In the opening shot of “The Border Fence,” the camera straddles the invisible line between Austria and Italy, watching without comment as a man blithely walks from one country to the other. This is as it should be in modern Europe, where a heavy influx of refugees and migrants from countries devastated by war and stripped of economic opportunity has sparked a pushback against the flow of newcomers (witness Brexit). Sound familiar? Americans need only look to their own southern border — and the seemingly absurd proposal to build a wall that will keep immigrants out — to recognize much of the same psychology at play.
But director Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary isn’t about the vast Mexico-U.S. border. Rather, it’s about a controversial 2016 proposal by Austrian politicians to erect a 370-meter wire fence across the Brenner Pass, a narrow break in the otherwise postcard-ready expanse of the Alps that separate Austria from Italy. When the plans were announced, Geyrhalter took his camera to the region, expanding his usual modus operandi of arm’s-length observation (though there’s still plenty of it, shot in his trademark hi-def style, as the director records a massive protest and the construction of makeshift immigrant processing facilities) to include interviews with residents of the Tyrol region, who generally seem more perturbed by all the fuss than they do by the supposed influx of refugees.
Geyrhalter’s best films (“Our Daily Bread,” a hypnotic and nearly dehumanized collection of tableaux depicting industrialized food production across modern Europe, and “Homo Sapiens,” an almost post-apocalyptic survey of human-made spaces left to deteriorate after their creators have moved on) tend to force people to the margins, if not out of the picture entirely. But in the case of “The Border Fence,” the film is all about how locals feel about doing exactly that — which is to say, deliberating excluding other human beings — and the best way to comment upon that is to let these humble Austrians speak for themselves.
These aren’t your typical “man on the street” interviews, where Geyrhalter gets up close and thrusts a microphone in someone face. Rather, he sets the camera on a tripod a fair distance from his subject and prods them with open-ended questions. The tactic looks eerily similar to Austrian countryman Ulrich Seidl’s approach — or, for a more familiar American reference, the way Wes Anderson likes to photograph people head-on, framed by surroundings that reflect their character — only Geyrhalter isn’t angling for absurdity; he seems genuinely curious about what his subjects think, rolling for entire conversations and splicing the most interesting bits together with black frames.
For example, at one point, he follows a tollbooth operator into her station, where he watches her at work, her hands moving hypnotically as she collects the fares from those crossing the border legally, and listens to her broad generalizations about how visitors from various countries differ in terms of personality. A few older folks reminisce about earlier days, before the European Union eliminated the need for borders, when passage was tightly controlled and smuggling a T-shirt across was verboten. High on a ridge above town, the owners of the Landshuter hut, a historic lodge that straddles the divide, welcome all visitors.
Most of the people interviewed seem empathetic to the immigrants’ situation. Taking a break from chopping wood, an organic-goose farmer speaks of the tragic paradox by which Austrian politicians teach their constituents to fear the wretched souls who fled their homes and have the most reason to be afraid. Some have fallen for such rhetoric, sharing their anxieties about losing their holidays and traditions to heathens who, they believe, represent an inherently violent religion. But even the most outspoken of these goes out of her way to cook lunch every day for a handful of African immigrants working nearby — perhaps the single most telling gesture the film provides of why this fence never stood a chance.
Sure enough, by tracking the project for almost two years, Geyrhalter wound up watching the entire operation go more or less the same direction as all those abandoned spaces in “Homo Sapiens.” In the final shot, a police officer who once showed the director around the newly erected immigrant processing facilities now opens a storage crate, where several long rolls of wire fencing sit unused. It’s telling that over the course of a somewhat patience-testing two hours, Geyrhalter never films any so-called illegal immigrants. In a certain abstract sense, the fence isn’t about them — the movie could just as easily be about efforts to build a giant laser cannon for the purpose of shooting down extraterrestrials: It’s about the people such a project is designed to “protect.”