Night Watch


Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Abendland, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes.

THE FIRST SHOT of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s latest documentary, Abendland (2011), is a night view of a vast, virtually deserted landscape. A camera pans across the Slovak/Ukraine border (the site is identified in the film’s closing credits), as if independent of human agency. Though two subsequent shots reveal a man controlling the camera from inside a van, it is the initial impression of an autonomous, impersonal machine scrutinizing the terrain that sticks, and that in many ways captures the ambience and tenor of Geyrhalter’s film. Stunningly shot and meticulously framed—as was his earlier Our Daily Bread (2005)—the film is infused with the theme of surveillance, as it journeys to a number of sites across a nighttime Europe, inducing the illusory sense that everything is happening simultaneously. It is as if an omniscient alien invader were moving through the global village, collecting data on the rituals of an unfamiliar species on the eve of its extinction.

The idea of surveillance is woven throughout, not always overtly, as is the theme of immigration or some variation of it. We watch Montenegrins being forcibly evacuated from a camp outside Rome; a camp facility in Basel holds hundreds of migrants awaiting their fate; and in the film’s penultimate sequence, a lone guard drives around an immense border fence overlooking the Mediterranean in southern Spain to prevent illegal entry from Morocco. An impressive surveillance facility in London, strewn with dozens of monitors directed at multiple sites in the city, goes under the benevolent label “Street Care.” The same odd mix of benignly imposed power characterizes police activity dispersing antinuclear protesters in Germany.

The camera’s eye has rarely seemed more boundless and omnivorous as it opens wide to encompass public spaces in extreme long shots, engendering both awe and terror. The first view of the European Parliament in Brussels recalls the war room from Dr. Strangelove (1964); an immense beer hall during the Oktoberfest in Munich eerily evokes a time when that city hosted boisterous, brotherly rallies of a different sort. The detached precision of such images yields to a daredevil immersion as the moving camera penetrates a sea of bodies shouting and drinking in unison. This strategy is repeated in the film’s final shot as the man holding the camera moves through the claustrophobic mass of young people dancing wildly to a deafening sonic roar at the Qlimax club event in the Netherlands.

If there is a singular vision here, it is neither one-dimensional nor reductive. Without an overt agenda, Geyrhalter’s camerawork testifies to the power of the image itself—the way it is framed, lit, and shot in relation to the content within it—to tell a story and project a mood. The juxtaposition of material tends to avoid calculated links, although associations gather and become irresistible through proximity: The Street Care shots are followed shortly by expansive views of the Sky News media facilities in another part of the UK, assembling and dispensing information via an equally ubiquitous use of monitors.

The film seems to suggest that the phenomenon of mass (as it relates to populations and cultures) is both an unavoidable reality and an increasing, irresolvable problem, as impossible to fathom as it is to control. Images of crowds—protesters, beer drinkers, or youth cults—connote both power and helplessness. What should we make of the fact that the only discernibly productive activities we see are lone workers doing their jobs quietly and competently during the night: a nurse gently tending to a prematurely born infant, saddled with tubes in an incubator; employees of a help line, patiently listening to troubled individuals phoning in; a postal worker sorting the mail by countries of origin or destination; a man cleaning toilets in a deserted airport? Do these images testify to a still viable belief in the value of the individual? Or do they depict the last manifestations of activities not yet swallowed up by technological advances? If the title and compass of Geyrhalter’s film bespeak the end of Europe, is the tribal whooping of the half-dressed youths in the last shot the dance of death? If so, what a gorgeously mounted series of canvases Geyrhalter has designed to frame the demise of Western civilization.

Tony Pipolo

Abendland has its US theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives in New York July 27–August 2.