DAILY | Nikolaus Geyrhalter and ABENDLAND

“At least since the 1990s, Austria has commanded a central place within global cinema culture,” begins Michael Sicinski in a piece on Nikolaus Geyrhalter‘s Abendland (2011) and Danube Hospital (2012) for MUBI’s Notebook, and “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 [Michael Haneke‘s] Caché (2005) and Code Unknown (2000), [Ulrich Seidl’s] 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.”

Abendland, currently screening at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, “ultimately lacks the rigor that characterizes Geyrhalter’s finest work,” he finds. “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.” The “implicit argument [is] 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.”

“Stunningly shot and meticulously framed,” writes Tony Pipolo for Artforum, Abendland “is infused with the theme of surveillance, as it journeys to a number of sites across a nighttime Europe, inducing the illusory sense that everything is happening simultaneously. It is as if an omniscient alien invader were moving through the global village, collecting data on the rituals of an unfamiliar species on the eve of its extinction.”

In the Voice, Nick Pinkerton notes that the film is “fringed with scenes of aspirant immigrants turned away at the continent’s door. The rest of the film raises the question of why, exactly, anyone would want to come to this place.”

For the New York TimesManohla Dargis, this is “a vision that recalls Benedict Anderson‘s influential 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, in which he defines a nation as ‘an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.’ Mr. Anderson argues that nations are socially constructed (‘imagined’), because, while most of their members never meet face to face, they can imagine one another in communion, as when they read the same newspaper. (It’s an old book!) It is this sense of fraternity that leads people to die on behalf of their countries. With Abendland, Mr. Geyrhalter has created a portrait of an ‘imagined community’ that’s readily recognizable as Europe (if devoid of swarming tourists). It’s easy at least to guess what he has in mind by combining shots of surveillance cameras and border fences (which suggest keeping outsiders out) with culturally specific blowouts like Oktoberfest: that the different nationalisms often seen to have defined and nearly destroyed Europe—and are here evoked by images of singing Bavarians in lederhosen—have been supplanted by a Europe that is itself an imagined community.”

Benjamin Mercer for the L: “Europe here appears to be in the systematic process of vacuum-sealing itself off, streamlining itself from within while exerting ever tighter control on the traffic coming in from without.”

“Technology is shown as a highly elastic border, or semi-permeable membrane, that both separates human beings and allows them to convene,” observes Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant. “Cameras, computers, and transportation systems become a hegemonic arsenal that anonymizes and manipulates victims, and yet the film’s own detached dualism also fades its human subjects into the background. Much of the international dialogue is left unsubtitled, as though the movie wants us to tune out each sequence once we’ve gleaned its gist… This neutralizing and dehumanizing effect may indeed be what Abendland criticizes modern life of having succumbed to, but in this instance the tail-eating snake engulfs its own head.”

Still, Time Out New York‘s David Fear finds that this “look at an Old World continent reeling from the New World values is both thrilling and damning. It may end at a rave in the Netherlands, but the message is still that Nero fiddles as Rome burns.”

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