Architecton: a daunting look at the rubble of our existence

Victor Kossakovsky’s eerie documentary reflects on humanity’s relationship with architecture through a disorientating cavalcade of ruins and rocks.

25 February 2024

By Nicolas Rapold

Architecton (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

Victor Kossakovsky’s latest elemental documentary doubles as a study in the impermanence of civilisation and often as a mesmeric example of pure cinema. His heavy metal-scored Aquarela (2018) took a shock-and-awe approach to observing water in all its forms (and human folly in broaching them). Architecton presents a different but equally daunting gaze, one that looks at the rubble of our existence that is left behind by invasion, empire decay, and natural disaster.

Kossakovsky is a documentarian who seeks to re-envision the world that we think we know how to see, as witness the entrancing animal subjectivity conveyed in his last film, Gunda (2020). Here that’s accomplished through the immersive high-def photography of cinematographer Ben Bernhard (also of 2018’s Aquarela and 2022’s All That Breathes), in a cascade of vistas – decimated apartment blocks in Ukraine, levelled neighborhoods in Turkey, ruins from eras past. Some imagery flirts with outright abstraction, thanks to discombobulating techniques: vertiginous full-screen plunges into tumbling earth in mines, eerie or shadowy ruins (in certain sequences filmed in desiccated black-and-white), and subtly unpredictable pull-back drone shots.

Punctuating the montage of destruction are interludes with architect and theorist Michele De Lucchi as he putters about at his verdant Italian estate and on a visit to ruins. At home he guides slightly baffled masons in setting a circle of stones in front of his house, intended to symbolise a sanctuary apart from humanity’s unbounded construction. His bemused comments offer an oasis amid the film’s sense of a world in flux; later, in an epilogue, Kossakovsky asks De Lucchi why today’s disposable architecture is built to last a few decades, not centuries. While that sentiment isn’t as developed in the film as some coverage has made it sound, one can sense Kossakovsky’s disappointment in the meager horizons set for humanity.

This epilogue nearly feels tacked-on in anticipation of viewers who might feel overwhelmed (or buried alive) by Kossakovsky’s single-minded approach. That’d be understandable: Architecton opens with a cavalcade of ruins and rock that runs for upwards of 15 minutes (including overlaid credits) with barely a word. It’s far from a silent film, however, thanks to composer Evgueni Galperine’s multitextured music and the roiling sounds of shifting and crumbling rocks, which can have an aqueous, weirdly luscious timbre in slow-motion sequences. Even the editing has the quality of musical composition, from its andante rhythms to the curious grace note of a scene showing a surveyor assembling a precarious pile of stones.

Throughout, Kossakovsky manages to resist Planet Earth-style spectacle, but certain passages do test the patience in contemplating the abyss of churning rocks or bygone civilizations. Kossakovsky seems to be thinking on a scale that sometimes blinds him to when a sequence might have sufficiently made its impact. That said, the destruction of civilian housing in Ukraine by Russian missile attacks remains wrenching to witness – and remarkable from a Russian filmmaker essentially lingering on evidence of war crimes in the form of indiscriminate bombing. A drone pan down the ripped-open side of a building shows bedrooms and offices and kitchens frozen in time, and perhaps death. According to Kossakovsky’s public comments, Russia’s 2022-24 attacks changed Architecton, originally planned as a comedy about modern architecture and the inescapable travesty of concrete.

The millennia-old Baalbek megaliths in Lebanon also command the screen with the full drama of their size and mystery. The nearly 800-ton slabs underline another aspect to the film beyond the decline of empire: when De Lucchi finds a caretaker who removes debris from the site on a regular basis, they’re unable to find enough common language to talk about these monuments to engineering, much less figure out what they mean. There’s a comic irony in that – if their history might be forgotten ages from now, what hope is there for the people on your block? – but the moment also grounds us simply in the physical fact of the megaliths’ immensity, which needs no translation.

Kossakovsky doesn’t blaze entirely new ground here: colossal mining operations have been, er, well-mined in documentary generally and in the photography of Edward Burtynsky, and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s astringent catalogue of abandoned and overgrown buildings in Homo Sapiens (2016) casts its own spell. But perhaps Architecton adds another twist on Kossakovsky’s tendency to use cinema to jar us into self-consciousness: think of Gunda turning to the camera, or his own son in canonical short Svyato (2005) staring into a mirror for the first time in his life. Looking at ruins, from cities past or just last year, we are also always looking at ourselves.

Other things to explore

reviews

Back to Black: Amy Winehouse biopic fails in its aspirations to focus on the music

By Rebecca Harrison

Back to Black: Amy Winehouse biopic fails in its aspirations to focus on the music
reviews

The Teachers’ Lounge: the hunt for a bad apple leads to chaos in this jittery classroom thriller

By Catherine Wheatley

The Teachers’ Lounge: the hunt for a bad apple leads to chaos in this jittery classroom thriller
reviews

Civil War: Alex Garland’s spectacle of violence is determined to throw the audience off balance

By Henry K Miller

Civil War: Alex Garland’s spectacle of violence is determined to throw the audience off balance