Training his wide-ranging eyes on Europe at night, Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter makes perhaps the most mordant statement of his fascinating career with “Abendland.” Likely influenced by Harun Farocki’s numerous films on industrial, mechanical and security systems as tools of social control, Geyrhalter’s characteristically ambitious if sometimes elusive work travels to 10 nations and 21 locations to capture nocturnal extremes, from border patrols to sex clubs, aerospace factories to raves. Though the docu is enjoying a healthy fest run, its thematic abstraction reps a sales challenge.
Geyrhalter’s signature approach is recognizable almost from the opening moment: expansive wide-angle shots that typically encompass large landscapes and realms marked by (usually high-tech) human presence; global subject matter that’s either highly specific or deliberately generic; a total absence of interviews, commentary or graphic identifiers, except for a locations roster in the closing credits; and an aesthetic that transforms “ugly” technology into something beautiful, yet still views it skeptically.
“Abendland” was originally intended to encompass a broader swath of Europe, but the focus narrowed to specific zones of the continent at night. The effect is unsettling and occasionally funny, in a way that will surprise viewers who have seen only Geyrhalter’s best-known pic, the despairing “Our Daily Bread.” It’s also a little vague, as some sequences could have taken place just as easily during the day as the night, and connections between scenes become clear only on repeat viewings.
In its range and its method of drawing startling contrasts between places and human activity, the film sometimes resembles “Elsewhere,” Geyrhalter’s ambitious four-hour epic covering the world during the year 2000. In contrast with that work, where people tended to have one foot in the 11th century and the other in the 21st, these Europeans (never identified by name) are unmistakably living in the here and now, for good and for ill.
A security camera in a truck scanning a field on the Slovakian-Ukrainian border reps the first ironic image: a camera filming a camera. Like others in the film, this sequence has a subsequent companion piece, in this case a London security-camera control room in which a few of the remote camera operators are effectively eavesdropping on their fellow citizens.
Geyrhalter and editor Wolfgang Widerhofer find elegant pairings between a crowded Oktoberfest event in Munich and a massive rave in Arnheim, Netherlands; the Slovak border patrol and another patrol on the enormous, electrified fence separating Spain and Morocco; an illegal immigrant campground outside Rome and a German anti-nuclear blockade of railroad tracks (featuring a rare handheld shot); and a male nurse at an Austrian elder-care facility and operators at a Dutch crisis-intervention center.
More than in their previous work, Geyrhalter and Widerhofer aim for a droll, sometimes dark effect in juxtaposing sequences. Images of the illegal camp arrive immediately after the Slovak border surveillance, suggesting the porousness of European borders despite high-tech tools. A greenscreen studio with digitized sets, used in a German police training facility, is followed by fake-looking backdrops in a Prague sex club. The pic cuts from a plane transporting undocumented immigrants to a row of coffins moving into an incinerator.
Even attentive viewers may not pick up on all these ironies, and it can be argued that “Abendland” is too abstract by half. Even as Geyrhalter’s distanced approach pulls the viewer away from people onscreen and toward the many non-human details that fill his compositions, it can impose a certain sameness on subjects, along with a sense that the intended European specificity is lost in the “anyplace” aspects of several locales.
Lensing and sound are, as always with Geyrhalter, crystalline and refined, with the precise and complex camera setups recalling photographer Jeff Wall’s large-format images. The production, per credits, transpired from October 2008 to November 2010.