Civilization and Its Absence

Still from “Homo Sapiens.”

If the goal of a film, whether fictional or documentary, is to show rather than tell, then Nikolaus Geyrhalter is in a class by himself. Born in 1972, the Austrian documentary filmmaker has 52 credits to his name. Six of his greatest works have now been collected into a DVD set that is available from Icarus, a distributor of leading-edge, left-of-center films based in Brooklyn (where else?).

My initial exposure to Geyrhalter was back in 2006, when my review of “Our Daily Bread” referred to its preference for “showing” rather than “telling”:

“Our Daily Bread” studiously avoids editorializing of any sort. The images themselves are sufficient to reveal food production as a mix of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and Frederick Wiseman’s “Meat,” a 1976 documentary about the livestock business that “Our Daily Bread” clearly reflects. The main difference between Wiseman and Geyrhalter is that the latter eschews sensationalism of all sorts. While his film might lack the visceral impact of Wiseman’s, it is arguably more persuasive because it depicts the food industry as somehow inextricably linked to advances in technology and science. Geyrhalter challenges the audience to reject the paradigm set forth in his film. In so doing, they might be rejecting civilization as we know it.

A decade later I saw another Geyrhalter film titled “Homo Sapiens”, that like “Our Daily Bread”, defiantly lacked a single spoken word either by through narration or dialog. Nor is there a film score, one of the more annoying and omnipresent presences in documentary films today.

This silent film, however, did not need much “telling” since the images and haunting background sounds spoke for themselves. You see the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. Once again, sans narration, you can only surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located. You get some of the same feeling of desolation and loss traveling around Sullivan County where I grew up—the Borscht Belt. When I strolled around the ruins of the once glamorous and thriving Nevele Hotel in Ellenville, I could not help but feel that I was in a kind of graveyard.

The title of “Homo Sapiens” is heavily laden with irony since there is not a single human being seen throughout the film, only their remains such as an abandoned hospital. It evokes what Claude Levi-Strauss once said, “The world began without man, and it will complete itself without him.”

Both of these films are included in the Icarus collection. The four others, which are in keeping with his auteur sensibility of showing rather than telling, have helped me develop a deeper appreciation for Nikolaus Geyrhalter who is not only one of the premiere documentary filmmakers of our age but someone with a strong radical worldview. If our radicals were much better at showing rather than telling, we too would be much better off as well.

Starting in chronological order, there is the 1999 “Pripyat”, a film about the people who have remained in Chernobyl’s “Dead Zone” either as workers or villagers who decided to stay put. Filmed in ashen black-and-white, more than appropriate to the subject, Geyrhalter shows an elderly couple on their daily rounds. Since all utilities have been terminated in the village of Pripyat, they walk to the river it is named after each day, fill a couple of buckets, and then lug them home. Geyrhalter asks them if they are worried about contamination and radiation sickness. The octogenarians chuckle and ask why they should worry. Death by natural causes would likely come first. It reminded me of how Leonard Cohen started smoking cigarettes after he turned 80. Once you reach a certain point in life, you might as well go out doing the things you enjoy. For the old couple in Pripyat, it was being in the home they lived in once. For Cohen, it was nicotine. I might take up motorcycle riding again.

The film was not without some sardonic and unintended humor. When his film crew is allowed to film in one of the still functioning reactors, he is taken into the chamber where the fuel rods are stored. When their guide, the mustachioed and rather sheepish looking man in charge of the control room, notices smoke coming out of a vent in the floor, he nonchalantly offers that they are running a bit hot that day.

A year later, Geyrhalter was commissioned to make twelve 15-minute films timed to coincide with the year 2000 that had so many pundits raising the possibility that civilization would come to a halt because computer systems would go haywire. (I spent a month or two on a year 2000 conversion in Columbia University’s IT department and considered it a breeze.)

Each 15-minute short was focused on one or another particular group once deemed by Hegel as a “people without history”. There are two things that are shown in each film. One, that these “primitives” are out of the commodity exchange network that Hegel and every other “Enlightenment” thinker thought necessary for civilization and grateful that they are. Two, that they are under threat of extinction from the metastasizing production of commodities that leave despoiled waters and climate change in their wake.

People living on a Micronesian island are in a virtual garden of Eden but face the immanent threat of seeing their homes under water as climate change accelerates. An indigenous Siberian family has to leave their home because oil exploration has destroyed the ecosphere that once provided ample fish and game. We meet Native Americans in British Columbia who are building a totem pole, a hallmark of their culture. The artist no longer speaks his language because it was beaten out of him in a residential school. Another Indian shows how the trees on their reservation have been mostly cut down by a logging company. There is no escaping the conclusion that Gandhi had it right when asked by a reporter what he thought of Western civilization. His reply, “It think it would be a good idea”.

The 2011 “Abendland” (German for Nightland”) is the ultimate noir documentary since, as the title indicates, it was shot entirely after dark. Once again, the overarching theme is civilization, or the lack thereof. We see a never-ending stream of surveillance systems, police interventions at protests, immigrant night workers cleaning public restrooms, porn films being made, cremations, etc. It light years from the serene but spare mode of existence depicted in “Elsewhere” that Marshall Sahlins once described as Stone Age Affluence.

Finally, there is the 2015 “Over the Years” that tells the story of the final days of the Anderl textile mill in northern Austria, near the Czech border. At its inception in 1840, the mill employed 250 people. Now, because of the same forces that crushed the American textile industry, there are only 4 assembly line workers at Anderl whose lives Geyrhalter examines in some detail, as well as those who have been laid off.

They are the Austrian version of what Hillary Clinton called “the deplorables” even though they were not necessarily anything like Trump voters. Life revolves around the same kinds of institutions that prevail in North Carolina except with Austrian peculiarities. Instead of NASCAR, they watch tiny cars, the size of a Smart sedan, racing around a dirt track. They go to church every Sunday but it is a Catholic church instead of a Baptist church that has been holding together an economically destitute community, one in which a former Anderl worker collects aluminum cans to make ends meet, just like Mexican immigrants do in New York. To finally connect the two worlds, we see the women of Anderl taking a line-dancing class at the local social center.

There is no hint that these are the kinds of people who would have voted for the nativist parties in Austria. Since most are middle-aged and even older, they are much more fatalistic. Geyrhalter has a gift for drawing them out, including a bachelor and former bookkeeper at Anderl who is serene about his situation even though you feel outraged that he could end up on the scrap heap like Willy Loman after a lifetime working at the mill.

The film, made over a ten-year period, has the same sensibility as Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” or Michael Apted’s “Up” series. It demonstrates how important work is to people, even if it consists of nothing but hanging up yards of dyed cloth to dry. In an interview, Geyrhalter was asked if “Depicting unemployment tends to raise the fundamental question of what work is: a way of earning your daily bread or just any activity.” His reply:

Work is for life. That becomes particularly apparent in this film. If you have a job for the majority of your life, it dictates your existence. You get up, have breakfast, go to work, come home from work and go to bed. What does it mean when you suddenly don’t have that job and have to fill the time in a different way? That’s something we were able to observe very clearly in this film.

Like Werner Herzog, Nikolaus Geyrhalter is a humanist. You can see that most of all in how they both took up the cause of Siberian forest dwellers, Herzog in his priceless “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” and Geyrhalter in the 15-minute segment in “Elsewhere”. Not propagandists like Michael Moore, they are content to allow their subjects to speak for themselves. Even when few or even not a single person is seen in his film, Geyrhalter is telling the story of humanity in a period when the center cannot hold. To help you decide whether the Icarus collection is worth purchasing, I recommend that you see “Our Daily Bread” on Amazon streaming or iTunes. I am sure that you will be as challenged by this powerful film as I was twelve years ago and hungry for more.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.