Nikolaus Geyrhalter's "Our Daily Bread" Beautiful Insights Into a World Without Pity By Petra Castell

in 4th Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival

by Petra Castell

There is rarely anything more heart-rending than the image of baby animals. The plight of Knut, a newborn polar bear, rejected by his mother and raised by a zookeeper, so deeply touched Berlin Film Festival director Dieter Kosslick (and seemingly everyone else in the German capital) that he decorated every festival advertising board — to the amazement of the festival’s foreign guests — with the message “Welcome Knut”. Mexico City’s FICCO offered similarly heartbreaking images: fleecy chicks and squeaking piglets.

But the conditions of the encounter were far from being charming. The festival’s official documentary selection screened Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s widely praised mise en scène of high-tech agriculture and industrially mechanized food production in Europe, Our Daily Bread (Unser täglich Brot, 2005). In a masterly montage of extremely long, perfectly framed sequence shots, estrangement and exploitation are expressed with a disturbing sci-fi setting, including landscapes, fields and plantations that are as sterile and synthetic as the food production machinery itself, including enormous coops, merry-go-round-like milking machines, mechanisms sifting baby chicks and a monstrous fish-gutting apparatus. This is a surreal world without pity ruled by one idea: The more efficient the workflow, the higher the output.

It could have been portrayed in a completely different way. The subject itself would appear to demand a journalistic or moralizing approach. The well beloved formula stemming from these can be labeled: authenticity. And the conventional way to convert the subject into film images would be through nervous handheld camerawork, grainy pictures, wiggly pans, tilts and zooms, unmotivated rack focuses and blurring, as if documentaries are truest when they’re amateurish. Sometimes these strategies are caused by a lack of funds, but are also often caused by a lack of artistic capacity or effort. Another common but dubious strategy of such so-called authentic filmmaking is the close-up, the extreme close-up and the camera’s indiscreet penetration of a body, a face, and even its pores. Then, there’s the use of interviews, which sometimes can be interesting, but often display self-conscious performances of a vain kind. Any of these strategies provide the filmmaker with a perfect excuse to avoid of point of view.

35-year-old director and photographer Geyrhalter, already recognized for his films Pripyat (1999) and Elsewhere (2001), avoids such reportage-like attitudes as well as any shocking, overwhelming strategies. It would have been easy to show, as is done so often in films about abusive animal food production, ill and neglected chickens, calves or pigs filled with antibiotics and suffering in cramped mass cages without light and fresh air.

Geyrhalter did not research the black sheep of the food industry, but rather the model enterprises that proudly display the highest levels of applied high-tech. The food resulting from such a process, whether meat or vegetable, is certainly safe and edible, but it is a product of values beneath those concerning humane treatment of nature and creatures. And it is not by accident that in this world of food production, the few workers needed are nearly silent and as mechanized as the machines themselves. The beauty of Geyrhalter’s elegant, rhythmic and extreme long-shot images even intensifies the horror of this environment. And to point out the horror, Geyrhalter needs no voice-over commentary or interviews with workers or company representatives, only strange and irritating sounds.

Our Daily Bread works like a mirror: Without any denouncing gestures, it reflects the extent of estrangement from and the suppressed and even lost relationships to the sources of food in a job-sharing and abundant society.