Last and First Men at MIF17, an extraordinary new multimedia work by Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The event featured images, narration from Tilda Swinton and a live score performed by the BBC Philharmonic.

With the film recently premiering at Berlinale 2020 and now available to buy, we take a look at the making of this visionary work.

A dazzling vision of the apocalypse... one of the most original sci-fi movies in recent memory IndieWire
Black and white image of Jóhann Jóhannsson

Jóhann Jóhannsson – image credit Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Last and First Men is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s poetic swansong. The Icelandic composer was working on the score of his magnum opus at the time of his death in February 2018, distilling and intensifying the symphonic soundworld that he had premiered at Manchester International Festival little more than six months earlier.

Jóhannsson devised the multimedia work’s visual concept, travelled to the former Yugoslavia to shoot footage of isolated locations and futuristic war memorials, then set about marrying haunting images to music.

Last And First Men image credit Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

The final version of the film, which tells the story of the extinction of humanity, was completed by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. It is narrated by Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton, and features performances by several of Jóhannsson’s regular musical collaborators, including members of Theatre of Voices, and the Academy Award-winning Hildur Guðnadóttir on vocals, cello and percussion.

The project was conceived a decade ago as an idea for a film inspired by Olaf Stapledon’s eponymous science-fiction novel, a chilling “future history” first published in London in 1930 and now a cult classic, and by Antwerp-based photographer Jan KempenaersSpomenik, a collection of mystical images of brutalist war monuments commissioned by Marshal Tito and built on the sites of World War Two massacres and concentration camps in the republics of the former Yugoslavia.

“We wanted to film these sculptures in a formalistic manner to emphasise their strange asymmetrical beauty. We woke every morning at four o’clock to be ready for sunrise and stayed outside filming all day until there was no light. It was one of the happiest experiences in my life, and one of the most gruelling.” Jóhann Jóhannsson, 1969-2018

Last And First Men – image credit Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Jóhannsson’s vision evolved into a multimedia artwork shot on high-definition 16mm black-and-white film and accompanied by music of mantra-like intensity. He worked on the project between creating the Oscar-nominated soundtracks for James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything and Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, before finally drawing together images and music in the summer of 2017 to form the grand movie he’d always dreamed of making.

“A breath-taking requiem for the final human species in civilisation, majestically put together over seven years by a composer who is destined for sheer greatness.” Manchester Evening News

After the premiere of the original version at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Berlin-based composer and sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman worked together with Jóhannsson on transforming the score. “He said Last and First Men was a work in progress and that he was interested in scaling down the orchestra in order to create a more direct and intimate sound” recalls Glotman.

Following Jóhannsson’s death, he spent almost a year interpreting his friend’s wishes, as well as composing the missing parts of the score. “I could no longer consult with him, but since we’d collaborated on the project beforehand, I had a map, an idea of where to go.

That map led Glotman to work with musicians close to Jóhann Jóhannsson and also to incorporate the composer’s treasured harmonium into the work’s final version. “It’s been with his family for three generations and was about to be sent back to Iceland,” he notes. “So my first priority was to make sure we recorded on it before it returned home. That was incredibly emotional. It’s now an integral part of the sound of Last and First Men.”

An interplay where the stationary is dramatically animated, where the world is lifted and turned on its head, and where music is a solid dancing object John McGrath, MIF's Artistic Director & Chief Executive

MIF presented the world symphonic performance premiere of Last and First Men in July 2017, the film recently premiered at Berlinale 2020 to critical acclaim.

A minimalist yet monumental essay on our impending doom — and reinvention Variety
A stunning work of beauty and horror Screendaily

Last and First Men will soon be released on Blu-ray, packaged together with the original score recording on CD and as part of a Limited Deluxe Vinyl Art-Edition, which also comprises three art prints.

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