Abendland – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2011)

The first time I came across the work of Nikolaus Geyrhalter was when I watched his absolutely superb Homo Sapiens, which was so rich, so affective and so beautiful that I had always wanted to explore the director’s work in more detail. The opportunity comes at the right time because Icarus Films released a DVD Box set with six of Geyrhalter’s films, including, of course, Homo Sapiens. For The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, I will review each one of those films, looking forward, in particular, to his long-form documentaries Elsewhere and Over The Years, whose running time exceed three hours. Abendland, the film I watched last night, is one of Geyrhalter’s shorter works, and, in some ways, foreshadows his later film Homo Sapiens in its subject treatment.

Homo Sapiens focuses on run down buildings, places, structures. It shows the remnants of us, of our lives, the remnants of our ever-present desire to strive for higher only in order to fall low. Homo Sapiens is a film that, to me, shows what we humans will leave behind on this planet. Neglect, abandonment and decay are three dominating visual characteristics that, in Geyrhalter’s breathtaking framing, leaves one in awe – in awe of the sheer beauty of ruins, but also in awe of the incredible waste, the waste of human labour, of resources, of dreams and desires. Homo Sapiens could be a look into a future that is yet to come.

Abendland, on the other hand, brings the human, who is, ironically, absent from Homo Sapiens, the film that actually deals with him most explicitly, back into frame. Abendland is the German term for “the West”. It’s where the sun sets and where the night, where obscurity reigns. It’s a traditional description, a traditional belief, something that divided the world in two; east and west, Abendland and Morgenland, sunset and sunrise. Geyrhalter’s Abendland is, as the film title might suggest, set entirely at night. It begins with a high angle shot of a surveillance camera, which is launched from van. The cam is moved by a man inside the van, a man from Eastern Europe, who looks out for possible trespassing. The film is from 2011, but it hasn’t lost its topicality in the last seven years. On the contrary, Abendland contains several scenes that refer to migration, asylum seekers, refugees. The film takes on another dimension in these days, when our continent as a whole struggles to contain rising nationalism and exclusion while facing an influx of people who seek shelter from autocratic and oppressive governments and societies.

We are in a Roma camp in Eastern Europe that is scheduled to be dismantled. 39 families will be moved to other camps. At night, a man, holding a list of names in his hands, tells everyone when the bus would pick him/her up. The concern for the possibility of families staying together is prominent; will I be able to go with my parents? Where will my grandfather stay? If he gets picked up on Saturday, why am I going to be picked up a day later? There is little space for individual concerns. The directive is clear: clear the camp and send the bulldozers in. It reminds one of the jungle in Calais. It puts on screen what the new Italian government is planning: the deportation of “illegal” Romas, and I put illegal in quotation marks because the term has become an easy excuse for politicians who simply want to rid themselves of foreigners. The discussion of the transport of the 39 families is followed by a long shot of the destroyed camp. Fire, smoke, ruins. What has happened to the families, no one knows.

We are patrolling a border fence around Ceuta with the Spanish Guardia Civil, who look for illegal migrants. We are with the British police, steering mobile CCTV cameras in order to observe the nightlife of people. Zoom in on a “troublemaker”, a man in a wheelchair; zoom in on a black man waiting for someone; zoom in on a heated conversation between three men on a bench. The sheer number of cameras that observe people is stunning. It is a visual manifestation of our addiction to technology, to cameras, to surveillance, to presumed, but false safety. It is an image that makes one think of possible abuse, the loss of privacy in societies that have become more and more paranoid in recent years. The night, the obscurity that surrounds us, doesn’t help the paranoia.

We are in an asylum seeker camp in Germany. A woman tells a man from Lagos that he’s got two choices after his request had been rejected. Either he begins a life in Germany, illegally, sleeping in the streets, running from the police, or returning voluntarily to Lagos as a man with dignity. She says, “You might want to go back and start a business and be successful.” The irony. Or is it sarcasm? Or is she – sorry for my language – just taking the piss? And all of this is juxtaposed with the other side of nightlife in the so-called Abendland. The other side of the coin, the side of excess at Munich’s Oktoberfest, for example, which seems like a parallel world, far removed from helpless asylum seekers, from a group of elderlies being looked after at a care home, removed from premature babies fighting for their lives. The differences are stark, brutal, thought-provoking.

In that way, Abendland is a mirror image of our society. With the help of simple shots, but suggestive juxtapositions, Geyrhalter poses important questions. The film shows us the multiple, often contradictory, faces of society, of life, of a life that continues when most people sleep. In his superb book La Nuit, Michael Foessel describes the night as a possibility of live without a witness that observes you. Geyrhalter has become this witness, and so have we. We witness complex worlds, opposing universes, personal limits and political concerns. There is the care for our own and the rejection of the other. There is an exclusive joy for us, and a struggle put on the shoulders of others. There is a fence, a border, a solid frontier between us and them. Abendland might have been made seven years ago, but what we see is as true as seven years ago, and makes for an eye-opening watch.

(Check the official site of Icarus Film for more details about the DVD Box set and how to order it.)

The nocturnal and the slow

Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) impressed me with its images that had been shot at night. The almost complete blackness of the night, seen through the eyes of a watchman in his tower at a harbour, was stunning. Most of the film is set in one way or another in the darkness of the night. It has something uncomfortable around it, something mysterious. The night is a time of disguise. It’s not just people who want to disguise who they really are. It’s also trees, bushes, buildings – everything around us looks different than during the day.

The Man from London (Béla Tarr, 2007)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2010, also has extensive night scenes. These are the scenes when mysterious figures appear, ghosts, people who return from the afterlife in order to connect with loved ones they had left behind when they died. The night is a time when the living and the dead come together. Ghosts can only be seen at night.

Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Horse Money, the latest film by Pedro Costa, is an investigation of memory and trauma. A lot of the film is set in the dark, which stands for the uncertainty about memories. The darkness doesn’t allow to see clearly; memories are everything but clear. It takes a journey through this darkness in order to see clearly, if one can manage at all.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)

Quite a number of slow films make use of the night. I only realised this when I read a new book, which has just been released earlier this year, and which I picked up in our local book shop in preparation for an installation event I’m working on. It is difficult to think about the night nowadays. There are lights everywhere. Unless you live in the countryside, far away from civilisation, there is a chance that you have difficulties seeing the night as what it is, namely as dark time which embalms you. What I never realised until I had picked up La nuit : Vivre sans témoin by Michael Foessel is that the night / the darkness has a significant influence on how we perceive time, and this might be quite a fascinating aspect to follow when it comes to Slow Cinema. In many action films, the night is used for chases, for police operations, for illegal deeds.

In slow films, the meaning of the night is, in most cases, quite different, as the above examples show, albeit Tarr’s film is based on a crime the watchman watches at the beginning of the film. Nevertheless, the night then becomes something else.

Penser la nuit, c’est penser la manière dont l’obscurité change notre perception, transforme notre rapport aux autres ou modifie notre expérience du temps.

Foessel makes very clear throughout his book that the night changes our perception. The darkness we’re surrounded by makes it at times difficult to see. Let’s take a journey through the woods, for instance. No street lamps, no torch. Just you and the woods. This might be an extreme example. However, it best illustrates Foessel’s point: our perception changes and because of that, our sense of time changes, too. Why is that the case? There is no clarity in our vision. We cannot see details. If at all, we can see no more than silhouettes. This ultimately means that we have to walk slower in order to make our way through the woods. It’s not just our walk that slows down, though. For many people, being alone in the woods at night is a scary thing. You need to be on alert at all times in order not to become the victim of wild animals. Time stretches. The night feels so much longer than it usually does when you go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 7am.

La nuit impose cette suspension au moins le temps nécessaire pour reconnaître une forme ou distinguer un visage.

The lack of clarity, of visibility, means that we need more time in order to identify what is in front of us. We’re not entirely blind, yet our vision is restricted. While we have no problem at all to see during day time, the night challenges our eyes, and slows us down. We depend more on our hearing than on our vision, because we have no other choice.

I don’t want to suggest at all that slow-film directors use the night in their films for exactly those reasons. I’m sure they don’t think about stuff like that at all. But there is quite an interesting link between the meaning of the night in their films, and the cinematic slowness that is employed. In the end, it is not only the character that faces the darkness. If the screen goes dark, the viewer faces the same darkness as does the character. That means that our reading of whatever is on screen (or of what isn’t) becomes a slow adventure and adds to the feeling of slowness of the entire film. I will certainly keep thinking this through and maybe follow this blog post up with another one, one that is more detailed!