Roving machines trundle through the cavernous expanse of a salt mine, the mineral walls glittering in the pale industrial lights. A postage worker sorts international mail, announcing each package’s country of origin as he places them on a conveyor belt. An abandoned movie theater rots, the seats half-submerged in a still pool of water. Human beings and their impact on the planet are revealed in their routines, their processes, and what they leave behind. That is the eye Nikolaus Geyrhalter casts over the Earth.
Both a formal genius and a canny anthropologist, Geyrhalter’s works form a quietly damning overview of the globalized age. The Austrian filmmaker got his start in the early ’90s, breaking out with The Year After Dayton, which he shot directly in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, following the lives of several survivors. Since then, he’s continued to rove the planet, few of his documentaries set in the same locale and many of them spanning multiple countries. Though a stalwart of the international film festival circuit, he’s received acclaim but not much widespread attention in the United States. Geyrhalter’s work is prime for discovery or rediscovery, and a new box set from Icarus Films, co-released with KimStim, provides the perfect opportunity to dive into it. The set collects six of his documentaries, three of which — Over the Years, Abendland, and Pripyat — have had no prior US release.
The films in the set bring the viewer to every corner of the Earth which humans inhabit, and scrutinizes how they shape and are shaped by their surroundings. In 1999’s Pripyat, Geyrhalter visits the Zone of Alienation around Chernobyl, where hundreds of people stubbornly still live and thousands others must travel to work, to continue to contain the radioactive disaster there. 2001’s Elsewhere is a four-hour epic which tours 12 communities in remote regions of the world, from a Micronesian island to the far reaches of Siberia. Our Daily Bread (2005) observes the various production processes of different foods, visiting slaughterhouses and sprawling fields and everything in between. Abendland (2011) surveys disparate parts of Europe, the different scenes united only in that they take place at night. Over the Years (2015) follows three textile workers for more than 10 years after their mill closes down. Homo Sapiens (2016) doesn’t have a single shot of the namesake animal, instead exploring deserted, overgrown spaces that were once for work and play. Each film sticks to a single conceit, finding every variation it can on its theme.
Geyrhalter favors a specific set of techniques: still shots, wide views, long takes, keen attention to soundscapes, and no music. Certain frames could be mistaken for photos, were it not for the audio of howling wind or dripping water or rustling trees. These are not merely films that you absorb, but ones which you must consider and sometimes confront as you watch them. Every scene strikes up a new encounter. “Here is how your burger is made, the various kinds of exploitation that come together to make it possible.” “Here is what happens to a mall when it has not been used in years, what will be left over when we are all gone.” “Here is how a government operates late at night.” “Here is how people far removed from the internet go about their day.” The films don’t even feel like provocations, simply that they are presenting facets of reality that cannot be ignored, even though many of us do.
But of course, all documentaries are carefully curated slices of reality. Geyrhalter’s skill is not just presenting these films in such an austere yet striking way, but also finding so many far-removed places to show the viewer. Our Daily Bread finds an astonishing array of locations all over the world, and draws out the commonalities between different agricultural-industrial processes in doing so. Homo Sapiens visits literally hundreds of locations, all of them looking like renderings from a post-apocalyptic video game but all too real. Pripyat finds the neighbors of Chernobyl fully at ease with these visitors — no small feat, given the defensiveness engendered in them by government attempts to remove them. International capitalism relies on us not seeing those who are either left out or ground down by it. Geyrhalter seeks out those blind spots.
The movies are insistent thought-provokers, but also beautiful to behold. There’s something undeniably entrancing about the looping efficiency of the myriad assembly lines in Our Daily Bread. The decayed post-industrial landscapes of Homo Sapiens are existentially disquieting but also awe-inspiring testaments to nature’s power. The stark black-and-white of Pripyat underlines the nuclear danger tinging the daily lives of its subjects. Any of these movies could work equally well as museum pieces, things you can visit and look at and consider at your own pace rather than sit before as a captive audience. In an age of documentaries that throw around facts and figures and ultimately leave little impression, these films are more vital than ever, both politically and aesthetically.