Compared with his punishing countryman Michael Haneke, Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter is, inevitably, a softie. But the documentarian does have his rules. One: Voiceovers are verboten. Indeed, most all manner of expository info is, to Geyrhalter, extraneous or worse—this in the era of docs didactic enough to resemble PowerPoint presentations. Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread (2005), an ice-cold survey of mechanized food production and the director’s best-known work, even declines to identify its scenes of modern agribiz as usual—not to protect individuals or corporations, but to help brand Food, Inc. a global epidemic.
In keeping with his restrained aesthetic, Geyrhalter prefers to let his films do the talking. But when an interviewer asked about the lack of specificity in Daily Bread, he explained: “It’s irrelevant for this film whether a company that produces baby chicks is located in Austria, Spain, or Poland, or how many pigs are processed every year in the big slaughterhouse that’s shown. In my opinion, that’s done by journalists and television—not a feature film.”
Thus Geyrhalter’s half-dozen feature-length portraits of hidden places and people—screening for a week at Anthology—double as implicit critiques of commercial documentary practice. His latest, 7915 Km, opens with a Parisian audience being pummeled by quick-cut images of off-road racers literally tearing up African terrain in the Dakar Rally; here, the extraordinary machines—cars and cameras alike—produce not food (or “food”), but “entertainment.” The remainder of Geyrhalter’s sublimely meditative film is devoted to representing what GM and ESPN have left in a cloud of dust—the people of the villages through which the rally has zoomed. (Here, Geyrhalter allows locations from Morocco to Dakar to be identified by onscreen titles.) Named for the distance covered by the racers, 7915 Km really measures the gulf between lives spent speeding for kicks and those in which travel is often a last-ditch bid for survival, dangerous if not impossible.
Geyrhalter, who formed his own production company at 22 (he’s 37 now), has been making much the same film since his 1994 ode to Danube life, Washed Ashore: Here’s what you haven’t seen; decide for yourself what it means. The director’s designated epic, shot in a dozen remote locations around the globe, is the shockingly beautiful travelogue Elsewhere (2001), a triumph of cinematic landscape photography and one of two four-hour films in his oeuvre. But for me, his masterpiece remains the bone-chilling Pripyat (1999), an end-of-days doc that aptly graced the last New York Film Festival of the 20th century.
Never mind The Road: Geyrhalter’s inspection of the 20-mile restricted zone around the Chernobyl nuclear accident site in the Ukraine comes closer than any other film to portraying what the post-apocalyptic world might look like. Shot in a black-and-white whose ample grain appears to imply some buzzing, near-invisible threat, Pripyat follows the few brave or crazy souls who continue to live and work in the ominously sparse town of the title despite lethal levels of radioactivity. One elderly couple explains that they returned to the Chernobyl area in 1993, feeling homesick and skeptical of health warnings. “What can the radioactivity do to us at our age?” one of them asks.
Like Our Daily Bread, Pripyat approaches documentary as science fiction, if not as black comedy. The film’s most spine-tingling moments involve an amiable power-plant engineer who leads the camera into a main reactor room that resembles nothing so much as a hopscotch playing field, with rows of numbered tiles, some of which appear to be running “a little hot.” Such instances of Geyrhalterian gallows humor only accentuate Pripyat‘s devastating point: that this poisonous wasteland isn’t Elsewhere, but anywhere. Call it Radioactive, Inc.