Icarus Films recently released a box set of six films by Austrian documentary filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Geyrhalter focuses his camera on meaningful “human” moments and spaces; he fixates on the beautiful and conflicted states in which we live. His shots linger ambiguously on every image, person and place he chooses to show. As a result, his films have a deliberate and slow pacing that can, at points, be taxing. Yet this pace provides ample time for the viewer to digest the content visually and thematically. He can also distance himself from a single cinematic viewpoint or a particular set of politics.
Overall, the films featured in the box set capture stories that are often overlooked. Movies often show the events of destruction or catastrophe, but Geyrhalter’s works focus on the destroyed, the remains, the wasted – oftentimes not in a literal or dramatic sense. These are stories of the periphery of the human experience. I’ll elaborate – unfortunately briefly – in the ways Geyrhalter achieves this in two of his most memorable films.
This film exclusively consists of images of spaces and forgotten structures. It does not, however, feature “homo sapiens.” Instead, it concentrates on the places they – or we – have left behind. It shows destroyed malls, McDonald’s restaurants and suburban homes being consumed by overgrowth, rain and trash. In showing these places, there is a sense of sadness, knowing that humans have destroyed part of the natural earth and left these things here to rot. Along with remorse, these images raise many questions. Temples are shown, as are great monuments to leaders. There are destroyed theaters. “Places as holy and ancient as these left human-less?” I thought. “What do we do? Fix it?”
Yet something tells me Geyrhalter wouldn’t accept a renovation of these forgotten spots. Despite the apparent degradation, there is an inherent beauty in these locations. The images shown become less about the abject state of these former bowling alleys and plazas, but on their new status as a synthesis of man and nature. He communicates this through the camera’s awareness of space. We are shown a space – for example, a mall with toppled indoor trees. Then, after meditative moments, we cut to yet another view of that same mall with those same trees, and we see the point where the camera was moments ago. The keen awareness of space lends the film perspective. We are the objective camera, exploring a new wilderness of concrete, vines, glass, trees, birds, flies. The film is not presented as a feature length PSA – we are not told that these places are bad, nor are we told how to fix it. Instead, Geyrhalter asserts that since this spot is no longer inhabited by humans, it cannot be regarded as a human space.
“Over the Years”
This film is about the lives of employees at a textile factory and takes place, as the title suggests, over the years. The film is three hours long, and it feels three hours long. Geyrhalter’s unobtrusive style becomes slightly exhausting, as we watch hour on hour of seemingly unedited footage of the lives of these workers. At the same time, it does something I’ve yearned to see in movies for a while: It literally gives us lots of time with the on-screen subjects.
The subtle changes, or lack of change, in their lives becomes perceptible the more you watch these characters. At the beginning of the film, 14 minutes in, a man being interviewed begins to talk unprompted about how he doesn’t talk much, how he likes to be alone and how he has made few enemies. It felt like a moment that a typical documentary would reserve for later in the film, when we have gotten to know this character. This is Geyrhalter’s style, to trade insight for impact. The “confession” in the interview contextualized each of the smaller moments in the man’s life; two hours and presumably years after the first interview, he pulls out a book of his poetry. He helps his senile mother with her dishes, and her napkin falls on the floor behind him. He cares for his garden. This is the same for many of the subjects, for whom the interviews become a monumental plant-and-payoff over hours of viewing.
Ultimately, Geyrhalter’s movies benefit from the length and exposure, unfortunate though it may be for the casual viewer looking for an easy, tight-knit story. That being said, these films do not lack story. It may be that the stories Geyrhalter tells – stories of people and places on the edge of the cosmopolitan, globalized, (European) experience – just don’t lend themselves to a traditional documentary rendition.
Contact Maxwell Menzies at bugzone ‘at’ stanford.edu.