Last And First Men, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s poetic swansong, receives its world film premiere on 25 February at Berlinale 2020. Deutsche Grammophon will release the original score digitally worldwide on 28 February followed by the release of the film on Blu-ray, packaged with the CD, and a Limited Deluxe Vinyl Art Edition in March. 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 (MIF) six months earlier. Jóhann 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.
Narrated by Tilda Swinton
The final version of the film, which tells the story of the extinction of humanity, was completed by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. The film is narrated by Tilda Swinton and features performances by several of Jóhann 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 cult science-fiction novel, and by Antwerp-based photographer Jan Kempenaers’ Spomenik, 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.
Jóhann 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 movie he’d always dreamed of making.
“I think Last And First Men will live on in many different incarnations.”
In an interview with journalist and author Andrew Male Jóhann Jóhannsson noted, “I think Last And First Men will live on in many different incarnations. It’s a big ask for people to sit for 70 minutes and look at concrete and hear about the end of humanity, but hopefully we’ve taken all these elements and made something beautiful and poignant. Something like a requiem.”
After the premiere of the original version of Last And First Men at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Berlin-based composer and sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman worked together with Jóhann Jóhannsson on transforming the score and he composed the missing parts following Jóhannsson’s death. Glotman worked with musicians close to Jóhann Jóhannsson and incorporated 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 noted. “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.”
Last And First Men receives its world premiere on 25 February at the 2020 Berlinale and the album will be released digitally worldwide on 28 February. The film will then be released on Blu-ray packaged together with the original score recording on CD (27 March internationally, 28 February in Germany, Switzerland and Austria), and as part of a Limited Deluxe Vinyl Art-Edition, which also includes three art prints (27 March internationally, 10 April in the US). The single ‘Childhood/Land Of The Young’ is out now.
Poetic, tragic and hopeful Last And First Men represents Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final and most personal work – an allegory of remembrance, ideals and the death of utopia.
The album Last And First Men can be pre-ordered here.