Krakow Film Festival 2024

Art, reality, and pandemic

COVID-19 / Nikolaus Geyrhalter combines artistry, reality, and a timeless message about our response to global crises.

Numerous films have been made about the Covid-19 pandemic, which struck three years ago. Now that our society is back on track, most of these movies appear out-of-date. However, there are exceptions, such as the new film by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, The Standstill.

Geyrhalter makes no assumption that the audience remembers the events of the pandemic or how the lockdowns functioned. The whole outplay is explained and described in chronological order as we get a complete inside view of how the three lockdowns altered Vienna’s society. Not only can The Standstill function as an instructional piece for future generations, but it also is an honest attempt to describe this significant historical event.

The Standstill Nikolaus Geyrhalter
The Standstill, a film by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

A distinct style

The Standstill is, first and foremost, a work of art following a strict scheme. Nikolaus Geyrhalter is one of Austria’s more distinct filmmakers. His unique signature of storytelling demonstrates his knowledge of art history. By assembling a series of tableaus, also called tableau vivant or «living pictures,» Geyrhalter engages the audience to become active observers. The use of tableaus became a popular form of storytelling from the 17th century to the invention of film. It usually depicted a grouping of motionless actors creating a striking pose of a historical event. Its form demanded the audience’s engagement by observing and drawing conclusions from what they saw.

The Swedish film director Roy Andersson made his international fame in the 2000s by using this form in his grotesque The Songs from the Second Floor (2000). While Andersson creates his arranged scenes under the full control of a film studio, Geyrhalter works with real characters and landscapes. The longer a tableau lasts, the more significant the meaning of its content becomes. The camera is always at a standstill while capturing the scene. This creates, at times, a tragic-comic effect. In one scene in The Standstill, a corpulent businessman (almost all the male characters in the film are significantly overweight) starts crying while recollecting the tragic events that the pandemic had on some of his closest friends. The scene is tragic and comic simultaneously because the serious character holds his standing position in the frame, motionless, while tears fall down his cheeks.

Another specific element of Geyrhalter’s film style is that he places his subjects, whether individuals or landscapes, predominantly central in the frame. This approach, first introduced by modern painters such as Anton Romakoin in his Portrait of Isabella Reisser (1885), depicts subjects in a realistic and unflattering manner. It gives a sense that one is observing an objective reality. It is also the most powerful composition when one wants to draw attention to a subject. When an empty runway at the airport is captured in the central composition of the frame, the statement of abandonment is enhanced.

It gives a sense that one is observing an objective reality.

Landscapes as characters

Locations play such a significant role in Geyrhalter films that they become characters in themselves. They appear at regular intervals, from the first lockdown to the last, marking the chronology of the pandemic. The fact that Geyrhalter does not use a soundtrack other than the natural sounds recorded on location evokes a feeling of their significance. Machines buzz in the background in the empty factory, decorations tinkle in the air on the empty main street, and a deserted swimming hall echos strangely.

It is not by chance that Geyrhalter chose St. Stephen’s Cathedral as a significant backdrop for the outplay of the Covid epidemic. The cathedral is not only a significant historical landmark and symbol of Vienna, but it has also been witness to many important events in both Habsburg and Austrian history. Located in the heart of old town Vienna, it is usually swamped with tourists.

When we are introduced to this landmark during the first lockdown, it is totally abandoned. Only the wind is whistling through its medieval towers. Half a year later, things slowly return to normal as people hustle by doing their Christmas shopping. Then, a second lockdown follows. The patience of some Vienna citizens grows thin, and the cathedral becomes the backdrop for noisy demonstrations and disbelievers. In the final resolution scene, citizens of Vienna stand patiently in line, heading up to its gate. Inside, vaccine shots are administered in a calm order while hymns and organ music play in the background. A priest mutters a hope in his prayer that we may live a better and wiser life after Covid, and it is at this point we realise the true intention of the film The Standstill.

The Standstill Nikolaus Geyrhalter
The Standstill, a film by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

A missed opportunity

The film not only captures Vienna in our age, but it also catches a moment of missed opportunity when we could have made a profound change. Although the impact of Covid-19 was rather insignificant compared to the Spanish Flu, which infected 33% of the world’s population, Covid still played a much more significant role for humankind. As one subject explains, «It was a small crisis that gave us a chance to make some changes that could have prevented the much larger and more devastating environmental crises that will come.» In other words, Nikolaus Geyrhalter captured in The Standstill a unique historical moment when we missed our chance to alter our destructive path. The Standstill is a timeless film that will only gain importance.

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Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.

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