Austria 2011, 90 mins.
Europe at night. A fragmentary look at the people who decide not to sleep but to work, exercise, have sex, get drunk, attend a prayer, drive, talk on the phone, dance or just stay up late for no apparent reason. A different portrait of a continent very much alive at night.
There is something stubborn about the night. The night is its own master. It has its own sense of place. Its own sets of sounds and emotions. It is a paradoxical being, the night. Gentleness and eeriness travel side by side in the night. With its filter of calmness and quiet, the night tones down the harsh realities of the day but, at the same time, the night brings forth what the day dare not hold. Someone and some things only come out at night. Austrian documentary filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter has made a very simple but quite clever decision to create a feature-length film about the night: most of all about the people in the night and what they do. And by people, I mean Europeans, because Geyrhalter has limited his night portrait to Europe which is actually also quite a clever choice because this limitation allows us to see Europe in a different way.
What is it we do at night? How is it we behave in Europe at night? Most of the crowd scenes in Geyrhalter’s night visions show Europeans dancing and drinking in a none too flattering style. At the beer and eating orgy of a German Oktoberfest, at the trance of a techno party and at an outdoor festival, all the people seem to act in a somewhat reckless and vociferous manner. Perhaps it’s just the night talking because its transformative power is hard to escape. The polished surface created by reason and good manners is replaced by a more brutal or perhaps more honest way of being human.
«Europeans dancing and drinking in a none too flattering style»
Such a transformation can also be observed in a scene showing a political meeting in the European Parliament in Brussels. The politicians seem to talk a bit more freely and give vent to some. Some of their daytime frustrations. The transformative power of the night can also be seen in the objects. A fence is more foreboding in the shadows and darkness than in the light of day.
The strongest scenes of Abendland are perhaps the ones with the fewest people in it. Take for instance a scene depicting a place where coffins are cremated and then filled into urns. Geyrhalter places his camera on a tripod and captures a panoramic view of two men wearing blue dungarees carrying out their duties as if they were working in a factory. Monotonously, they receive a coffin, load it from a small trolley into the oven using a robotic crane. A few seconds pass while the coffin catches fire. And then yet another coffin appears on yet another small trolley. The work goes on. Death is a steady employer. The scene in the crematorium follows a scene in an airport showing the cleaning staff going through their nightly routine.
«Death is a steady employer»
Elsewhere in Abendland the scene showing a patrol officer looking for illegal immigrants in a border region is followed by a scene at a techno party. This nonlinked narrative with its juxtaposed images is a major strength of the film. All we see are fragments of a world alive at night. The only connection is the hours of darkness. This is a film Dziga Vertov could have made if he had the proper lighting gear. Abendland with its kaleidoscopic, slice-of-life look and its quiet, ongoing observation of things and people, has much in common with Vertov’s work, and of course especially with Man with a Movie Camera from 1929. I have many positive observations about Abendland: the minimalistic camera most often working in tableau format allows even the most simple acts, like the sorting of packages at an assembly line or the filling of beer glasses in a restaurant, to become interesting scenarios to observe and admire for their human simplicity. The way the film portrays diversity and heterogeneity without emphasising too much. And the gentle editing done by Wolfgang Widerhofer who is able to create small, rounded-off stories consisting of a few images, like the scene where a nurse takes care of a prematurely born baby struggling to hold onto life. A wide shot shows the tiny infant in a large, neon-lit hospital room. A few frames later we are allowed a close-up depicting the intimate universe shared by the nurse and the baby in a dimly lit incubator. Very well done indeed.
However, I do have some minor problems with the film as well.
This has to do with personality and time. The latter is too much, the former too little. The film is too long. Eventually, scenes become redundant and similar. The film also has a tendency towards the bleak sides of the night. Many scenes have to do with loneliness, sadness, death, refugees, drunken and somewhat foolish people, sex for money, illness and surveillance. I think the film would have been stronger if it had been balanced out by the joys of the night. Where are the friends staying up late to talk ‘till the morning comes? Where are the lovers, the joyful or just the people safely asleep in their own beds? Geyrhalter could also have made a more personal journey into the night if he had included himself in the movie. Not necessarily in the images but perhaps through a voice-over more poetic than explanatory.