A Common Fabric: Nikolaus Geyrhalter's "Over the Years"

Ten years in the making, the Austrian documentary is a group portrait in every sense of the word.
Michael Sicinski

Nikoclaus Geyrhalter's Over the Years (2015), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from May 26 - June 25, 2017 as a Special Discovery.

In the modern cinema, one cliché that has developed is the notion that “everyone is connected.” A kind of bastardized version of Marxist or Weberian social theory, this is a film structure that often observes a host of seemingly disparate individuals across the majority of the movie’s running time, only to bring them together at the end, supposedly at random, with some sort of cataclysmic event. It could be a car crash, a sinking ship, a bank robbery, or some natural disaster, but the point is clear: no one in the film was put there by chance. The “random” end was preordained, and everything before it has been working up unavoidably to that conclusive moment. The less said about these sorts of films, the better.

Much more rare in cinema are dispersive films. These are films that actually start out with everyone already assembled, and then events or circumstances pull them apart. Instead of figures fusing centrifugally, they shoot out into the larger world centripetally. In this instance, the job of the film is to follow the various subjects along their individual trajectory, seeing how they differ, but how something may remain the same for them since they all have at least one shared experience. One fiction film that operates this way is Michael Haneke’s 2000 film Code Unknown. The film begins with an incident that directly involves nearly all the major characters—a young man’s perceived humiliation of a homeless beggar—whose futures are followed from that point onward. As Haneke shows, the fact that each character experiences a quite different future from that point speaks to the privileges of race, class, and nationality.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s remarkable 2015 documentary Over the Years also exhibits a centripetal structure. But the fact that it is being deployed here for nonfiction purposes obviously changes the stakes somewhat. Rather than being just a mode of thought regarding the abstract categories (race, gender, class, etc.) that produce concrete affects in our lives, here Geyrhalter is anchoring the centripetal mode to a particular time and place—a starting point, if you will. Like a mark made with pencil and measuring tape, the common starting place in Over the Years allows Geyrhalter to take stock not only of the individual lives he’d documenting—and one can detect a slight hint of Michael Apted’s Up series here—but the broader longitude of cultural and economic life in southern Austria. This is a group portrait, in every sense of the word.

So who are Geyrhalter’s subjects?

They are the last remaining employees of the Anderl Company, a medium-sized textile producer that is rapidly sliding toward bankruptcy. The first thirty minutes of Over the Years slowly introduces us to both the workers (along with company president Dr. Richard Hein) and the company’s resolutely old-school production methods. From the weaving and cutting to the dyeing and stain-proofing, Anderl clearly makes a quality product for an exclusive clientele. But with increasing demand for cheaper fabrics, their production model became untenable. And – fair or not, I cannot say – one worker complains about the influx of cheaper labor from the former Eastern Bloc. In any case, as we watch men and women painstakingly tending to outdated equipment and feeding fresh muslin through the rollers, we know we are observing a residual practice from the industrial age.

In most of Geyrhalter’s documentaries, the camera adopts a distant, symmetrical position and simply watches in silence, letting the viewer fill in his or her own internal commentary. However, Over the Years is unique in that Geyrhalter takes on an active role as an offscreen interviewer. While the majority of the film displays labor without comment, Geyrhalter also seems to borrow a few techniques from his countryman Ulrich Seidl (Jesus, You Know; Safari). The camera stares the workers down while the director asks them to describe their workday. For most of them, speaking about their jobs is like pulling teeth. One woman in the Anderl plant is packing up cloth diapers while describing their inferiority to Pampers; another talks about his rehab after losing several fingers in a machine. But many more just wait for the interrogation to stop.

This is not entirely surprising. For one thing, they are being asked to speak about jobs they know they will soon be losing. One can hardly blame them for a lack of enthusiasm. But perhaps more than this, Geyrhalter is asking the workers to verbally articulate processes which have by now most likely become rote. As we will see, all of these men and women will have a bit more to say later on, when the next phase of their lives begins.

The film begins in winter of 2004, and indeed, this is precisely where the centripetal force of Over the Years kicks in. From this point forward to its conclusion in 2015, Over the Years finds Geyrhalter continuing to check in with seven different Anderl employees to see where life has taken them following the loss of their jobs. Have they found new work? Made their peace with unemployment? Taken up hobbies? Reconnected with family? Experienced feelings of depression? Moved or stayed put?

Naturally, the answers vary from person to person. Former company president Hein and his wife are shown arguing (albeit very politely) about the legal status of their bankruptcy. Mrs. Maria Hein explains that she has experienced the failure of Anderl as a personal financial loss, whereas Richard insists that it is not he that is ruined. Anderl Company, “a juristic person,” is. Later on, we see the Heins and other former Anderl employees at the old factory, where an avant-garde music group called Sewteeth have created a composition using the old machines. Afterward, Dr. Hein sternly tells the group that he prefers Mozart, but thanks for coming.

One man, Johann Semper, is using his time to compile alphabetical listings of all the songs he has on record and cassette. Elizabeth Bauer has started a moderately successful Tupperware business. Frantz Koppensteiner went through state-mandated job training, only to discover that no one would hire him due to his advanced age. Now he’s making doll furniture for his granddaughter. Some folks got jobs as good or better than the ones they had at Anderl. Others tried to keep their hopes up but nothing panned out. One couple’s decade was marked by unspeakable personal tragedy.

So what exactly does Geyrhalter want us to take away from Over the Years? Perhaps this: every failed business, every closed brick-and-mortar store, every industry that can no longer be accommodated by neoliberal capitalism, is not exactly the kind of event that economists would have us believe. It is more than a “market correction.” Within the logic of the MBAs, old industries and uncompetitive businesses die, new, leaner and meaner ones are born, and those associated with the lumbering behemoths will simply adapt. But every single end is also a beginning, and not in the market-optimist way that business school preaches. It is the beginning of anxieties, lost identities, fragmentation of long-term friendships, daily rituals, guiding principles, and for many, the beginning of obsolescence. It is a scattering, a casting-out, and not an “opportunity.” But usually no one is very interested in those beginnings. As Geyrhalter shows us in Over the Years, it is possible to trace the ripples of these disruptive beginnings across time, to take the full measure of capitalism’s existential cost.

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