The Empire of Mad Reason

In his latest work, Swiss-Canadian director Peter Mettler has radically diverged from his position of a supremely individualistic filmmaker. From a nearly divine perspective, he tells the story of the rise (and fall) of an empire called Petropolis; an empire we all are part of.

Petropolis makes visible (literally) the much discussed problem of extraction and processing of unconventional oil. The source of “black gold” is bitumen contained in oil (or also tar) sands. The world’s greatest bitumen reserve is situated in Alberta, Canada. The region’s estimated oil potential is very high; however, the price that must be paid for the bitumen oil is very high as well.
Mettler’s film consists solely of aerial scenes shot above the Athabasca oil sands. The bird’s eye view, the steady slow motion and the rhythmic montage give the film a hypnotic quality, providing an almost meditative experience to the viewers. The image is free from noise, “snow” and other deformations typical for previous Mettler’s works. The scenes are composed in a precise way and shot in breathtaking light conditions. Disregarding the informative subtitles safely anchoring the film’s environmental message, Mettler’s film does not seem to be a primarily critical one. If it was made in the early 20th century, it could just as well be seen as a celebratory ode on human abilities; on reason, science and technology; on man, the co-creator of the world. However, Peter Mettler made his film in the early 21st century. The technological solution of bitumen exploitation still represents a masterpiece of human reason and is worthy of admiration as such; however, its practical use paradoxically leads to madness. Such is the context of the age of “Petropolis”; while reason is turning into its own opposite, man is becoming overwhelmed by the mechanisms he has once constructed. In this respect, what is typical for the film is a considerable dehumanization. In an almost fetishist way, the camera takes long and aestheticized scenes of the mechanical “ballet” of the massive extractive machinery. The mines and refineries resemble a giant beehive controlled by an almighty “production instinct” completely independent from individual will. The only human figure to appear in the film seems to be lost in the vast “desert” of sulphur.
It is the very aspect of dehumanization and dictate of technology that allude to the classic work of German cinematography besides the film’s title. “Petropolis” is an empire of our energetic habits and needs; our dream of a perfect lifestyle, which, like in Fritz Lang’s artistic vision, starts turning into a nightmare. We can feel the pressure of the empire, corrupting us and enslaving step by step. In the contemporary (western) world overshadowed by the crisis, Peter Mettler asks a really subversive question: Is it really necessary to satisfy all our needs? Do we have to carry on in exploiting nature only because we can? As prisoners of the “reason”, we seem to have no choice. Mettler’s film is special for it lets us change our perspective for a while. It enables us to rise up above our own Petropolis, look at it from a distance and decide freely whether we really want to be part of it.

If you like the hymnal character of aerial montage and you would like to enjoy it in its purely impressive form without the alarming appeal, we can recommend you a film conceived in a similar way by classics of Lithuanian documentary film A. Stonys and A. Matelis Flight Over Lithania or 510 Seconds of Silence; the film is also available at our portal. is powered by Doc Alliance, a creative partnership of 7 key European documentary film festivals. Our aim is to advance the documentary genre, support its diversity and promote quality creative documentary films.

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