Six Geyrhalter documentaries and over 20 years of filmmaking
I love documentary films, and I watch them all the time. Nonfiction films can be just as inventive and profound as their fiction counterparts, and directors as diverse as Werner Herzog, Agnes Varda, Ross McElwee and Michael Moore have all excelled when focusing their cameras on real-life subjects. Herzog and Varda have both found unique ways to blend their skills as narrative filmmakers into their documentary storytelling while McElwee and Moore have captured audiences with their eccentric and charismatic points of view.
Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter has created a nonfiction filmography that embraces a radical less-is-more aesthetic. Moore has his baseball cap, Herzog has his eloquent narration, but Geyrhalter often employs long, static shots of empty spaces accompanied only by natural sound to achieve similarly startling results.
Icarus Films’ new box set, Six Films By Nikolaus Geyrhalter, collects some of the Austrian director’s most innovative explorations of contemporary life on earth. The six flicks are divided across seven discs. They are packaged in a handsome case along with a sharp booklet featuring full-color frames from Geyrhalter’s films, illuminating interviews and an essay about the explorations of space and time at the centers of all of these movies. Three of the films have never been released in the U.S., and the set’s one Blu Ray disc is a new high-definition edition of Our Daily Bread.
The set covers 20 years of filmmaking, beginning with Geyrhalter’s portraits of everyday Russians living and working in the 30-km restricted zone erected around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after the eponymous 1986 catastrophe that resulted in the evacuation of 116,000 people. In Pripyat (1999) Geyrhalter points his lens at four protagonists, shooting them, their homes and the barren beauty of the restricted zone in soft black and white. The result reads like a poetic, slow-horror film where the countryside is haunted by the invisible monster of nuclear radiation.
Over The Years chronicles the impact of a textile factory closing in the Waldviertel region of Austria. Geyrhalter is happy to let his lens linger on the lives of these working-class neighbors, and the film ultimately captures a whole decade of days during which the impact of the loss of the factory reverberates through this close-knit community.
Geyrhalter’s flair for no-nonsense portraiture hits its peak with Elsewhere (2001). This project is divided into 12 20-minute episodes featuring people from some of the most far-flung parts of the planet. The portraits are all presented without narration, and they combine to form an epic of pure cinema.
Abendland (2011) explores the roles that envy and exclusivity play in the perpetuation of the Western standard of living, and Our Daily Bread (2005) offers a long, silent stare into the belly of high tech, industrial agriculture. These imagistic explorations are visually dazzling — Our Daily Bread reads like a sci-fi film — and both of these movies manage to make points about ethics and values without ever resorting to preaching or propaganda.
A Guardian review for Homo Sapiens (2017) compared Geyrhalter to Stanley Kubrick, and this exploration of abandoned buildings and public spaces is every bit the kind of dark sci-fi you find in series like Legion or Black Mirror. Geyrhalter dismisses the shock of ruin porn in favor of a deep meditation on a post-human future and the world we might leave in our aftermath.
Geyrhalter documentaries are stylistically unique, and his most potent explorations ask deep questions about what it means to be a human on earth in the 21st century. This new collection contextualizes two decades of masterful filmmaking and highlights the work of one of the most provocative and poetic truth-tellers in cinema today.
Six Films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter was released by Icarus Films and KimStim on June 12.