IN PRIPYAT (1999), Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary about postmeltdown Chernobyl, a policeman refers to his beat as a “dead zone.” A handful of elderly residents remain, but most, like a cheerful plant manager and the technician who sneaks the filmmakers into the ruins of her old apartment, now commute to Chernobyl from the outside. In this still-functioning wasteland, radiation clings invisibly to everything, from mushrooms to clothing to abandoned helicopters—the last a poignant image of the state’s helplessness in the face of a disaster it helped create.
It’s a sad survey, but withered landscapes like this one are where Geyrhalter (who filmed Pripyat in black and white) thrives. The Austrian director burrows into parts of the world normally walled off from more privileged eyes, marginal territories we don’t (want to) know much about.
For his most recent film, 7915 Km (2008), Geyrhalter didn’t just go to the Sahara and western Africa whenever; he went during the Dakar Rally, an overland race that’s hugely popular among gearheads and joyriding Europeans. To many Africans, it resembles an alien visitation. One girl explains she named her goat Rally because it was born the day the foreign drivers came through her village. But the race, inevitably, also stirs resentment and tears up roads; the dust, once kicked up, seems to linger, the residue of a drive-by moment that encapsulates, for Geyrhalter and many of his subjects, the glamour, elusiveness, and cruel disregard of the near but distant West.
Pointedly, the only images of the rally proper in 7915 Km come from revved-up publicity materials and European TV programs. Geyrhalter and his crew purposefully fall behind the pack, training their sights on other subjects. In Senegal, a local carpenter speaks of the demand for “boats of death” hired by would-be immigrants. In Mali, young African men who haven’t already left for Europe wait around at Western Union all day for allowances from relatives abroad; night after night, they watch the same European porn film at what has to be one of the world’s saddest movie theaters.
The film’s final segment, shot in an airplane that Italian immigration authorities use to patrol their borders, ends with a grainy image of African refugees being intercepted at sea. It’s an effective juxtaposition: the Africans’ slow, easily captured boats and the European’s speedy jeeps, trucks, planes, and rally cars.
Geyrhalter is no less astute when approaching the land of plenty these refugees are so desperate to access. In his best-known film, Our Daily Bread (2005), the director offers an unflinching, unsettling view of Europe’s food-production industry. Whereas American films like Fast Food Nation (2006) and Food, Inc. (2008) take to the pulpit, Geyrhalter’s nearly wordless documentary depicts slaughterhouse horrors with the cold precision (an Austrian specialty?) of a Haneke thriller.
The emotional response Geyrhalter cultivates is more profound and subtle than outrage. If anything, his technique highlights the system’s genius and efficiency. The compositions emphasize machinery, as Geyrhalter’s Steadicam charts seemingly endless corridors of crops and chicken boxes. He and his longtime editor, Wolfgang Widerhofer, hold shots just long enough to achieve a mesmerizing sense of day-in, day-out repetition.
The rhythms of this ultra-rationalized industry contrast starkly with the natural processes it supplants. Bulls are interrupted midmount to capture their semen, squeaking chicks are shot out of tubes like tennis balls, olive trees are throttled by machines until they spill their fruit, and pigs and fish are corralled along conveyor belts to their death, then stripped and disassembled by automaton-like workers.
All this for human sustenance. But the spotless food-production facilities so clinically depicted in Our Daily Bread have mastered the vagaries of the life cycle in a way that suggests that the cycle itself will someday be obviated. These, too, are dead zones.