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  • Eternal You: Life and death in an age of AI


Eternal You: Life and death in an age of AI

Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck are the Berlin-based film-making team behind 'Eternal You', a new documentary exploring the relationship between mourning and AI.

Photo: Entertainment Kombinat GmbH / Konrad Waldmann

In their recent Sundance-hit documentary Eternal You, directing duo Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck explore the AI startups creating avatars for people to talk to their loved ones after death, a recent development in the ever-looming possibilities of artificial intelligence. We sat down with the filmmakers to dig into their cinematic relationship with Berlin and process.

What was the impetus in wanting to tell this particular story?

They claim that we no longer have to say goodbye to the dead.

Moritz Riesewieck: In many societies in the global north, death and mourning have been largely banished from visibility. People have turned away from religion and don’t believe in a life after death with God anymore. For a big majority of people, religious and traditional rituals of mourning have become meaningless. At the same time, there is a lack of new, secular forms. A void has been created, because the loss of a loved one is no trivial matter.

Start-ups have discovered that there is a lucrative market here. They claim that we no longer have to say goodbye to the dead. We can talk to them as if they were still alive. AI and a whole lot of private data make it possible for these companies to create avatars and bots that imitate the personality of the deceased, down to the last detail. We wanted to find out what it does to people to resurrect the dead digitally and live with them in our pocket.

How was the filming experience, did you come up against any challenges?

Hans Block: Yes, many! For example, we filmed for months with a young man who had commissioned a company to create an avatar of him that would “live on” after his death. Out of nowhere, he had been diagnosed with a rare brain infection. He only had a few months left to live, the doctors said. We wanted to document the process of creating the bot and, after the man’s death, film his family getting in touch with his digital doppelgänger. But – fortunately – it didn’t come to that. Miraculously, his health stabilised. The avatar became obsolete. And the man no longer wanted to be part of our project. Of course, his survival weighed so much more heavily than the loss of a moving story for our film.

How did you become interested in how the digital realms can be depicted through cinema?

MR: We have been dealing with digital phenomena for years, not only in film but in theatre and through books. With our debut film The Cleaners (2018), we uncovered the shadow industry of content moderators – the people who sift through and delete what we are not supposed to see on social media.

With Made to Measure (2021), which we realised together with French artist Cosima Terrasse, we showed what Google knows about our individual life crises, weaknesses, addictions or fears based on our personal data, and how it can use these insights for profit. For many people, topics such as generative AI are abstract and intangible. With our films, we explore how AI can disturb people, make them laugh and cry, and how it can become confusingly similar to us. Documentary allows us to observe and draw conclusions about how we can politically ensure that AI is used for the benefit of people, not to capitalise on people’s weaknesses.

Film Still from The Cleaners (2018). Photo: IMAGO / Everett Collection

What do you find unique about Berlin when it comes to cinema?

MR: For years, there have been many great cinema documentaries from Berlin that have attracted international attention. This is no coincidence: Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (rbb) and Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg are committed to longform documentary. In the digital age those docs can not only be shot in Germany, but in the places where digital technologies are created and where the first users come from, which are often North America or Asia.

The Berlin-based production company beetzbrothers has been setting standards for years with international co-productions. Beetzbrothers placed their trust in us very early on for two films we produced with them, when for many people such digital phenomena was a distant dream. Berlin has treated us well. It’s just great to develop our films from here.

  • Eternal You is in cinemas across Berlin from June 20, details.