Monday, 16 September 2013


Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s 2011 documentary Abendland first came to my attention when a friend and colleague chanced to see it, and was so struck with it as to configure her upcoming course to emphasize it. This is always an interesting scenario for expanding your own interests: seeing something surge to canonical status with someone you like and respect, and thus finding yourself challenged to find a comparably deep reaction to it in yourself. What follows is my attempt in this direction…

Abendland consists of some twenty short looks into various scenes of everyday life in the northern countries of Western Europe, unified by the fact that they all take place at night – what used to be called “after hours.” However, beyond seeing a lot of janitor staff at work, the film’s key revelation is how many jobs – such as mail processing, factory work, and political bickering – now go on seemingly 24 hours a day in modern Europe.

All of the short segments are filmed in a chilly, detached style of long takes and distances, with framings that disallow much empathy or identification human with the human subjects. In this, it immediately recalled to my mind two other films made in a similarly reserved German spirit: Geyrhalter’s previous documentary Our Daily Bread (2005), and Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000). The former film is equally poker-faced in style, and the latter speaks to some of the same moral anxieties of Europe today.

The film’s overriding theme is that modern Europe – at least in the more northerly countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, Holland, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, etc. – has become one big surveillance state, sustained mostly on the back of immigrants. For all non-immigrants, this amounts, essentially, to a blandly benign dystopia where there’s cradle-to-grave health care and plenty of opportunities to carouse and debauch, but nothing much more spiritually fulfilling than that. And here my problems with the film begin. It’s an inarguable fact that the northern European social context we are seeing does provide its citizens with more of a social safety net than North America. For all that neo-liberal reformism has been chipping away at it all for a long time, these economies are still a lot more tolerant of subsidies, welfare spending, make-work programs, and other forms of government intervention which the United States has never and will never see, and which in Canada seem totally in retreat before a Conservative government which wishes to turn it into the 51st American state. In a certain sense then, Geyrhalter is expressing the frustration that comes from chafing against the bars of what is, undeniably, a fairly civilized and humane prison. He can hardly claim that the societies at issue here are like the US in abandoning their to citizens to the naked caprices of the market, with no provision for unemployment assistance or decent healthcare.

A film like this, then, must make these virtues into faults, drawing on that old bogeyman of the “nanny state” that tries to oversee every aspect of your life from cradle to grave. The latter, incidentally, is brought home to one directly in a segment which takes place in a crematorium, with the staff going about their duties in a typically detached and mechanical way. We see a whole room full of generically identical coffins, out of which one or two are rolled, to be taken to a thoroughly non-descript incinerator, after which the ashes are decanted – by a machine that looks like it belongs in a bottling plant – into a thoroughly unremarkable metal container, and placed on a shelf alongside dozens of others like it. Again, this is a behind-the-scenes look at something that we all know about in the abstract, but very few of us have ever actually seen in operation. It can hardly fail to arouse in the spectator a feeling “at the end of it all, that’s all the distinction I have to expect?”

It’s probably due to this sort of thing that the various depictions of health care in action don’t signify as positively as they deserve. We see, at various points in the film, a hospital room given over to the isolated care of an infant with severe birth defects, a team of paramedics going through their paces with speed and efficiency, and an orderly at a senior’s hospital looking in on his patients during the night. In addition, we see some operators for a hotline for people experiencing acute emotional stress or trauma. Objectively, all this should be much more uplifting than it is, but it’s all been inflected with the emphasis on surveillance and inclusion/exclusion which is the film’s real, primary concern. All these infants, seniors, and emergency cases, we are emotionally cued to infer, are being looked after in the same way that a jail takes responsibility for inmates; or more appropriately, that a mining town must care for its packhorses and donkeys – so that they can keep giving their labour. In the meantime, the immigrants and refugees we see throughout are denied even this dubious honour – excluded from the nanny state that the insiders so take for granted as to register the kind of dissatisfaction represented by this film.

The really telling point, for me, is that the film refuses to show any instances of people actually enjoying themselves. There are three segments in the film that would have allowed for this, and Geyrhalter undermines all of them. First, we see Oktoberfest in Munich in full swing – the ultimate socially sanctioned occasion for Dionysian excess. Even people who don’t usually carouse are almost expected to here. And because this is another example of modern Europeans simply acting like dutiful sheep, Geyrhalter undermines the occasion by taking us behind the scenes again. We see that dozens of roast chickens are being served to soak up all the endless steins of beer being downed – and the fact is soon hammered home as we’re shown the industrial stainless-steel kitchen where they’re all turning on spits; and then a long dolly with a (black) waitress desperately trying to make her way through the crowd to the right table; then the man at the keg, rapidly filling stein after stein with a robotic disdain, as though he never wants to see another in his whole life; and finally an insanely overworked pair of plongeurs, who have to keep shoving all the emptied plates into the dishwasher without a second’s respite. I defy anyone to go to Oktoberfest in quite the same innocent spirit for a while after seeing this…

And yet this segment seems nonetheless like an especially petty moment on Geyrhalter’s part – tantamount to saying that because there are some service personnel for whom Oktoberfest is no fun at all, neither should it be for anyone else. The second unpleasurable segment, however, doesn’t allow this. It takes place in a sort of sex spa in the Czech Republic, where rooms decorated with kitschy “nature” or “Oriental” furnishings can be rented for all manner of assignations. Certainly this is nowhere near as mainstream as Oktoberfest, so whatever people come here have clearly done some homework and sought the place out rather than simply going with the flow. Geyrhalter still disallows any vicarious pleasurable identification with the place, though. Firstly, in his simple choice of framing – making one couple look totally impersonal and mechanistic – and secondly, by reminding us that the surveillance state is now so omnipresent that it reaches in even here. We are shown one bikini-clad girl, who seems to be waiting for someone, being filmed by a tripod-mounted camcorder, which is in turn playing back simultaneously on the room’s TV screen. We have no idea why this is the case, but perhaps Geyrhalter is suggesting that it’s not important. In today’s world, after all, we’re almost always being filmed and played back on general principles anyway.

The third of these deliberately unpleasurable sequences is also the very last one of the film. We’re shown the packed venue of a huge rock concert from an omniscient, God’s-eye-view POV, and then cut down into the crowd to simply dolly forward for the next few minutes. In the course of this, we find ourselves surrounded on all sides by stoned kids who all seem to have their own ways of responding to the camera. Unlike the previous two segments, there is nothing aggressively undercutting our potential vicarious pleasure here, nor anything unnervingly cryptic or esoteric. There’s just a nagging sense that these kids seem a bit more blithely narcotized than one would like to think of as the norm for this kind of event. They seem simply to be going through the motions of what society expects of them – just as completely as their elders elsewhere in the film. And judging from the way they completely offer themselves up to the camera’s gaze, they are so completely habituated to the surveillance state that it’s not going to be getting any less intrusive any time soon.

Perhaps the real heart-and-soul moment of the film is its tenth segment, which takes place in a BBC studio from which a newscast is being broadcast. We see a pair of immaculately dressed and manicured anchors going through their lines flawlessly, after which the camera cuts away from them to another feed, and they… look utterly bored and disengaged. Here they are, in jobs which put them at the very centre-nexus of the Surveillance state, with dozens of cameras and broadcasts immediately around them, beaming out their image which is meant to inform and enlighten, and they nonetheless seem no more honored by the fact than if they were in an anonymous cubicle processing data. Again, if Geyrhalter is unable to posit the Europe of today as evil, he can at least make it appear thoroughly banal.

Films like Abendland create their meanings, or at least implications, by arbitrarily transitioning us from one thing to another, without doing much of anything to give us context or a clear sense of relation. As a result, whatever linkages we draw between all the disparate footage is purely our own interpretive work, and thus not really verifiable or falsifiable. Theoretically, a filmmaker can just string together one bit of footage after another, after another, ad nauseum, and still claim that it’s a legitimate work of film art because it creates this Rorscharch effect in its spectators, provoking interpretation. And as my preceding remarks hopefully show, it does work on a certain level, but I’m just acutely aware of how easily this sort of filmmaking can lend itself to abuse. I have heard of a Brit named Anthony Scott who, in 1968, created a 48-hour work called The Longest Most Meaningless Movie in the World, which simply spliced together one thing after another – TV commercials, blank leader, found footage, outtakes from other films, etc. – and left its meaning to be determined by any soul brave enough to try watching it. Abendland of course is not like this, but willfully denuding a documentary of context in the name of a cryptic aesthetic is the first step down that road.

Against this, one of my favourite devices ever in a work of documentary was the way, in Planet Earth, that things would transition from shots taken from orbiting satellites, which could see the curvature of the entire planet; to shots taken from high-level aircraft, which could encompass a landscape for hundreds of kilometres; to more intimate overhead shots, which could pick out the salient or representative part of this environment. This created a sort of staggered omniscience that made it very easy to fully, viscerally grasp that the close-up observations we would see were part of a much larger, organically integrated whole.

Abendland featured a promotional image that seemed to promise the same (see left), but the actual film itself contained no such thing. Beyond this, I think the thing I liked least about the film was its denial of any transcendent exuberance of experience, and with it, any reason we should ultimately care about the moral issues it raises regarding omnipresent surveillance and exploited immigrants. If life isn’t there to be lived anyway, what does it matter how unjust it is? As mentioned before, all the film’s potential contacts with Dionysian revelry were coldly undercut in one way or the other. In one particularly telling moment, during the BBC studio sequence we overhear some excerpts from a story about Emma Watson attending some fashion gala affair. Everything of course remains as impassive as ever. At that moment, even though I’ve always despised Watson for mangling Hermione onscreen, I actually yearned for the camera to cut to that feed and show her air-headedly flouncing up the red carpet. It would at least have been a sign of life, of some kind of vitality, in a film which had seemingly made it a point of principle to suppress any such thing.

Geyrhalter’s previous film Our Daily Bread – a similarly cool and clinical look at the assembly-line conditions of ultra-modern European slaughterhouses – was fascinating because it challenged our visceral gut reactions. Part of us is appalled by the perfectly systematized killing, but we have to remind ourselves “well where do we think our food comes from? And without mass mechanization like this, how else is there going to be enough to fill tens of thousands of stores across the continent?” Here, however, it seems like Geyrhalter has given free rein to his own visceral sense of how things are in modern Europe – repugnance at omnipresent surveillance, pathos for exploited and/or ignored immigrants – but never bothered to challenge himself about it. The result is an interesting, but ultimately less enlightening work.

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