In its fourth year, the Migrating Forms film festival at Anthology Film Archives continues to present ambitious films of unclassifiable nature. In their past interview for The Brooklyn Rail, the festival co-directors Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry stressed their interest in works that move “in and out of different viewing contexts,” and for which it may be hard to find “an ideal audience.”
Abendland, by Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter, meets these criteria by being mostly a meditative documentary in which images do all the talking. Considering that no poetic voiceover ties the loose ends, the film’s eloquence is pretty remarkable. Is Abendland a metaphor for contemporary Europe? Following glum economic news, some critics have espied in its title an allusion to decay and decline. Perhaps, but watching the nocturnal going-ons in factories and in hospital wards, in whorehouses or at an anti-nuclear protest, I wasn’t so sure the film delivered one particular message. This is partly because Geyrhalter, whose background is in photography, has a patient and a discerning eye when it comes to capturing the prose of life and rendering it strange. In one early scene, a nurse feeds a tiny human infant attached to a tangled network of tubes. Her soft patter and the baby’s cherry-red skin seem almost menaced by the life-saving machines. By the time the infant is back in the incubator, and the lights go off, leaving it to its precarious breathing, you may find yourself holding your breath as well. From the start, then, this movie is more broadly about “the human factor” in an increasingly mechanized world.
Geyrhalter shows Europe, or perhaps any nation state, as preoccupied with control: an Italian border officer watches out for illegal immigrants; cameras spy on passersby in a crime prevention unit in London; police raids a private residence suspecting that it harbors a criminal. These are not exclusively “night” activities, though trespassing national borders might be. The night is mostly here to emphasize the various ways in which the state interferes in private lives, of which the night, associated with intimacy, rest or sleep, is a symbol. Thanks to technology (particularly the use of cameras, which is also the filmmaker’s tool), these policing activities have become highly mechanized, adding more distance between the humans being observed, and those doing the observing.
Then there’s the actual monotony of working the night shift: Geyrhalter renders such images with Gursky-like precision, stressing the dehumanizing aspects of the assembly line. Colors pop in his shots of factory floors. But then the noises of the conveyer belts in a postal office and of the drills in a plane-building facility die into silence, making room for the uncanny. In one scene, a small pilot plane sits under a plastic wrapping, like a mysterious silent moth. In such moments, the night heightens our perception, instilling the ordinary scenes and objects with magic.
But Abendland is more than a meditation on how our lives, from birth to death, have become mechanical, and so aseptic. While to most, nights may be the same as days (subsumed into the system of production), for others they are a time of great risk, danger, and transgression. Such is the case of the Roma families being moved to clear the way for bulldozers, or of the African, told that his entrance has been denied; he must return home or risk running in with the law. Still for others, the transgression happens within the system: a prostitute services her client while their act is being filmed, and later embraces him, laughing; Bavarians gather in a giant beer hall for a night of revelry during which thousands of pints and chicken breasts are served and dozens are rushed to an emergency room; youth pose and ape for the camera at a rave. At times, the transgression comes as violence, against the self or others: a call on a suicide hotline, or to a center where children report abuse.
If Abendland betrays a Manichean vision of control through law and productivity, and of transgression and violence as both a product and a counterpoint to a worldview that criminalizes from the outset (in how it perceives the other), what complicates this narrative is the pervasive use of cameras. It poses the question whether any human activity is still private, or if voyeurism has truly become our way of life, to the point where it has been institutionalized.
What makes the film’s “migrating form” manifest is the occasional rapture of Geyrhalter’s gaze, his willingness to become the spying eye—to merge, so to speak, with the monitor showing a sex worker spreading her legs, joking with her cameraman. This is perhaps where we come closest to the film’s essence: Any human activity has a potential for yielding secrets, offering an element of surprise, and it’s the moment rather than the message that counts. Geyrhalter’s eye is everywhere, but its ravenous looking complicates its claim to impartial omnipresence.
Migrating Forms runs from May 11—20. For more information click here.