Dir. Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Styles: documentary, critique
Others: Our Daily Bread
Links: Abendland - Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion
And forgive us our trespasses… —The Lord’s Prayer
Abendland begins as a pun. German Abendland translates as “the Occident” or “the West.” Etymologically, the word derives from Abend, “evening” or “night,” and Land, “land,” “country,” or “state.” Abendland, then, is a film about Europe at night. The sun never once makes an appearance. More specifically and ominously, Abendland is a film about technologies of surveillance that preserve Europe qua West, keeping out those who don’t belong and keeping in line those who do. Abend and “even(ing)” share the Proto-Indo-European etymon epi, meaning “after” or “behind.” A film about Europe at night is also a film about the Europe that comes after (the Enlightenment?), is perhaps a film about the Europe that is behind (backward?), is a film about the twilight of the West, the last part of its day (in the sun). Europe is (in) a dark state.
Now, a plot summary: [surveillance] deportation [surveillance] (premature) infancy [surveillance] food preparation and cleanup [surveillance] public drunkenness [surveillance] hospitalization [surveillance] European Union subcommittee meeting [surveillance] police training [surveillance] television news station [surveillance] weapons manufacturing [surveillance] conference of priests and the Pope at the Vatican [surveillance] telephonic suicide counseling [surveillance] sex [surveillance] antinuclear protesting [surveillance] deportation [surveillance] geriatric hospitalization [surveillance] cremation [surveillance] rave […]
Abendland is an unblinking meditation — the film only “blinks” a couple of times, mid-scene cuts that recall the linger of a camera shutter more than the flutter of eyelids or even the intention of a hand — on what a French minister in a European Union subcommittee meeting frankly and appropriately calls “the militarization of social life.” We can also call this regimentation: the assignment of social formations to military units for the sake of regulation, control, and uniformity; the implementation of a regimen, a systematic plan designed to improve economic performativity; the consolidation of a mode of rule or management — governance is/as management for a paranoiac West — that establishes and maintains regular patterns of occurrence and behavior. To wit: already by 2006, in the UK there was approximately one CCTV camera for every fourteen people.1 Abendland reminds us that the UK is not singular in that respect.
The film’s form feels absolutely necessary. (I almost said brilliant, but this is a cold and not shimmering light.) Rather than dramatize, the camera restricts itself almost exclusively to two operations, stasis and tracking (or following), resonating with the cameras and monitors it in turn surveys. (I experienced an almost illicit pleasure watching a man hunched over a joystick controlling a camera on top of the border fence, watching him as he watched his monitor scanning for illegal human activity but finding only a rabbit and a patrol van performing the same labor as himself.) In order to get a view of the enormity of a complex of continental non(/in)human transformations, many of the shots, especially the static ones, exemplify what Ian Bogost has called “ontography” in his book Alien Phenomenology. These shots “are deflationary not because their subjects are subordinate but because their composition underscores unseen things and relations.”2 Abendland is a catalog of industry and industriousness, of massive apparatuses and the objects which comprise them (humans included). Its methodology “involves the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering clarification or description of any kind.”3 At one point, we watch a news anchor from behind, sitting almost motionless amidst a seductive built environment. We watch her face on a screen at greater depth in the composition than her own body, adjacent to the face of a man on another screen. This refraction affects a striking dissociation: the anchor’s body is wholly other-than not only her desk but her own image, and none of the objects in the shot — back, avatar, desk, camera, monitor, prompter, and so forth — is any more present or existent for the audience than any other object in the shot.
What is given in a security state? Certainly not that people will be deported with dignity and not “like a box of tomatoes,” as the very friendly and very dishonest woman tells the man from Lagos who has received a “negative” at his immigration hearing. Certainly not that people will be protected from abuse. The security state is adept at exploiting the abuse value of living beings and their lives. A tall, heavy-set, middle-aged man with a bad haircut makes the rounds at a hospital facility, turning incapacitated elderly women over while they sleep. Two men work quickly loading unadorned wooden caskets onto metal tracks, where they are conveyed into a furnace and reduced to ashes. Human workers assemble, piece by piece, an incredibly sexy military aircraft. Human workers fuck in a kitschy room for the benefit of an unseen audience on the other side of the camera. Afterward, the woman waits for the man who fucked her to finish his shower. They speak little and make even less eye contact. On the glass door beside their shower is a pictographic sticker that represents, in no uncertain terms, “No Fucking.”
Let’s have no fucking but fucking-with, then. Lenka Clayton’s 2002/2003 film Qaeda Quality Question Quickly Quickly Quiet4 is a reworking of George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address. The entire speech is rearranged alphabetically by word. Following Bogost, we can compare this method of critical documentation with that of Abendland. Each is a reorganization of data that comes to resist and speak out against its original context and collation. Toward the end of Clayton’s piece, Bush utters the follow phrase: “tyranny tyranny the USA the USA USA unchanging unchecked underworld.” This moment of rhetorical reflexivity echoes throughout Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s film. Of course, such a reading of a string of algorithmically arranged units is an act of reading. What I want to believe Abendland works toward is a quiet pedagogy of reading. It editorializes not at all, but with Zen-like patience and indifferent curiosity, it opens up spaces between ideology and the material, punches holes in our ignorance about the conditions of possibility for the comfortable progression of our everyday. It sheds night.
The final scene is of a massive rave party in the Netherlands. For the first time, the camera is liberated. Some among the dancing crowd avoid it, others gesture at it, still others try to hold its gaze for as long as they can. The revelers are being filmed. They know that this is nothing unusual. But there is one obvious difference: someone is holding this camera in their hands and walking with it. To a greater extent than the other cameras in the film, this final camera is being used by a person for people, rather than using people against people. This final camera is not a barrier in the same sense as the others. It does not violently demarcate.
In closing, David Graeber’s words: “The moment the average resident of Tanzania, or Laos, was no longer forbidden to relocate to Minneapolis or Rotterdam, the government of every rich and powerful country in the world would certainly decide nothing was more important than finding a way to make sure people in Tanzania and Laos preferred to stay there. Do you really think they couldn’t come up with something?”5
2Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2012), 48.
5David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004), 78.