The Films of Nikolaus Geyrhalter
January 15-21 at Anthology Film Archives
Nikolaus Geyrhalter is certainly not the first documentarian to make life on the planet’s margins the core of his body of work, but he might yet be one of the best. His six features to date, all of them playing in a weeklong Anthology Film Archives retrospective beginning Friday, often unfold in remote corners of the world, but taken together they are not so much discrete National Geographic-ready pop ethnographies as records of a single world-historical transition stage. “Brigitte Bardot ruined my life as a hunter,” says a Greenlander in the sprawling Elsewhere (2001), lamenting that the plight of the seal, a staple of his diet, has become a celebrity-backed cause in more developed parts of the globe. The film features many inhabitants of remote locations airing similar imperiled-livelihood grievances with the West (straight into a Westerner’s HD cam), but it also shows TV programs, video games, and rumbling pickup trucks slowly but surely integrating themselves into older, more traditional daily routines. In films such as the wrenching Year After Dayton (1997), which examines the rubble-strewn aftermath of the Bosnian War, the Austrian filmmaker examines significant millennial turning points in Europe as well.
Geyrhalter, also the credited cinematographer on all his films, is perhaps best known in this country for the industrial-food-production-as-otherworldly-event documentary Our Daily Bread (2005), but it’s also perhaps his least formally characteristic work, making Anthology’s series all the more vital. Our Daily Bread contains a wealth of genuinely mind-boggling images—chicks being spit out of large chutes in a constant chirping stream, the strange maneuverings of various large vehicles in static long shot—marshaling them toward an effective cumulative argument of unnatural estrangement: how can food produced in such a way have any taste? There are gross-out horrors as well, a bovine C-section among them, but, thankfully, the title is perhaps the film’s most cudgel-like aspect.
People appear in Our Daily Bread, mostly during silent work shifts and lunch breaks, but their relative absence is made even more conspicuous in light of the rest of Geyrhalter’s work, which relies very heavily on interviews, conducted in confessional medium shot, with the subject sitting or standing but always facing the camera (unless a de facto walking tour is under way, in which case the camera follows close behind). Geyrhalter’s first two films, Washed Ashore (1994) and The Year After Dayton, concern the various personal consequences of hard-to-fathom political machinations, though of very different degrees: the former film is a black-and-white chronicle of life along a murky stretch of the Danube recently officially incorporated as part of Vienna, a place populated by laconic fishermen, Buddhist monks, and a cemetery warden who eagerly recounts drowning suicides; the latter film records the first year of peace after the unfathomably brutal Balkans conflict. “I wonder if people will love again,” ponders a shepherd in Dayton. The Washed Ashore fishermen, on the other hand, gripe much more trivially about the World Wildlife Fund or rude Viennese vacationers. Both films nonetheless ponder life in no-man’s-lands where people would prefer it if the 1990s had never happened.
7915 KM (2008), which follows in the path of an off-road race through northwest Africa, and the four-hour Elsewhere, in which Geyrhalter and crew visit one remote location a month during the last year of the 20th century, take up similar concerns of changing ways of life, though on a much larger geographical scale. The two films contain indelible images—7915 KM marks each new stop along the way with a static long shot of vehicle tracks imprinted in the desert, like the furrows of a dried-up creek bed, a suggestion as well of the ugly and deep European mark left on the continent over the centuries—but are hampered by their projects’ inherent time limitations, a matter of days in each location not being enough to produce much more than a thumbnail sketch of life there. It must be said, though, that 7915 KM, which for most of its running time favors striking African landscapes over substantive cultural insight, concludes with a devastating series of shots that efficiently articulates the simple double standard hinted at throughout—that the mostly European participants in the Dakar Rally blaze recklessly through several African nations without thought, while their governments back home strive to keep boats packed with Senegalese from even making landfall.
The biggest find of the series, though, is 1999’s Pripyat, for which Geyrhalter enters Chernobyl’s evacuated zone a dozen or so years after the meltdown of Unit 4, finding signs of life in and around the titular worker city-turned-ghost town. As low-grade frightening as might be expected, the black-and-white documentary is even more stunningly weird: locations include a vehicle depot packed with contaminated trucks and helicopters and a soccer stadium, now completely overgrown, where the reactor crew once took on the turbine crew. Residents tell stories of thieves who steal past military barricades in the night to ransack abandoned buildings. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the prevailing attitude toward radionuclides, but Geyrhalter’s subjects—save for one good-humored “autonomous returnee” who likens the area to a nature preserve—are understandably more distraught over the decaying of their hometown. The evidence in this retro-thus-far suggests Geyrhalter, who turns 38 this year, makes more striking and affecting films when he hunkers down in one place (Dayton, Pripyat) and zeroes in on the human inability to accept, even fully comprehend, irrevocably altered surroundings; heartening, then, to see the next addition to his largely impressive body of work focuses on a bankrupt Lower Austrian textile factory.