Abendland cold-opens with an ambitious mise en abyme: a static shot of a border patrol camera, whirring perkily through the night. The image harrowingly mirrors, or appears infected by, the voyeuristic impulse inherent to documentary, and the reflexive implication would make Frederick Wiseman’s skin crawl—namely, that the goal of observation is always control. The film very quickly backs away from this point (it cuts within minutes to an intensive-care nurse, fiddling with the tubes connected to a ruby-faced premature newborn) and becomes a much more recondite study of intermediary mechanisms than this prologue would suggest. But questions about sterilely watched borders are whispered throughout. What divides the seer from the seen? And does the act of gazing upon someone preclude contact with him or her?
Spliced together from several hours of footage shot at night in 10 different European countries, Abendland offers an austere index of the wide-ranging uses of after-hours technology. Doctors consult EKG consoles, security guards gaze at monitors, a porn star rubs her crotch for a webcam, cops train with virtual perpetrators, and crisis center counselors speak softly on headsets. Not all the tools shown are digital: In a crematorium, a blazing device disintegrates human remains, and elsewhere, a train relocates angry refugees in massive, metal containers. But this rigorous collage possesses a modern bias regardless. Technology is shown as a highly elastic border, or semi-permeable membrane, that both separates human beings and allows them to convene.
Although director Nikolaus Geyrhalter and writer/editor Wolfgang Widerhofer, who peered similarly into the food-manufacturing industry with Our Daily Bread, arrange these episodes with enough variety to throw us off any editorial scent, the documentary becomes a kind of update on the old debate: Does the telephone effectively bridge the distance between two people, or merely underscore their estrangement? Abendland unsubtly provides ammo for both interpretations of man-made tools, juxtaposing in particular machinery that sustains human life and that which facilitates the continuing dislocation of ethnic groups. Deciphering onto which side of the argument the next scene falls becomes a kind of game, and the movie plays along with us through cheeky, metaphorical transitions that form a buzzy stream-of-conscienceness.. (A waitress carries a massive plate of rotisserie chicken through a cathedral-like beer hall, then the film cuts to a team of doctors, hurrying a wounded man through the double doors of an hospital; the man is connected to beeping, whistling machines, from which the movie cuts to the humming and whirring of surveillance monitors in the next vignette, and so on.)
This eloquent catalog of tech mediums is a decidedly McLuhan-inspired undertaking; unlike McLuhan, however, Abendland is less interested in what the use of each device might be communicating from person to person or nation to nation, and more concerned with the simple fact that such gadgets are being used for “good” or “evil.” Cameras, computers, and transportation systems become a hegemonic arsenal that anonymizes and manipulates victims, and yet the film’s own detached dualism also fades its human subjects into the background. Much of the international dialogue is left unsubtitled, as though the movie wants us to tune out each sequence once we’ve gleaned its gist; scenes that should feel contrapuntal, such as the ending, drunken rave and an earlier conversation between an immigration officer and a soon-to-be-deported émigré, appear sourly apposite simply because they both feature electronics. This neutralizing and dehumanizing effect may indeed be what Abendland criticizes modern life of having succumbed to, but in this instance the tail-eating snake engulfs its own head. The documentary discipline can’t escape its own inherent intermediateness, or its own penchant for deception.