Nikolaus Geyrhalter: «I don’t like humans as a species.»

INTERVIEW / The 25th Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival paid a tribute to the Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter (51), with a masterclass and screening of 10 films.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter is one of world cinema’s most renowned and celebrated documentary filmmakers. There are retrospectives both in Paris and München this spring. He is famous for his unmistakable style, which draws on calm, carefully framed wide shots with an eye for geometric compositions. His films eschew commentary or music to create visually striking accounts of places at the margins of our perception. At the same time, he is, in a way, cataloguing social phenomena in a cinematically epic fashion. Whether exploring the terrain of post-disaster `#Chernobyl (Pripyat), reflecting on a post-human world (Homo Sapiens), or investigating modern-day food production (Our Daily Bread), his films are nothing short of startling works of art.

For the audiences, the clips in Geyrhalter’s films include little talk, so his shots raise questions. Like in the films on earth/mines and industrial food production. One could wonder if he has an ecological or environmental activist background: «No, not at all. Not at all.»

But what about the films? «Yeah, but it’s not really ecology. It’s always about the humans. It’s that you cannot explore humans without looking at what they leave behind. But I am more interested in the humans than in the ecology.»

Although in a film like Homo Sapiens, you do not see any. «They’re always there, even if you don’t see them all the time. They are just absent. But it’s very much about us.»

A slaughterhouse

In the film Our Daily Bread (2005), he shows the price for our standard of living – industrial food production and high-tech farming. This production looks very ugly and cynical to some people. And in Geyrhalter’s masterclass «Reality as a work of art» in Thessaloniki, a woman asked why he must show so much butchering and killing since she felt sick about it. Yes, why?

«We just have to know the lives that we have are good, but we have to know about the downsides. The industry doesn’t have a big interest in showing this. They prefer advertising that everything is clean.»

At the time that film was made, no one else had done it: «I’m trying to discover locations or areas or businesses where people usually don’t have access and don’t even want to go because it’s unpleasant.»

The film was shot in a slaughterhouse in Denmark: «After three days, we became a part of the team. You then see and smell it every day – it becomes a reality. Then you just accept it.»

When questioned, he answers that he could have slaughtered an animal – as everybody can: «It’s just that you have to get used to it and accept it. Those people there are not at all bad or brutal or rough people. They are normal people with families.

One of the remarkable scenes is the silent lunch break when you see someone maybe eating the same food as they have been slaughtering.

I continue confronting Geyrhalter with the ethical question of killing animals, and then he hints that someone may become vegetarian after seeing such a film. «But I mean, even becoming vegetarian is not a solution because industrial food production on vegetables is not perfect either. You know, a lot of pesticides and all this kind of stuff still make small animals die. So it’s a whole system that one has to question.»

But isn’t there a bigger cynicism when you kill cows, pigs, and ten thousand chickens – as you can see, some behaviour not far away from humans? «Of course, they are very close to humans. When they are killed, you see they are afraid. Absolutely.»

For him, it was hard enough to get permission to film these scenes. He just thought it was important to make these images available.

I cannot resist asking Geyrhalter if he knows the two other films at Thessaloniki, Shoah (1985) by Claude Lanzmann and Austerlitz by Loznitsa (2016). They were part of 10 festival films about the Holocaust and after. As seen in the same festival, you cannot avoid considering the similarities between the extermination camps and the industrial animal killings in Our Daily Bread. He has seen them, yes:

«Every system, every machinery, or every routine that we create to be used peacefully can be used in the same way against us. That’s what’s happened, and that’s what really happened. So whatever technology we use now to make our lives easier will be used against us in some other context eventually.»

And about the similarities? «They killed people in war and animals – yes, it’s very close. I mean, we also know about the trains, animal trains and all this kind of stuff. I mean, I’ve been asked before about this and how to believe in humanity. Obviously, we cannot. I don’t like people. I mean, I like some individuals, but I don’t like humans as a species.»

«You can’t trust humans. You can maybe trust individuals, but not the big crowd. And that’s the big problem because the crowd is getting bigger and bigger.»

you cannot explore humans without looking at what they leave behind.

Post-human and Ukraine

About the topic of mass production, Geyrhalter has films on industry and technology. One is Earth (2019), where the planet is understood as a living organism, and the soil is its most delicate organ. Every year, with different means, shovels, excavations, or dynamite, billions of tons of the earth’s land are moved and cut off from their natural environment. Here, Geyrhalter visits and shoots with his camera – mines, quarries and construction sites – depicting the wounds caused by humans on the planet’s surface. A wake-up call warning about the destructive consequences awaiting us?

Another one is Homo Sapiens (2016). But here we see the finiteness and fragility of human existence and the end of the industrial age. What will remain of our lives after we’re gone? We saw empty spaces, ruins, cities increasingly overgrown with vegetation, and crumbling asphalt – the areas we currently inhabit, though humanity has disappeared, now abandoned and decaying, gradually reclaimed by nature after being taken from it so long ago. Is it an ode to humanity as seen from a possible future scenario, maybe somehow post-apocalyptic? Or does Geyrhalter have a kind of pessimistic vision of the future? «It’s just another angle to closely examine how we as a society work. There is no message. It’s just an offer.»

The film shows buildings and structures left by humans: «Yes. It was really to make a film about persons but by only filming objects. And here you see how nature claims these objects back. Homo sapiens was an experiment. What would happen if we humans would disappear? This doesn’t necessarily mean I believe it will end up like this, but it can.»

The many film scenes in Homo Sapiens with a fixed camera, also shows military material, like abandoned tanks, post-war, or an abandoned radio station. War has been his focus before, with The Year After Dayton (1997): «The second film I shot was in Bosnia after the war. War is obviously still a part of humankind, whether we like it or not. In Central Europe, we can be happy that there has been mostly peace in the last 70 years. But civil wars are still going on around the world, everywhere.»

What, then, about the war in Ukraine? Is this the next place he would go, after the war, if we still exist, and are not wiped out by a nuclear war between US and Russia? The answer is that he had already made a film about war and that «the next film will be in the snow and ice.»

In the film Washed Ashore (1994) around the Danube River, a monk talks about the Japanese founder of the Buddhist temple there and the nuclear bomb that hit Nagasaki. Is Geyrhalter really concerned about the nuclear threat now?

«I am concerned. But I’m not so concerned about the nuclear war, but about the general geopolitical situation in recent years. It’s not only in Ukraine. There is Taiwan and many other things. So once the fire starts burning, it may be unstoppable.»

Another ‘post-human wasteland’ is his film about Tjernobyl, Pripyat (1999). Wasn’t he afraid of shooting there in the areas of radiation? «We were not afraid but concerned, of course. We were using the dosimeters, and we were using Geiger counters also. We were working with people on location who knew how to behave. We were monitored all the time and it was okay.»

I mention the critical and disclosing Chernobyl TV series (2019) with the ‘concerned’ actor Stellan Skarsgård. Geyrhalter has seen it – so how political was it to make a film about the catastrophe back in time, I ask: «Shooting the film in Chernobyl at that time was, in a way, a political statement. And not only a political statement but also reminds people that we are using a technology that nobody has fought to an end – radioactivity will give us cheap energy for maybe a century, but the waste will cause problems for millions of years.»

Plastic waste

We are turning to the topic of plastic, as shown in two films, Matter Out of Place (2022).

Waste on the shores, waste on the mountains. On ocean floors and cars. Thrown deep down in earth caves. The term «matter out of place» refers to objects in a place they do not originally belong to. Geyrhalter traces immense amounts of waste across our planet: mountaintops of Switzerland; the coasts of Greece and Albania; Nepal; Maldives, and finally ending in the deserts of Nevada. Vast amounts of waste that we produce every single day.

You can also see the consumerist in a ski resort in the mountains or at a luxury beach resort. All the waste doesn’t look beautiful, so I ask him about the aesthetics of his films: «Of course, it’s not beautiful, but it’s there, and it’s a part of reality. But still, you can make beautiful images. This is not a contradiction.»

I ask him to give me an example of beauty: «Sometimes size makes aesthetics, sometimes the industrial treatment makes it aesthetic in a way because it’s becoming part of a workflow. But I mean that it comes from the composition of the images. And in the cinema, each frame should be as perfectly framed as possible.»

Cinematography and Sound

Geyrhalter tried to get into a film school three times but was rejected: «It was a bit painful at that time. But I think if I had been in a normal film school, I would probably not make the films the way I do now. So in some way, it was good.»

He just had to make films. And as he says, he is meeting people, meeting places, is trying to understand – and «I am at least not sitting in an office every day.»

When we talk more about filmmaking as such, who is doing the cinematography in his films? «I am doing the cinematography all the time.»

He has an education in photography: «It’s my background, and I just can do it, and I know exactly what I want. And it would be more complicated to tell some other cameraman or camerawoman how to do it. Why shouldn’t I do it? It’s easier. It’s faster. And if it goes wrong, I am the one to blame.»

Then I turn to the sound issue of his filmmaking. There is a technological sound in his industrial shots of food production, but in Homo Sapiens, we always hear the wind from nature: «It’s two very different sounds. The sound of the wind is nicer, but in the end, every location sound – even if it’s not pleasant – can be beautiful in cinema if it’s recorded correctly. And that’s what we do. We try to record the sound with a surround microphone in addition to all the usual microphones we use. And Dolby Atmos, the most sophisticated surround system, enables the audience to really get in and experience the location.»

«The films are not only about the images but also about the sound. Making a film is also about the duration of the shots. You need some time to begin to become part of it. And you need these wide-angle shots to really dive into it. But also silence can play a specific role where the sound is telling much.»

In American ‘direct cinema,’ the rule was always only to use sound from locations. I have to ask about Homo Sapiens, where the wind is very present, also as we can see elements blowing around in the chosen frames he is filming. Did he have to ‘add’ sound later?


«That’s why I wouldn’t consider it a documentary. It’s just a film, whatever it is.»

«Yes, of course, there is a sound design in that film. In many of the recordings, they couldn’t have been used, especially with the surround sound, because sometimes you get some noises that you don’t want in the cinema. Sometimes there are just things you shouldn’t hear, which cannot be heard, something went wrong, or somebody was talking. There was a lot of sound repairing going on. The sound designer knew how it should sound.»

«In Homo sapiens, we also did not record the sound because it was obvious that the sound would not be as clear and ‘humanless’ as it should be. We rather invested this money into the sound design – built from scratch.»

«That’s why I wouldn’t consider it a documentary. It’s just a film, whatever it is. But this enabled us to be noisy on the set.»

But why the wind? «Yes, we had a leaf blower, for example, because we knew that each ‘image’ needs some kind of movement because if it’s more just like a photo, it would be boring. And sometimes we just couldn’t wait for the wind.»

«I am at least not sitting in an office every day.»


In the film Abendland (2011, not screened in the festival) the topic is the border fence. Here he shows technological surveillance, something most people with an ‘anarchist’ attitude would protest against such control. It goes against our individuality. A political film?

«It’s a very political film because by showing all these processes, even the fact to have a close look at surveillance is a political statement. People could just ignore it, but I am making these things publicly available – something that is not so available. Usually, this is a political statement. It is also a film about a political system we created for ourselves to make our life work. From when babies are born until people die and are burnt – it’s all within structures. And those structures, some of them do work 24 hours. Our idea of only shooting during the night, or when it’s dark, things became clearer because you see that usually, people are sleeping – and those structures, those environments, they keep on working day and night.»


Back to the motivation for making films, or a belief in change and humanity… It doesn’t sound like socialism is his belief, at least: «I don’t believe in the majority. I mean, the decisions of the majority, the crowd. Sometimes a crowd decides on a brutal war. You can’t necessarily trust a majority – what if you’re part of the minority, majority can be very brutal.»

So why make all these films? He was asked in the masterclass the other day if he had any hope for the future, and he answered he was hopeless. So, what are the films contributing to for the audiences, if not change?

«The minimum answer is that it’s for the archives, so later generations can see what happened. But of course, it’s also meant to impact our present times. But it would be just naive to believe that films could make a change. But films can make people think, they can provide information – or in my case, it’s not so much information. In my case, it’s more the access to locations you wouldn’t usually have access to. And by seeing, listening, understanding, and feelings – this may be a little step.»

Is he, then, still an optimist? «The question of optimism is hard to answer. There is not very much space for optimism, to be honest.» I am then ending the interview by asking him about one scene from his many films that could be called optimistic:

«I don’t even think in these stereotypes of optimism and pessimism, because in the end, it’s all realism. And that is where it all ends up. Also, the same image could be judged as optimistic or pessimistic, depending on which angle you watch it or from which background.»

Then I add that the ‘Burning Man’ scene from the US Nevada desert in Matter Out of Place was optimistic, as he shows a responsible team out there in the desert after the party, volunteering to clean up everything – a peaceful scene of brotherhood:

«What I like about Burning Man is that nobody would expect this to happen in the end, the clean-up of those people. As usual, you know how big events look like in Europe – very trashed. Nobody would expect this – that is why I liked it.»


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Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp:/
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review.

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