Reflections on Endzeit (2018)
On 15th of March 2023 CAPAS screened the appropriately titled Endzeit (Ever After), a film by director Carolina Hellsgård, as the final film in this semester’s apocalyptic cinema series. An entirely different kind of zombie was explored by media scholar, journalist, and author Lars Schmeink whose expertise on the grey ecology of zombie fictions complimented the critical post humanist decentering presented in the film. The following is a revised version of the commentary presented at the the Karlstorkino in Heidelberg.
This film is about zombies. But then again, not just any zombies. There are a variety of explanations as to the cultural importance of the zombie. Depending on how we portray them, they can reflect us, the human, in its continuous and mindless consumption, in its terrifying spread across the world, in its dehumanizing of the Other to colonize, exploit, or kill without prejudice. Our intial impulse is to keep zombies out, to stave off the inevitable decay and destruction that they represent. Yet, since the turn of the century, the zombie has become ever more present in our contemporary cultural imagination, proliferating in a wide array of forms and stories. As Sarah Juliet Lauro points out, they are the reminder of a looming end, our call “for catharsis and to reconcile ourselves to an impending disaster, one that is shared by all those that inhabit this planet: namely, global climate change” (2016: 19).
Zombies and humans are closely related, they are, ontologically speaking, just one bite removed from each other, one infection is all it takes. But humans are not just infected, they are the infection itself. Moving up in scale, the human is a virus radically changing its host body: Earth. In his book Dark Ecology, Timothy Morton describes the human species as a hyperobject. So large, complex, and massively distributed that it is unthinkable, beyond the scale of human empirical comprehension. We are part of it, yet we do not see our complicity in its agency. Morton reminds us that as humans we are “part of an entity that is now a geophysical force on a planetary scale” (2016: 9). Morton, and other thinkers of object-oriented ontology try to refocus philosophical thinking away from humans as “monarchs of being,” as Levi Bryant formulates, understanding humans as “among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings” (2011: 40). Seeing humans as objects does not eliminate their importance, it just asks if philosophically, they should always be at the center, as Ian Bogost has made clear: “We humans are elements, but not the sole elements, of philosophical interest. OOO [object oriented ontology] or contends that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally” (2012: 6).
In addition to OOO, I want to throw out another theory aspect to ground us and my remarks about the film. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that we need a new ecology that is “inhuman,” reflecting a “disanthropocentrism” (2017: 382) and allowing us to describe relations of objects beyond the human grasp. Grey ecology, as he calls it, pushes our limits of understanding, it “propels us beyond our own finitude, opens us to alien scales of both being (the micro and the macro) and time (the effervescent, barely glimpsed; the geologic, in which life proceeds at a billion-year pace)” (2017: 383). In this, grey ecology reflects critical posthumanist ideas of becoming and the need to decenter a humanist subject, seen as beyond the natural world.
Endzeit uses the idea of the zombie and the end of the human as a springboard to explore this kind of grey ecology, a postanthropocene world. A virus has turned humans into zombies, while only two settlements of human survivors remain. The story follows Vivi and Eva on their way from Weimar to Jena through the woods and hills between the two cities, focusing less on encounters with the undead and instead exploring questions of community, growth, and change. Unwilling to conform to genre conventions, Endzeit shifts discourse away from horror tropes and towards an element of fantasy with grand metaphors allowing a view, that all things matter equally. The film reveals to us, that we are not “at the center of being, organizing and regulating it like an ontological watchmaker” (2012: 5), as Ian Bogost has pointed out the usual humanist position.
Endzeit (2018) picks up on the idea of separation and categorial difference by explaining that the surviving humans are locked down in the cities’ safe zones. The opening scene shows the border in Weimar: a ramshackle fence, barbwire on top and patched up with boards and makeshift barricades in many places, separates two distinct spaces from each other. One shot tracks the fence from above. While the outside is green, grassy, and with blooming wild flowers, the inside of the fence is packed dirt. The next scene shows the city, deserted and desolate: crosses mark the dead and fire pits cover the city for light and warmth. The famous statue of Goethe and Schiller—symbols of Germany’s intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment—have become water filling and solar charging stations.
These first few minutes of the film set up the dichotomy, separating the city and nature around it, yet also reverses its standard interpretation. While the outside seems oddly alive and beautiful—rabbits play in the grass, rays of sunshine glimmer through the sparse woods—the city and its civilization are shown as dying and broken. The old world has crumbled. Both nature and the zombies press onto the barrier, forcing the remaining humans to vigilance and constant upkeep.
When Eva and Vivi are outside the city, the two women realize the beauty around them. The cinematography picks this up and provides an uncanny view of the world as “subjectless object, or an object that is for-itself” (2011: 19) as Levy Bryant has called it. The film takes it time panning over the rolling hills, colored in the yellow-orange light of the setting sun, contrasting it with the dark lush greens of the woods. The last remnants of the human world have become overgrown and thus reclaimed by nature. Mossy cars and vine-grown buildings becoming home to animals and plants, providing shelter to the lone humans. The world does not need a human eye to behold it or a human hand to manipulate it, it is teeming with life, nonetheless. When the human is not at the center any longer, all things are realized to be “vibrant matter,” as Jane Bennett (2010: x) writes, “stretch[ing] received concepts of agency, action, and freedom.” Within just two years of human absence, life has grown into a world without us. And both the human and the zombie appear misplaced in this landscape. Nature, and not the remaining ‘civilized’ space of Weimar, is revealed as a refuge for life; the arrested human city instead becoming a symbol for the death of the old.
The film moves towards a postanthropocentric world by foregrounding a sort of fairytale element. At some point, during a rest, Eva basically vocalizes the film’s message: “I believe the Earth is a wise old lady and humans haven’t paid her any rent for a long time. And out there, that is our eviction order.” The message is foreshadowing, as Vivi soon meets the Gardener, a woman who seems to have become-plant, not a zombie and not human either. A variety of twigs, leaves, and mosses seem to grow out of the side of her face, giving the appearance of ornaments or a one-sided tiara. She explains: “What’s happening is necessary. It should have happened a long time ago. The unwelcome guests must leave.” The message is clear: The virus is a necessary step to assure a renewal for Earth. The Gardener shows Vivi the abundance of life in the garden and invites her to eat from the plentiful rows of tomatoes in the green houses. She continues her explanation: “Humankind is disappearing from Earth. Only just arrived and already finished. The blink of an eye in nature’s history. What destroyed humankind we have been carrying with us for millions of years. The virus was lying in wait. Now it is time to take the chance this downfall is giving us.”
The Gardener does identify with humanity and includes herself in its entanglement, yet she remains outside of its time scale and perspective. She points out how humans are hosts to micro-organic life, how “we evolve with our symbionts, our most intimate partners, and we cannot survive without them. Shockingly our evolutionary partners proliferate as species more successful than our own” (2001: 222), as Melinda Rackham points out. The Gardener highlights the idea that death and life, destruction and renewal are closely tied to each other and neither is inherently good nor bad. “Everything changes,” she exclaims, “there is peace in chaos. Neither destruction nor pills will save the people. Something new will arise.” This comment stresses the two human strategies to circumvent their own demise, as Jena pushes science to heal, while Weimar opts to kill any infected. Neither way will actually save humanity though. What is needed, is a new perspective, ‘something new’ that can be shaped from the objects that once were. The film thus explores posthuman becomings, zombies that are being taken over by plant life like the Gardener herself. Having lost their chance of living with nature, nature reclaims the humans’ bodies and energy to form a new beginning.
Moreover, Endzeit also reimagines representations of zombies both as an indistinct threat and as the final stage of categorial transgression. Whereas other zombie fictions display zombies as a faceless mass, their individuality and agency usurped by inhuman animality, Endzeit takes the time to stage longer encounters with zombies, highlighting their individuality and personal history even in zombiehood. Zombies in the film are not the shambling horde of corpses so often portrayed but embodied in and haunted by their human selves. Each zombie’s movement and hunting strategy are adapted to their embodied identity and they display traits of their former selves. The depiction as an individual with specific cognitive processes and a form of embodied agency provides a disanthropocentric interpretation of the zombie as posthuman.
Furthermore, individual zombies help us to explore their ontological status. I will leave out details, but the film shows us some zombies more specifically. They are portrayed as slowly decomposing and becoming-plant, while their actions are full of agency and vitality. They remind us that the bodies’ “[d]ecay is a process of transformation. It seems final, fatal, and terminal, but this activity is future directed, creative, and uninterested in our mourning” (Cohen 2017: 389). Some of the zombie images in the film are uncanny and jarring, as elements of their behavior or appearance connect human culture with natural transformation. The fluid categorization, human-zombie-compost, shows that human(ist) categories of ethics are no longer clear-cut and easy to apply. What is considered good or bad, right or wrong is not based on the human as a measure any more. As Ian Bogost (2012: 75) argues: “‘Preservation’ turns out to be an object-relative concept. If a unit is a system, then objects appear, generate, collapse, and hide both within and without it with great regularity.” A decomposing body is the site of transformation, of renewal, of growth; just not from a human perspective.
The film emphasizes this idea of object-relative ethics via Vivi’s trajectory, but I don’t want to spoil the story or how this plays out. I just want to point out that when you watch the film, I invite you to pay attention to Vivi and how her relation to zombies changes over the course of the film, both emotionally and physically. Keep in mind the object-oriented ontology and the idea of zombie bodies becoming-plant. This is how the film signals a changing ontological status and our need to move over to the new world and its grey ecology.
A similar shift in ontology is presented in Eva’s development throughout the film, focusing on her toughness and resilience and her will to survive. Again, I am not going to explore the details of this but invite you to see the relationship between Vivi and Eva as key to an ontological shift. The two women bond and recognize their support and care for each other. This is an important transitional stage allowing, later, for all ontological categories to dissolve. The film imagines the old world as dying and restrictive, but the new world is a promise. Posthuman beings, hybrid and entangled with other objects, will determine the future of this new world.
Bennett, Jane (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP.
Bogost, Ian (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bryant, Levi R. (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome (2017). “Grey: A Zombie Ecology,” in: Sarah Juliet Lauro (ed.), Zombie Theory: A Reader, 381–94, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Lauro, Sarah Juliet (2016). “Preface Zombies Today,” in: Victoria Carrington et al. (eds.), Generation Z: Zombies, Popular Culture and Educating Youth, 11–19, Wiesbaden: Springer.
Morton, Timothy (2016). Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press.
Rackham, Melinda (2001). “Carrier – Becoming Symborg,“ in: Alison Bashford and Claire Hooker (eds.), Contagion: Historical and Cultural Studies, 217–26, New York: Routledge.