A Metonymic Cinema: Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s "Abendland" and "Danube Hospital"

With his two most recent films, Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter offers contrastive, but cooperative, views of life in Europe.
Michael Sicinski

At least since the 1990s, Austria has commanded a central place within global cinema culture, certainly within that portion of it governed in a semi-official manner by film festivals and arthouses. Like many such European film scenes, many of its members have moved quite easily between fiction and documentary modes (Ulrich Seidl and Michael Glawogger, to cite the most obvious and prolific). Still, the documentary element remains too seldom remarked upon as a spiritual source for the unique, penetrating gaze that characterizes so many of key Austrian films. Generally speaking, fictional features by the likes of Michael Haneke, Jessica Hausner and Michael Schleinzer have drawn more attention from programmers and distributors than the documentaries of Nikolaus Geyrhalter. This is par for the course with nonfiction cinema. But it nevertheless seems worth mentioning here because, in terms of the tone, construction, and global attitude of Geyrhalter’s cinema, his work seems to be part of the very grain of his nation’s cinematic output. While Geyrhalter’s films don’t exactly “transcend” documentary – what would that even mean? – they certainly place him in the upper tier of Austrian filmmakers. Films like Caché (2005) and Code Unknown (2000), Import Export (2007) and the current Paradise trilogy (2012), are conceptual and formal cousins to Our Daily Bread (2005) and 7915 KM (2008), and should be recognized as such.

Nevertheless, Geyrhalter’s most recent work has been widely understood as being part of a loose confederation of experimental documentarians and essay filmmakers who have implicitly rejected both the presumed self-evidence of the image (an unspoken tenet of “direct cinema”) and the godlike explanatory power of the “objective,” unseen voiceover.  Artists associated with this approach, aside from Geyrhalter and Glawogger, include Harun Farocki, Hartmut Bitomsky, Andrei Ujica, and Thomas Heise. Geyrhalter’s earlier works, such as The Year After Dayton (1997) and Elsewhere (2001), were often reminiscent of the sprawling efforts of Peter Watkins and especially Johan van der Keuken, in both their global reach and their gargantuan running times; there was a very definite sense that time, rather than montage or rhetorical juxtaposition, was the dominant aesthetic strategy in these films, and that the movement and changes that could be traced within and across the films were fairly direct metaphors for more sweeping historical shifts.

By contrast, as Geyrhalter’s films have become more compact, they have begun to exhibit a tighter, more comparative form of montage that, while it functions much less rhetorically that anything from the Soviet school, does slowly draw comparisons and connections from its factual material, subjecting it to a camera gaze that already in some sense comprehends each element as a node within a global socio-economic system. In this regard, they resemble Farocki’s films, as well as Haneke’s and Seidl’s. That is to say, Geyrhalter has a “take” on how our world works, and his films display the evidence he finds in our world to support that take. It is often a truism that the documentarian is supposed to take his or her camera into the world with no expectations and report only what they discover. This is of course a fantasy; we all have preconceptions and they shape the very questions we choose to ask. Geyrhalter’s films are rigorous, and their final form is indicative of a great deal of preparation and collaboration with their subjects. In fact, Geyrhalter’s usual collaborator, editor Wolfgang Widerhofer, has frequently been given a credit for “dramatic structure” on the documentaries, a frank admission (were one necessary) that the pair conceive of the works as nonfiction films, a fact which in no way compromises their truth value.

His two most recent efforts are quite different in their approach, and their relative success as both films and as documents of European culture in our globalized, neoliberal moment is highly instructive. Abendland, from last year, and this year’s Danube Hospital, highlight both the strengths and potential pitfalls of Geyrhalter’s system of signification. The former, whose title is a German portmanteau word meaning “night-land,” is a film comprised of various activities – work, protests, a public appearance by the Pope, border patrols, etc. – across ten European nations. The sole unifying theme, apart from the European continent, is that all the action happens at night. This allows Geyrhalter and Widerhofer a high degree of flexibility, both in terms of what to film and include, and in terms of generating suggestive rhymes and resonances across the course of the film.

By contrast, Danube Hospital, from this year, confines all of its documented action to the singular locale of the title, the Donauspital, one of the largest and most modern hospitals in Europe. (It is located on the east side of Vienna.) If I were to designate a formal dominant for Geyrhalter’s approach with Abendland as opposed to Danube Hospital, I think I could best characterize the films as centrifugal vs. centripetal. But both films, like all of Geyrhalter’s work since at least Pripyat (1999), functions metonymically. That is to say, the very selective, deliberate viewpoints that Geyrhalter provides in his films, be they of a single locale or institution, or of a wider swath of global culture, are intended to stand in for larger implied wholes. And, by extension, the fragments’ positions within Geyrhalter’s overall films, in relation to one another, are themselves indicative of broader global relationships – that is, the smooth integration or the complex friction between nodes in a habitat or world-system.

In this regard, there is an elasticity to Geyrhalter’s cinema, whereby individual building blocks of discrete meaning are formed at a single location or event, typically in a series of three, no more than four individual medium-length takes. The frame is almost always still, and while Geyrhalter prefers the medium-long to long shot, he will on occasion include a medium-close-up. Extreme long shots, especially exteriors, are also employed with some regularity, depending on the project. Each of these modular units is formed with a degree of autonomy; the larger film, then, is shaped through the larger structuration of these single nodes of documentary information. (The articulation of these multi-level structures, naturally, is largely contingent on the director / cinematographer’s relationship with Widerhofer’s editor / dramatist.) The broader the theme that Geyrhalter is addressing, then, the more heavily his film will rely on the superstructure he creates for his metonymic modules.

Abendland, whose sole unifying concept is “nighttime,” intends to lean quite heavily on a few master tropes. The first shot is of a visually ambiguous camera jutting into the foreground like a WALL-E head in the middle of a field of utter obscurity. Subsequent shots alert us to the fact that this is surveillance equipment, and that we are witnessing the night shift on border patrol. (Only at the end do we learn that this is the Slovakian side of the frontier between Slovakia and Ukraine. As with the recent films of James Benning – another film artist tangentially related to Geyrhalter – Abendland provides a list of each location in the final credits.) This first segment is paired with the 20th (of a total of 21), during which we are given shots along a darkened road, with a high wall on the left-hand side. This, we learn, is the border between Spain and Morocco. Very few modules within Abendland are quite so symmetrical, but Geyrhalter does generate other noteworthy relationships. We see Italian officials clearing out a camp of (possibly illegal) eastern European immigrants in segment two, discussing their relocation and legal status; then in Great Britain, Geyrhalter takes us into the control room of Sky News Channel as they are delivering a report on the clearing of a nearly-identical refugee camp. In both cases (the border patrol and the forced dispersal of immigrants), Abendland uses the time between the modules to prompt a consideration between the events as such, on the one hand, and their mediation by representational and visual technologies, on the other.

In fact, the single most frequent recurring motif throughout Abendland is the use of security cameras, banks of monitors, and other surveillance equipment, all indicating that even more than usual, Europe is a panopticon after hours. This is not entirely surprising, but it does yield some rather jarring footage. The technicians operating the street-care CCCV system in London, for example (“popularized,” if that’s the correct word, in such films as Andrea Arnold’s Red Road [2006]), are shown engaging in racial profiling rather patently, zooming in on any non-white citizen who stands still too long. Nevertheless, Abendland tends to display its weakness simply by dint of its grand ambitions. There are numerous segments that we know are taking place at night only because of Geyrhalter’s having included them -- a late shift at an airplane factory; a Czech sex club; a Dresden crematorium; some sparse deliberations at the European Parliament. But what larger systems or relationships do these situations reflect? While it may be interesting to note that these activities transpire into the wee hours, and Geyrhalter indeed provides a cross-section of the European labor force, the idea of Abendland simply doesn’t prove as conceptually unifying as it probably should be. The film is interesting on its own terms as a kind of “odds-and-sods” collection, along the lines of Heise’s Material (2009), or a broad generalist survey such as Farocki’s How to Live in the German Federal Republic (1990), but Abendland ultimately lacks the rigor that characterizes Geyrhalter’s finest work.

By contrast, Danube Hospital is a deft, exacting piece of documentary cinema that is so subtly crafted that, upon first glance, it could be mistaken for Geyrhalter’s most conventional work to date. In fact, it is every bit as experimental as his previous work, but by narrowing his focus so specifically on one key institution, Geyrhalter is able to generate a set of dynamic metonymic relationships across multiple levels of the film. Danube Hospital may or may not adequately represent the state of medicine in Vienna, or Austria, or Europe. (A friend with personal experience has seen the film, and cautioned that his stay in an Austrian medical facility much more closely resembled an Ulrich Seidl film than Danube Hospital.) But Geyrhalter is indeed using the different modular components of his film to make an implicit argument that, yes, the Donauspital works. It is a bureaucratic machine that has semi-independent parts, and none of them is perfect, but they are all in above-average working order.

Within this centripetal film, each and every segment is focused on a part of the hospital. Each segment is intended to provide a coherent, bite-sized piece of formal and nonfictional piece of information, and to feed back into the spatiotemporal and metonymic understanding of the Donauspital as a whole. One might say Danube Hospital is a mosaic of sorts, except that Geyrhalter is providing a complete view that would be impossible for any one subject, from any perspective, to grasp. This is more than a total picture; it is an X-ray. We are shown various medical procedures such as MRIs, eye surgery, emergency room care, and the like. But we also see administrative meetings, the strategic planning of the chaplaincy, the mixing of large vats of food in the lower-level kitchen, a patient arriving on the rooftop helipad, and other such “restricted” areas.

The fact that Geyrhalter received access to non-public areas of the hospital and included them in his film is not surprising. In fact, this “access” is precisely what makes Danube Hospital resemble more typical documentary forms on its surface. From the Discovery Channel to Frederick Wiseman, we have come to expect that a good documentary film will take us “behind the scenes.” However, there are several ways in which Geyrhalter’s use of these “invisible” elements differs significantly from their deployment in most other documentaries.

First, the semi-structural method of Danube Hospital generates a formal equivalence among all the different parts of the film. By extension, Geyrhalter produces a rhetorical argument regarding the labor theory of value. Each of these functions is just as necessary as the others in order for the Donauspital to succeed in its mission. The commissary must be staffed; the pathology department must conduct its autopsies; the priest must give comfort to a desperately ill Catholic patient who requests religious intervention; open heart surgeries must be performed; etc. Obviously some of these jobs are more highly valued by society than others, doctors being at the apex of the professional order. But Geyrhalter, as if taking a leaf from the Robert Bresson playbook, flattens out differences in tone and timbre so as to radically level all the components of the film.

Second, the modular approach serves to dramatize actions – the labor process in particular – and not those who perform those actions. There are specific moments when the people onscreen assert their individuality; they are not drones by any means. A surgeon is particularly amusing as he rambles on about real estate. A meeting of the security team turns tense when it becomes clear that the hospital’s alarm company set a timer improperly, resulting in the staff being locked out of the E.R. But Geyrhalter avoids creating a narrative arc. (It is noteworthy that this is one of his only films made without Widerhofer.) As an in-depth examination of an institution, Danube Hospital makes for an instructive comparison with Wiseman’s nonfiction cinema. Wiseman, the great humanist, tends to gently shape his material into filmic renditions of Naturalist literature, with key protagonists and recursive themes and events. Whereas Geyrhalter’s films are also guided by thematic ideas, they are almost never organized around protagonists or charismatic individuals. It is worth noting that, just as Wiseman has brought his brand of cinema to Europe with the recent La danse (2009) and Crazy Horse (2011), Geyrhalter has made a film that doggedly foregrounds institutional regularity and functionality, but in a distinctly Austrian vein.

And this leads to my third and final point regarding Danube Hospital. Whereas Wiseman’s films, for example, almost always display social institutions as a necessary evil, a space where well-intentioned people muddle through despite inertia and limited resources, in Danube Hospital Geyrhalter is depicting a public institution that is thriving. Is this to be trusted? It seems that, just as Abendland can be understood as a broadly conceived rhetorical gesture regarding the state of Europe (whether or not it did so with total success), Danube Hospital reflects an intervention into the international debate on so-called socialized medicine. This is of particular import when, in light of the global financial crises of the past decade, the dominant economic ideology across much of Europe has been a gospel of privatization. In the Western democracies, public health services are typically not the first places that governments look when it comes time for divestiture, mostly because they tend to be both popular and quite difficult to dismantle. Nevertheless, there is also a tradition of lampooning public medicine. (E.g. The Death of Mister Lazarescu [2005]; The Kingdom [1994]; The Barbarian Invasions [2003]; the aforementioned Import Export [2007]) Not only in light of broad suspicion of the continued viability of social democracy itself, but of the never-ending attacks on the concept of healthcare as a public good coming from the United States, Danube Hospital might be understood as a kind of macro-metonym, for a system that is not at all perfect but that works much more than it doesn’t.

There is one primary image that Geyrhalter returns to again and again in Danube Hospital, one that could be said to serve as both a rhyme and an antipode to certain visions sprinkled throughout Abendland. The Donauspital has a strange little fleet of yellow automated dollies. They roll, one after another, on grooves in the floor, carrying supplies of various sorts. An entire level of the hospital appears to be devoted to them. Doctors and crew members walk around and through them, but the halls belong to the robots, which announce, “Achtung! Automated transport.” For Geyrhalter, these inhuman workers are clearly emblematic of Austrian culture done right, a humble, efficient method for getting things done, helping people with a minimum of fuss. This is in stark contrast to the oscillating camera-eyes dotted throughout Abendland, the high-tech future turned against basic human needs and used only to subjugate. It’s true that we actually live between the two extremes; sometimes machines lock us out of our own building, and, just like the ravers at the end of Abendland, we can use light and sound to take back the night. But by and large, Geyrhalter seems to present both films, Abendland and Danube Hospital, as possible metonyms for the hazards and the potentials of life in Europe in the age of intelligent machines.

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