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‘Architecton’ Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Magnetic Film Essay Reflects On Man’s Relationship With Nature – Berlin Film Festival

It’s very easy to misread the title of Victor Kossakovsky’s latest documentary as “Architection,” since it is, in some ways, a detective story about the world we live in, albeit one in which it is very easy to figure out whodunit (spoiler: we did it to ourselves). The actual title, Architecton, is a Greek word that means “master builder,” and the film plays with the irony of what that may mean — pitting the “master builders” of yesteryear against the “master builders“ of today — from the very beginning, using a cryptic line from “L’aquilone,” a rumination on bygone times by Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912). “There is something new within the sun today, or rather ancient,” he writes. This fascinating, engrossing film interrogates the subtext of this seemingly paradoxical statement.

In a haunting prolog, we see the ruins of a housing estate in what is presumably war-torn Ukraine (Kossakovsky doesn’t always tell you where his cameras are pointing). A drone soars above the carnage, revealing the extent of the damage to buildings where people once lived. The evidence of their having been there now seems almost pathetic; these spaces seem barely adequate for existence, let alone survival. It’s the ugly, ignominious end of an ugly, ignominious building, but Kossakovsky’s seemingly cryptic tone-poem film is just dangling that idea in front of us as an aperitif.

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The film itself starts with a very strange ritual; an unnamed architect (later revealed to be Michele De Lucchi, another Italian) is building a stone circle in his garden. There is no purpose to this object other than to be a human-free zone: once completed, only De Lucchi’s dog is to be allowed within it.

While all this is going on, Kossakovsky’s roving eye takes us around the world, in a travelogue that shows us the resilience of the old world versus the transience of the modern. It shows the poetics of ruin, but it is a cycle with diminishing returns; the debris of the Romans and Greeks still has a grandeur and majesty that is missing from the shabby detritus of the modern world, as we see in the aftermath of the earthquake that laid waste to Turkey in the summer of last year.

For a time, the closest comparison is Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterpiece Koyaanisqatsi (the title being a native-American Hopi word meaning “Life out of balance”), and Kossakovsky uses music to similar, hypnotic effect. He also goes beyond architecture to take us into the secret world of rocks and stones, and his stunning close-up shots of landslides are some of the best action scenes of the year so far. Gradually, this reveals a narrative purpose; alongside scenes of ruins ancient and modern, Kossakovsky takes us into the production of concrete, a process that takes beautiful stones of all colors, shapes and sizes, then transforms them into an unlovable gray and miserable sludge.

It’s all very gnomic, but Kossakovsky can’t help but blurt his thoughts out in the epilogue, with a thesis that is really very simple: “Why do we build ugly, boring buildings when we know how to make beautiful ones?”

De Lucchi, a wonderfully lugubrious presence, knows this very well, and speaks quite candidly about his own complicity in this increasingly prevalent anti-aesthetic, saying that, as a global entity, we need to think about “what we build that nourishes the planet and what we build that will destroy it… Architecture is a way to think about how we live, how we behave.”

Such a concept isn’t all that new — it’s over 100 years since Le Corbusier declared that “a house is machine for living in” — but Kossakovsky’s fascinating, magnetic film essay does help us to reassess what we’ve lost over the centuries. And, best of all, it isn’t depressing; like Reggio’s film, it is a warning sounded in the good faith of being heard in the nick of time.

Architecton verbalizes something we are all thinking in the modern age of war and climate change: what will we leave behind, and what will it say about us to future generations? We can only pray that they’ll think of us kindly.

Title: Architecton
Festival: Berlin (Competition)
Distributor: A24
Sales agent: The Match Factory
Director: Victor Kossakovsky
Running time: 1 hr 38 min

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