Preparing for the Worst and Hoping for the Best:
Crises, Isolation and Connection in Julia Neuhaus’ Documentary ‘TEOTWAWKI–The End of the World As We Know It’ (2022)


June 8, 2023


By Koraljka Suton


Our house is on fire, as activist Greta Thunberg so poignantly put it in 2018. And it has been for quite some time. Climate scientists have been fighting tooth and nail to raise awareness, find sustainable solutions and influence governments to start implementing changes. But things are only getting worse. This theme has been the subject of many a documentary, the most mainstream and most all-encompassing one being Sir David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet (2020). For those who have been paying attention for the last couple of years, as well as for those who haven’t, but have seen the aforementioned masterpiece, the fact that we are heading towards mass extinction if we don’t start doing things differently on a global scale is precisely that—a chilling fact. Unfortunately, the climate crisis is not the only one humanity is facing. The political, financial and humanitarian ones also have the potential of bringing about the downfall of society as we know it. In short, we are living in a time of several global emergencies and there is simply no way around that fact.

But what happens when people truly take this to heart? How does the prospect of the world coming to an end affect the day-to-day reality of individuals? German filmmaker Julia Neuhaus obviously asked herself something along those lines and decided to do a thorough exploration thereof in her 2022 documentary TEOTWAWKI–The End of the World As We Know It (original title: Das Ende der Welt Wie Wir Sie Kennen). As a young screenwriter, Neuhaus already had three award-winning short films under her belt—Stiller Löwe (Touch of Silence, 2013), Feuerkind (Child of Fire, 2014) and Habib und der Hund (Dogwalker, 2014)—before deciding to sit in the director’s chair for her first feature documentary. In her own words (translated from German from her official website): “Making movies is a team effort. I see myself as an accomplice to the protagonists, as well as to the people I work with. It is a great time in filmmaking, old narrative patterns must be broken everywhere, multidimensional narratives are needed and I am unbelievably glad to be a part of this movement and to find solutions that get to the heart of a story.”


What Neuhaus did in TEOTWAWKI was precisely that—she took a major theme (the end of the world as we know it arguably being one of the biggest themes there is) and presented us with multidimensional narratives by zooming in on the perspectives of three uniquely different individuals. Joining forces with cinematographers Nikolai von Graevenitz and Carolina Steinbrecher, Neuhaus focused on the stories of veteran Milton Torres, professor Julia K. Steinberger and Chernobyl explorer Ivan who goes by the code name John. At first glance, these three people have nothing in common. Not only do they have different backgrounds and life trajectories, but they have also never even met. Nonetheless, all of them are aware of the same facts and thus plagued by the same worries which heavily influence both their worldview and their life choices.

Julia Steinberger is a scientist and professor working in Switzerland who studies the root causes of our ecological problems, as well as ways of protecting the human population without causing further destruction to the planet we have the privilege of calling our home. Well aware of the multiple intertwined crises that humanity is facing simultaneously, she fears the worst. And rightfully so. Steinberger is also a mother who acknowledges the privileges that enabled her and her son to co-inhabit this time-space continuum. Milton Torres, on the other hand, is a veteran who distrusts society. He knows that when push comes to shove, people will turn on each other, resulting in a survival of the fittest. A gentle soul, he wishes that guns weren’t a necessity and that we could all just get along, but knows very well that that is but a pipe dream. Milton decides to quit his job, purchase an empty bunker in South Dakota and move there far away from family and friends, trying to make it inhabitable.


And while Milton is distrustful of society, Ivan is completely disillusioned with it. Calling himself a pragmatic who has come to terms with the chaos that reigns supreme in his country, he lives according to the motto: “The less hope you have, the less pain you feel.” He spends his days in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, illegally roaming it as a “stalker” (pronounced the way it is written). The term was coined by Russian science-fiction authors Boris and Arkady Strugatsky in their 1972 short novel Roadside Picnic which went on to serve as source material for Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. It refers to a guide who leads others through a place called ‘the Zone’, a contaminated site where the laws of physics are said to be null and void as a result of alien activity. In modern-day Ukraine, the highly restricted Chernobyl zone is frequented by a subculture of ‘stalkers’ who offer illegal tours to curious outsiders (this was before the Russian invasion). And Ivan is one of them. In Tarkovsky’s film, the Zone symbolizes life itself. In Ivan’s reality, the Chernobyl exclusion zone represents a way of life—one that brings him the kind of peace, presence and mindfulness many strive to achieve through various meditation practices. The exact opposite of the hectic and overwhelming lifestyle he deliberately walked away from.

As the three stories seamlessly unfold and complement each other, showcasing just how isolated and alone in their internal experiences and perceptions the protagonists are, even when they are surrounded by other people, it feels as if we were witnessing three distinct stages on the road to the inevitable. Julia represents the stage of awareness wherein we are trying to do the best we can to change course so as to enable our survival as a species. She hasn’t abandoned ship, but rather makes good use of all the resources modern-day society has to offer—and does so for the purpose of finding sustainable solutions. Milton represents the stage of preparation. He decides to leave society behind and focus on creating a safe container for himself and his family, one that will ensure their survival. In other words, his intention is for them to be fully prepared when the other shoe drops. And Ivan represents the final stage: surviving in nature post-apocalypse. As opposed to the other two protagonists, he is already spending the majority of his time living as if the world had crumbled, adapting to the environment. And not expecting it to be the other way around. The stalker is well aware of the fact that when human society comes tumbling down, nature will simply take back what was hers to begin with. And we as a species will not be missed. Just like in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Ivan is already in this potential reality, living on nature’s terms.


And although this may seem bleak at first glance, Neuhaus’ captivating documentary ends up being anything but. Because ultimately, the aspect of living that both Steinberger and Milton end up emphasizing, is our ability to form meaningful connections with other members of our race. Connection not only sustains us as human beings, but also enables us to organize and work together so as to create lasting change benefiting both us and the planet we live on. The potential is there and has never ceased to exist—we have proved time and time again that when united, humanity can work literal wonders. In the simplest of terms, we need each other. Our very survival depends on our ability to recognize and make use of this simple fact of life. And TEOTWAWKI–The End of the World as We Know It does a fantastic job at reminding us of this truth, just in case we have forgotten.

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »


Das Kind mit der Goldenen Jacke Filmproduktion in co-production with NDR Norddeutscher Rundfunk with support from MOIN Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, Nordmedia and Kuratorium junger deutscher Film


​Winner ARD Top of the Docs
Feature Documentary, 2022, 90 mins
Original Version: English, Russian, French
Subtitles: German, English


Re-recording Mixer REEMT ALLERDING


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