In his newest documentary The Border Fence, Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter once again depicts the European fear of «the Other». His film Abendland (2011) showed a collection of scenes portraying Europe at night, with strong emphasis on surveillance cameras and border fences which keeping outsiders out. In The Border Fence, zooms in the lens is focused on the Austrian–Italian border region Tyrol. In early 2016, Austrian politicians announced plans to build a fence at the Brenner Pass, in order to stop the illegal refugees coming from Italy. Tyrol can thus be viewed as a micro cosmos of the whole Europe as a whole, where different ideas and fears clash.
Protecting the paradise
The establishing of the Schengen Area and the abolishment of border controls was a revolutionary step for Europe. This was a decision that has liberated the European landscape from unneeded fences and walls. The border checkpoints have converted from control mechanisms to artifacts of the past. Travelling has become faster, more convenient, and more humanistic.
However, the current refugee crisis has turned everything upside down. Hungary, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovenia, and several other states have suddenly started to build walls and restore border control. One of these fences was a fence designed to separate the Austrian–Italian border in the Alps. Geyrhalter’s camera patiently and precisely captures the Alpine landscape and its inhabitants. Different characters describe their current lifestyle as very good – almost perfect – yet there is a clear anxiety about a potential deterioration.
«Geyrhalter provides space for our own interpretation and doubt: what is real and what is imagined?»
This perfectly correlates with Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s statement about Europe in Abendland: «It sounds like a paradise: a piece of Earth that’s rich in resources, has a pleasant climate, and is inhabited by people who make use of these gifts to their best advantage.. What enables this privileged life is exclusivity – restricting enjoyment of the benefits, and limiting participation for the simple reason that the available resources wouldn’t be sufficient otherwise.»
Nevertheless, even in spite of their fear, the privileged ones are not indifferent to the suffering of others. The Western guilt is highly present throughout the movie. Geyrhalter asks his characters provoking questions, challenging their points of view. For example, when a woman says that she wouldn’t kill for religion, the director reminds her that the Catholic Church is responsible for the deaths of many people in the name of God.
«Tyrol symbolises a return to tightened border control, and the fear and anxiety that seem inextricably linked to such measures.»
In another scene, a worker from Senegal highlights the exploitation of the Senegalese by the West: if a company from another country builds oil rigs in Senegal, the locals receive minimal benefit from the profit made.
Yet the most convincing speech is held by an older farmer, who represents the Jungian archetype of ‘the Wise Old Man’ surprisingly well. He believes that it is absurd and tragic that people are afraid of those needing to flee their homes, accusing politicians of employing outdated techniques and fear mongering. In his opinion, populism is not a good basis for a modern society.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter has made a clear artistic decision – to not to show the refugees. We get to learn about their existence from news on TV screens and the stories of accounts from the locals. There are a lot of filmmakers who would show the asylum seekers in order to evoke an emotional response. We are already familiar with the images of crying children and poorly-dressed immigrants from different media outlets. Geyrhalter presents us with well-composed shots of Alpine landscapes instead, leaving a lot of space for our fantasy and doubts: Who are the immigrants? How real is their presence? Is the local people’s fear real or imagined?
Bureaucratic control mechanisms usually have something scary, absurdly grotesque, and even a bit comical about them. Franz Kafka was a great master of depicting such situations. Latvian director Davis Simanis mentions the distinguished writer in his film D is for Division (2017), when showing a very long line on the European Union’s border with Russia. In Kafka’s parable Before the Law, a man waits his entire life on a border representing ‘the law’ until the moment of his death. I can imagine that a lot of asylum seekers are experiencing a similar sense of hopelessness waiting in refugee camps.
In Geyrhalter’s The Border Fence, the grotesque absurdity of bureaucracy is strongly emphasized. In a press conference, police officers are arranging their pants, getting under the table in order to pick something up, whispering among themselves, and just passively staring. In interviews, many officials say that they don’t make decisions for themselves and are just following orders. These people serve bureaucratic power in the form of politicians whom we never really see – except on TV.
Despite the heightened atmosphere in Europe, one can interpret the last scene of the documentary as optimistic. We finally get to see the famous fence. For two years already it has been lying in a storage facility where policemen officers regularly check on its condition. We can only hope that other new fences and ideas to divide Europe will similarly remain lying in storage. Nevertheless, it is clear that Europe cannot not stay isolated and preserved in its luxury condition. With or without fences, we will need to take part in the rapidly changing world.