We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

Jóhann Jóhannsson: What Is Already Here

An exploration of the otherworldly sounds and images in Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's two directorial efforts.
Sasha Frere-Jones
Jóhann Jóhannsson's End of Summer is exclusively showing on MUBI from September 30 - October 30, 2020.
End of Summer
In the only two movies he directed and scored himself, Jóhann Jóhannsson gave us a vision of human otherness, a sense of people without people. End of Summer (2014) and Last and First Men (2019) both present landscapes riven with energy but fresh out of humans. Last and First Men was filmed all around the former Yugoslavia, using 16mm anamorphic camera lenses. The only subjects before the lens are “spomenik,” enormous statues built after World War II to commemorate sites of violence. The figures are based on ancient, unfamiliar shapes and seem far from any common experience of Earth. Tilda Swinton’s narration, taken from a 1930s sci-fi novel, describes a dying race from the future talking to the dying race of the present—us. Jóhannsson’s music blends with field recordings and flows under Swinton’s narration of “non-luminous gas” and “the plains of Neptune.” All of the sounds work with the very slow tracking shots of the monuments, pulling the viewer and listener away from a normative sense of time. Or rather, the music seems to be iterating the feeling of time itself while the camera renders the feeling of presence and embodiment. These two forces seem to be more than enough in Jóhannsson’s cinematic universe. The conditions depicted and the sensations produced are not barren and empty but quite the opposite—fully formed and spiritually complete. Jóhannsson hasn’t removed the people from the landscape to deny them but to show us what is already always here.
In Last and First Men, as in most of his film scores, Jóhannsson uses voices and electronics to open up the timbre of the traditional string section. It’s interesting that here, and in End of Summer, when in full control of the cinematic experiences, he doesn't entirely abandon narrative or coherence. There is a liminal space, an edge much like the orbit of Neptune, where Jóhannsson takes us, though he doesn’t strand us there. The mood of Last and First Men is both dark, in a true sense, and exalted. There is a chance that humanity can survive, though slim, while the hulking, illogical statues perform the beautiful trick of making scale invisible. Are these things two feet tall? A hundred? A thousand? Nothing in the frame allows for comparison. They seem like the sentinels of time itself and, as the film elapses, the viewer loses hold of anything but the narration.
End of Summer ends up closer to that state of eternity and uses many of the same gambits as Last and First Men, but is more concise, and sweeter. Shot on Super 8 in the Antarctic, End of Summer uses sound from the site of filming as much as it uses Jóhannsson’s score. This time, there is no narration at all, no voiceover or dialogue. We have what feels like a silent film from 1917 recharged and filled up with sound. The first twenty of the film’s thirty minutes are given over to the penguins of the Antarctic, who mill about in enormous groups. The treatment and editing of the film allows for a frame rate that only records a portion of the activity, making everything seem provisional, like it has been sent from the past, rather than the future. 
Last and First Men
The penguins are extremely good at conveying calm and liveliness, connecting with the landscape and aligning with its rhythms. Jóhannsson’s strings combine here with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s cello and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s electronics. Both collaborators also use their voices, and the progress of End of Summer is a gently devastating move from the string towards the singing voice. The penguins are collected in small groups of twenty or so, at first. The sound of birds connects here with long, gentle swells of cello. The shots give us incrementally larger groups of penguins by the side of small inlets and rivers. Eventually there seem to be hundreds of penguins, massed near a creek below a huge, snowy mountain. The sounds of water blend into the vocals of Lowe as the camera pulls back slightly and the sound of natural processes diminishes. The film moves from the character of a string quartet to a religious choral work, without becoming massive. The general affect is still light, if cosmic. These penguins, in this film, do nothing quickly and as he will later, in Last and First Men, Jóhannsson is suggesting a passage of time. As the water flows, it dawns on you. Is something melting? If we are not hearing from a future civilization hoping to save us, we may be hearing our own friends in the animal kingdom. Maybe they are staring at that creek because they know it. Maybe they are staring at it because it wasn’t there last year.
After a flurry of avian squawks, we ride Lowe and Guðnadóttir and Jóhannsson into the final third of the film, a luscious expanse of grey stripped of all birds and beasts. The liveliest force here is wind, which we can now hear, and the currents of the ocean. One rock formation looks like a very small island, or the top of a sunken city. Glassy and metallic tones give the proceedings a brief, electronic tang. 
Stranded on the ocean, we travel with a band of voices that slowly loop a slightly dissonant wordless chorus, altering in pitch and duration, set apart by long silences. The ocean gives away to clumps of icebergs, and then narrow passageways between mountains. The sounds of the earth have settled down to a very quiet rumble, and we are being gently paced by the chorus as we trawl past forms of ice and snow. They start looking less like formations and more like ruins, slowly eroded by the waters. 
As the film was winding down, I was extremely aware of the short distance between the elements Jóhannsson uses: strings, singers, synthesizer, field recording. His sounds move in close formation, like the grasses that take up the final minute, before Jóhannsson closes on a setting sun. The musicality of the sounds and the sound of the music drives the viewer towards one silvery, cohesive point. If we follow the tenor of Jóhannsson’s music, we see what he is showing us, for the brief time that it is still here.


Jóhann JóhannssonNow Showing
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.