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Nikolaus Geyrhalter: Master of Film Caviar

As general and vague as it may sound, the central subject of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s films is man. It is a person in ordinary, everyday situations; a speaking, thinking and acting person; a little pitiful, a little admirable and moving, a little charming and unbearable - a person very much like us. Since very early on in his career, Geyrhalter has been using a specific method that gets enhanced, refined and perfected with each new film. This method is primarily based on careful observation, which corresponds to long static shots, with information closely followed by impression and reflection. The image stays on, which promotes its information, aesthetic and intellectual value. Geyrhalter’s films have a clear sense of composition, individual shots are near paintings. Moreover, each is an exact and meaningful piece of a puzzle. The author inhabits his films neither as an immersed actor nor a puppeteer but as a demiurge. To put it simply, his films are smart.


On top of being a gifted filmmaker, Geyrhalter is also a skilled businessman. In 1994 he founded Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion, a production company specializing in theatrical feature and documentary releases and quality broadcast films. The company has gradually taken in other like-minded filmmakers who associate quality with films that have the power to surprise, move and inspire the audiences. Geyrhalter adds another important element to the mix – the ability to entertain.

His approach is evident as early as in his 1990s films, Washed Ashore (1994), The Year After Dayton (1997), and the internationally awarded Pripyat (1999). Geyrhalter works with a series of microstories, with a chain of episodic sequences internally divided by a black visual break, and separated between each other by a sharp cut. He gradually works his way towards unfolding a series of microfilms before the viewer, with each bit impressive by itself. Once combined, their impact is all the stronger, like pieces of caviar. Each film cell has its own microstory, joke and even a punchline, its own protagonists and purpose. First, the filmmaker selects the subject for his testing, mostly a geographically defined entity, whether it be a village, a military area, the Danube landscape, Europe, etc. In Pripyat, the entity of choice is a real zone, a place surrounded by clear boundaries that had been set up for a clear purpose. It is a thirty kilometer radius around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The post-apocalyptic essence is conveyed through black-and-white cinematography. Compared to his earlier films, it is apparent that Geyrhalter’s method has matured, and his observation and directing skills have become more refined. What could still seem as an experiment in Pripyat later turns into purposeful use of possibilities. Individual images come to show more planning and focus, along with a better thought-out and more ingenious structure. At this stage, the mise-en-scene does not yet have its conceptual power, the authorial style is still settling to find its shape and form.

Geyrhalter assumes complete mastery of his filmmaking method in the award-winning Our Daily Bread (2005) and all films that follow. Our Daily Bread and 7915 km (2008) both look at well-known issues from an angle that is not too common, predictable or widely acceptable. The first film deals with the livestock industry, the cold and mechanical encounter of a machine, man, and an animal that will be processed into food. Few of us could claim that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the industry. Few of us could give a clear answer on whether chickens or workers get abused at the chicken plant. The second film follows the famous Dakar Rally. Confrontation is used as a device – people watch the rally at a European snobbish party, while somewhere in Africa, others watch it on a small TV set.

The filmmaker presents images with an apparent intent to make the viewer aware of her position in the depicted material, that is, her attitude towards European cars and European (Western) culture on its way across Africa. What’s at stake for the people who are being passed? In other words, what’s Africa like beyond the expensive and closely watched rally race business that storms through? The stops Geyrhalter makes are defined by the rally route. Like in his other films, Geyrhalter once again proves his talent for an uncommon perspective and a light joke (extended shot length, carefully composed mise-en-scene). Those who are usually quiet now get to speak. Their seemingly casual small talk emanates pure magic of being able to share something unique and rare. The filmmaker has conjured up closeness, interest and empathy, which is what makes the protagonists people just like us. In this newly enriched perspective, the world suddenly looks a little different.

One of Geyrhalter’s most impressive techniques is a good sense of paradox and subtle irony. In 7915 km, for instance, the camera follows a young Senegalese girl as she is walking down the road used by rally trucks. Yet while she is talking and pointing to different directions and different places, the camera does not turn away from her but keeps staring at her. This generates a feeling of goofy, casual humour based on gag-specific principles (every time, the viewer expects to see the thing pointed at but his expectations fail). The unmoving stare is also the author’s way to make people  say more than they’d ever meant to say.

Allentsteig (2010) is a prime example of Geyrhalter’s refined method. It deals with a German military area in Austria, since the 1950s used by Austria’s military. This television documentary is built around static, meticulously composed shots with a great potential for goofy humour. A snow covered winter landscape, a romantic white plain that carries the sound of exercise shots is just one of many examples of soft irony. And another image: one after another, soldiers pop out of a small green tent as clowns from the Trabant.

Geyrhalter’s method slides to another mode in Abendland (2011). While it uses the same devices and film cells that make up the whole (which is more than just the sum of its parts), the territory and subject of Abendland are much broader and rather vaguely defined: Europe at night. Yet, such an immense colossus would require more building blocks and Geyrhalter’s “map” sorely lacks in density. Then again, it would be an impossible density; using Geyrhalter's method, the film would be unbearably long because Europe at night involves an unimaginably infinite number of things – it sleeps, has fun, eats and drinks, dances and sings, debates and guards its borders, protects the peace of the just born, the sick and the dying, safeguards individuals as well as the system, builds and destroys. Europe by night glows and flickers. Europe by night is as alive, if not livelier, as it is by day. It raises questions that are not always pleasant. How often does a CCTV operator watch our drunken joyride through the city? How often is our privacy merely an illusion? Geyrhalter does not declare a simple premise about our supervised culture, he does not condemn it and stop there. The system has multiple faces and simple answers are rarely right. Are we not happy that a security camera watches in case an armed attacker jumps out of the bushes? Should monitors not watch over a preterm infant day and night? This is only a tiny fraction of many possible questions that spring to mind. What’s undeniable is the remarkable scope of locations and the amount of energy invested by the crew in shooting an odd bit here and there where another filmmaker might make a four-part film; take, for example, the sex industry and call lines not to be dialed before 10 p.m. (a snippet shot in the Czech Republic). Geyrhalter’s power lies in the way he treats the subject. He does not suck his topics dry but leaves them with an enigma and possibilities that can be hijacked by the viewer. He stops before he becomes dull. It is another expression of smartness that characterizes his films.

Geyrhalter always captures a living mechanism that is displayed in all its diversity and multiplicity, in which even contradictory elements serve the whole. All is held together by Geyrhalter's ability to hold a thought, yet he is in no way forceful. The sum of information and the treasures he has gathered are laid before the viewer who is free to link the individual film cells and finds, create a narrative and motivation, and arrive at an opinion. The director nudges the viewer without pushing. And while viewers may choose to remain on the level of cells and disregard the body, to do so would be to their own loss.

Written by Kateřina Surmanová

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