PRINT November 2006


Our Daily Bread

IN ONE EARLY SCENE of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, the Lithuanian-born protagonist reflects on his new job in Chicago’s Packingtown. “Jurgis had,” Sinclair writes, “stood with the rest up in the gallery and watched the men on the killing beds, marveling at their speed and power as if they had been wonderful machines; it somehow never occurred to one to think of the flesh-and-blood side of it—that is, not until he actually got down into the pit and took off his coat.”

A century later, in Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary Our Daily Bread (which was screened in October at the New York Film Festival and goes on limited release in the United States this month), the “flesh-and-blood side of it” is similarly occluded, only this time most of the “wonderful machines” actually are machines: humming assembly lines that send pigs to their finely calibrated slaughter; whooshing sorters that whisk peeping yellow chicks to some unseen destination; elaborate instruments that saw open and scoop out the intestines of upside-down fish that are trolling by like targets in some macabre carnival shooting game.

Welcome to the jungle, circa 2006. To make Our Daily Bread, Geyrhalter, an Austrian filmmaker whose previous credits include the documentaries Pripyat (1999) and Elsewhere (2001), gained remarkable access to a wide range of European outposts of the secretive arena of globalized factory food—ranging from pigs, cows, and chickens to tomatoes, olives, and salt. The film consists exclusively of long, unnarrated, eerily static shots in which Geyrhalter documents environments and processes that seem more akin to the clean rooms of semiconductor fabrication plants than way stations in the journey from farm to table.

Our Daily Bread is quite shocking, though not, as might be expected, for scenes of horrific carnage and the squeals of dying animals; nor for the plight of the workers, who do not seem to suffer unduly; but rather for the bloodless sterility and antiseptic hush that prevail. In sterile, climate-controlled environments—even the lettuce-pickers work in the comfort of a kind of traveling greenhouse—the mostly voiceless humans in the film seem to do the work of some alien intelligence that operates on a vast, depersonalizing scale. In the realm of the wordless visual essay, Geyrhalter is the anti–Godfrey Reggio: instead of sweeping shots of epic, backbreaking human labor set to an urgently pulsating minimalist score, he gives us confined shots of clinical work enveloped by a claustrophobic silence.

Geyrhalter’s stated goal is merely to chronicle the means by which we now feed ourselves. Yet a particular horror is evinced by the combination of the assembly line and the slaughterhouse that occurs in many scenes, a horror whose character was strangely anticipated in a disturbing claim made by philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1949: “Agriculture is now a motorized food-industry—in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of the countryside, the same as the production of the hydrogen bombs.” For the corporate and governmental interests that determine how food is produced, however, this is progress: clean, well-lit rooms, ruthlessly swept and washed, presided over by men and women in white coats and hairnets. The myriad structural problems of industrial monoculture—the degradation of taste and variety, higher bacteria counts than at old-fashioned “dirty” farms, or the epidemiological hazards recently encapsulated in the absurd specter of a national recall of organic “prewashed” spinach tainted with E. coli—are outside the purview of this film.

Killing is killing, one might argue, whether it takes the form of a single free-range chicken having its throat cut on a sustainable farm or a pig winding its way on a gleaming stainless steel conveyance toward a killing machine. But there is a yawning philosophical and practical divide. In his magisterial book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan chronicles a visit to a small-time organic poultry producer on “processing” day. An outdoor “killing station” has been set up, with scalding tanks, “killing cones,” and other implements: There is an assembly-line logic at work here, too, but there is also a group of people, joined by a sense of purpose, in a place on a human scale, where fowl have lived real lives and been part of an actual natural cycle. The scene is not far removed, in spirit or actuality, from the harvest festivals depicted in sixteenth-century paintings.

Still, after the morning’s work, Pollan announces that he wouldn’t want to kill chickens every day. The farmer responds: “Nobody should. . . . That’s why in the Bible the priests drew lots to determine who would conduct the ritual slaughter, and they rotated the job every month. Slaughter is dehumanizing work if you have to do it every day.” What if you have to do it every minute for eight hours a day? In one stunning scene in Our Daily Bread, a lone woman, in the midst of a sprawling industrial building, wearing bulky headphones and desultorily chewing gum, severs pigs’ feet with a pair of pneumatic clippers (hiss, hiss, hiss goes the device, almost in rhythm with her gum-chewing) as the swaying, suspended carcasses move past.

There is no sense of ritual on display in Our Daily Bread. It has been lost, just as the ritual meanings of food itself are being lost under the flags of convenience and cost. Food is gathered by machine, processed by machine. Any aspect of nature is ruthlessly suppressed. There is no sun, there is no grass. There is no birth, there is no death. There is no flesh, there is no blood. There are only wonderful machines to monitor, production targets to meet, mouths to feed.

Tom Vanderbilt is a frequent contributor to Artforum.