Prof. Deirdre Boyle
World Documentary Today
March 17th, 2016
Abendland, or “west” in German, literally meaning “evening land”, is an implicit reference to the centrifugal Europe. The Austrian filmmaker, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, explores and focuses on one old question of how we live, in the sense of the historical idea of the West, “Abendland”. Then he extends it to two important areas: Firstly, Europe's obsession with technology and how European countries manage their own people with machinery. Secondly, Europe’s perception of security, meaning the flow of people within the union.
Geyrhalter provides an insight for the viewer about the infrastructure in Europe. He undertakes an associative journey, surveying Europe by night in terms of its many different facets. These include the service providers, bulwarks of security and exclusion, urban civilization, decadence of earthly delights, traditions, and highly developed culture. According to Michael Sicinskia, he states that Geyrhalter has a “take” on how our world works, and his films display the evidence he finds in our world to support that take.
The sole unifying theme of the film, apart from the European continent, is that all the action happens at night. According to the interview between Geyrhalter and Claus Philipp, the filmmaker recalls it was Maria Arlamovsky who developed the film with him. The team began to use “Abendland” rather than “Europe” as the working title. That decision sharpened the outline of the film immediately and inspired the method of interpreting the title in its two senses, as the West and evening land, and shooting after dark exclusively. In terms of the dramatic structure, which is the title that Geyrhalter gives to his long-time collaborator and editor Wolfgang Widerhofer, this decision also helped develop suggestive rhymes and resonances across the course of the film.
The film opens with a self-reflexive image of a surveillance camera rotating in a green field. Subsequent shots alert us to the fact that this is surveillance equipment, and that we are witnessing the night shift on border patrol. It reveals the main theme of the film straightaway. In the director’s statement, Geyrhalter describes Europe in the early 21st century as a paradise, and he mentions the idea of “Protection”. “What enables this privileged life is exclusivity, restricting the enjoyment of the benefits, and limiting participation, for the simple reason that the available resources wouldn’t be sufficient otherwise. That’s why this paradise is sealed off by an insurmountable electrified fence.”, he states. The protection is not only from the external but also the protection of the internal, which the viewers can find in the sequence of maternity clinics, hospitals, nursing homes and the suicide prevention center, Echte Aandacht. Whether the protection of the internal or the one from the external, there is a consistent theme that technology is viewed as the vehicle to help achieve that protection.
The technology that is portrayed in the film is almost omnipresent. Instead of apotheosizing it, the filmmaker sees its dualism. “Technology is shown as a highly elastic border, or semi-permeable membrane, that both separates human beings and allows them to convene,” observes Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant. It can be said that although technology is meant to unite people, it can also have the effect of dividing individuals from one another.
Apart from the concept of protection, Geyrhalters implicitly asks another question: Who gives a group of people the right to decide how the society should work? In the sequence of the European Parliament, the French minister states, “The militarization of social life. We can also call this regimentation: the assignment of social formations to military units for the sake of regulation, control, and uniformity; the implementation of a regimen, a systematic plan designed to improve economic performance”. I believe that Geyrhalter’s contention that we must challenge the current system or institution is not radical, but merely serves to provide some insight. Another question arises: Does the European Union function as conceptually unifying as it probably should be?
The film is ingeniously structured. It is composed of a number of segments. Each segment happens at a single location or event, typically in a series of three or four individual medium-length takes. In this way, each part has a strong theme that supports and demonstrates the concept of the film. Based on Michael Sicinski’s article, A Metonymic Cinema: Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s "Abendland" and "Danube Hospital", each of these modular units is formed with a degree of autonomy; the larger film, then, is shaped through the larger structure of these single nodes of documentary information. Moreover, some segments are also symmetrically paired and the pair could be either similar or contrary. For instance, the first segment is paired with the scene at the Spanish and Moroccan border, sharing the idea of security and protection. The viewer can also find the same idea in the sequence of the refugee relocation, which echoes with the scene where the British news anchor delivers a report on the clearing of a refugee camp. Another example is the birth and the death. The third sequence where the infants are being monitored corresponds with the Dresden crematorium. From the moment that a person is born to the end of his or her life, the person is always being protected and served by technology.
Except for the pairing, each segment of the film is poetically and metaphorically connected. For example, a waitress carries a massive plate of rotisserie chicken through a beer hall in Munich Oktoberfest, then Widerhofers cuts to a team of doctors, hurrying an injured man through the double doors of a hospital. Later, the man is connected to beeping machines, from which the editor cuts to the humming and whirring of surveillance monitors in the next vignette.
The film form represents a detached point of view. Rather than dramatize, the camera restricts itself exclusively to two operations: static and tracking. It resonates with the cameras and monitors as an observer. Geyrhalter is a director who insists on observation to allow the audience to suspend immediate judgments. In Abendland, he attempts to activate the viewer, without direct exposition, to draw their own association between the collective capitalist structures and their own personal lives, encouraging the audience to take ownership of these revelations. Moreover, there is an emphasis on the use of the long take in Geyrhalter's films. According to Anna Schneider in "Slow" Documentaries: The Long Take in Contemporary Nonfiction Films, she points out that long takes function as an observational means in films that raise questions for which we have no absolute answers. Geyrhalter is not the first documentarian who applies this technique. In this case, Chantal Akerman can be viewed as his predecessor when she approached important statehood and international border issues in Là-bas and D'Est. Nevertheless, a conventional documentary usually only makes use of the long take for limited purposes. These can include objectives such as presenting uncut interviews, or to advance the film's narrative argument. A documentary that is built on the long take, on the other hand, would comprise more of the open present, in which the filmmaker shot the image.
Australian ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall explains in an essay in the 1992-93 issue of Film Quarterly "When Less Is Less: The Long Take in Documentary," that his fellow documentarians often ignore the long take: “Filmmakers continually sacrifice footage which they know would permit a more complex understanding for the subject but which, for reason of length, the film cannot afford” (42). MacDougall says that many filmmakers recognize a sense of loss in their complete work, and he locates that loss in the often fast pacing of editing. When uncut, we retain a sense of the excitement in the contingency of everyday life: "While finished film suggests a past tense, rushes seem to unfold in the present tense of a camera running" (41). However, long takes can be seen as risky to documentary filmmakers for reasons beyond the “efficient” storytelling of the paradigmatic documentary structure. In response to that, MacDougall argues that the dead moment (le temps mort), in which nothing seems to be happening, is a forbidden topic among his filmmaking peers. He finds the origin of the taboo in a paradox of Cinema Vérite and Direct Cinema: the belief that documentary must adhere to and defend "ordinary life" while also portraying it as extra-ordinary. The long take allows the objects represented onscreen to shift in the audience member's perception from autonomous symbols to background noise and then to return to the fore. In Signs of The Time, film scholar Laura Marks suggests that nonfiction films should shake off convention and find power by creating a space between purity or sensation and symbolism. As opposed to fiction films, documentaries already often deal with real world images of raw sensation (197). Marks adds that the experimental films that adapt long takes open the genre up to new forms that contribute to the maintenance of a healthy semiotic flow of information and society.
While Abendland is mostly composed of static long takes, there are also tracking shots. The first one appears in the Oktoberfest sequence. Geyrhalter leads the audience to the center of the vortex and to the different layers of the business. For example, we see the roast chicken on a rotating rack, the robotic movement of the staff filling up beer and the kitchen after the feast. Regarding the framing, Geyrhalter prefers the medium and wide shot while occasionally including a medium-close-up, which mostly serves as an insert. In regards to the length of the shot and the pacing, if the camera works as human eyes then Abendland is a film that only blinks when necessary. The filmmaker works with a Zen-like patience and indifferent curiosity. Each time when the film blinks or breathes, it opens up spaces between ideology and the material. Besides, Geyrhalter also plays with the camera angle. In the sequence of the Pope in Vatican, there are three different angles. It starts with a slightly lower angle shot of the Pope giving a speech from the audience’s point of view, and then moves to a high angle shot of the crowd watching the Pope. The next one is an eye-level shot of the crowd, and finally the shot of the Pope leaving. The Pope is protected by numbers of the guards. The scene looks almost absurd.
While I was parsing Geyrhalter’s visual grammar, I was curious about how he prepares his camerawork. Luckily, I found my answer in the interview that is provided in the press kit on the film’s website. Geyrhalter explains that when arriving at a location he always tries to perceive the reality simultaneously as a kind of play. A stage on which reality plays out. And he believes that the image he captures should reflect that. He states, “You always sense the filmmaker, even though I’m never present. I don’t talk, we stay in the background, but the observer can still sense that someone’s there, looking through his camera at that same moment.” Furthermore, Geyrhalter states that he does not try to pretend that he is secretly filming nor that the subject is not aware they are being filmed. That’s why it all has a theatrical aspect, though the theater is placed in the reality.
Another thing that I noticed is much of the international dialogue is without subtitles, as though the filmmaker wants the audience to tune out each sequence once we have learned its general meaning. Also, there is no narration or title to inform the viewer where the proceedings are taking place. Some places are easily recognizable, such as the European Parliament, British Sky Broadcasting or Munich’s Oktoberfest. However, that does not matter much as Geyrhalter primarily shows us the common Zeitgeist of contemporary Europe. This Europe is portrayed as one nation.
In terms of Geyrhalter’s contribution to the documentary tradition, the filmmaker’s work has been understood as being part of a loose confederation of experimental documentarians and essay filmmakers who have implicitly rejected both the presumed self-evidence of the image and the godlike explanatory power of the “objective,” the unseen voiceover. Geyrhalter's film possesses a strong belief in the visual. What he tries to create is to enable a new way of seeing. While the film form that Geyrhalter chooses functions less rhetorically than the films that are from the Soviet school, his work shows a more comparative form of montage. Geyrhalter and Widerhofer draw comparisons and connections from the factual material, which could be understood as a node within a global socio-economic system, subjecting it to a camera gaze. According to Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed, he suggests that the magic of cinema arises, “Not by literally presenting us with the world, but by permitting us to view it unseen” (1979:40). Geyrhalter also mentions in the interview with Claus Philipp that he wants people to finally see these things that they know happen in the background, and which are normally blocked intentionally. He adds, “As an impetus, to provide the basis for discussion. This is where the actual film begins.” Geyrhalter reveals that European culture in our globalized, neoliberal world today is highly instructive. Michael Sicinski calls Geyrhalter’s films “metonymic cinema”. That is to say, although the perspectives that Geyrhalter deliberately presents in Abendland are just several single locales or institutions, they are intended to stand in for larger implied wholes.
Furthermore, the metaphorical narrative that Geyrhalter adopts to structure the film - namely one camera recording the other camera, seems like an ambitious mise en abyme. For example, let us examine the opening sequence where the audience watches a man hunched over a joystick controlling a camera on top of the border fence. We watch him as he watched his monitor scanning for suspicious human activity but finding only a rabbit and a patrol van performing the same labor as himself. The filmmaker positioned himself behind the ones who monitor everything. Apart from that, many sequences of the film are characterized by the omnipresence of the camera and monitor, so that the viewer is in the position of gazing upon other people who are themselves gazing upon some presented object image.
In closing, the essential theme of Abendland is presenting the portraits of various activities in different countries in nighttime Europe. However, the underlying theme is surveillance and protection. Established in the opening sequence of a remote camera, facing the audience straight while roving a border for suspicious activities and illegal trespassers. The film reveals its central theme straightaway. The decision of recording all action happens at night unified the rhythms of the film and the editor Widerhofer builds the film on a symmetric structure. In the director’s statement that’s provided on the film’s website, Geyrhalter describes Europe in the early 21st century as a paradise, where a comprehensive social safety net is in place, should it be needed. “Whoever lives in paradise must be prepared to protect it.”, He argues. Whether the protection of the internal or the one from the exitrnal, there is a consistent theme that technology is the approach to help achieve that protection. The long takes that are used in the film encourage open association, however, the spectator is encourage to pick up on specific themes. Geyrhalter and his long-time editor Widerhofer state that they do not intend to "spoon feed" information to their audience and the long takes seem to be the solution.
In this film, Geyrhalter sees the Europe as one nation rather than individual states. This concept is reconfirmed in Claus Philipp’s About the Unjustment of Being Born. He compares Abendland with the British novelist John Berger’s Once in Europa, which examines the unjustness of being born into certain conditions. He says, “ A similar motivation may have driven Nikolaus Geyrhalter and the resolute gaze he directs at present-day life in this unjust Europe: a love of humanity that grows stronger through distance.”.