«Work is for life. That becomes particularly apparent in this film.»


«...  If you have a job for the majority of your life, it dictates your existence. What does it mean when you suddenly don't have that job and have to fill the time in a different way?» Nikolaus Geyrhalter (director) and Wolfgang Widerhofer (editor) on their decade-long observation about meaning and loss of work in a rural area in northern Austria. World premiere is scheduled by the Berlinale Forum.

What position did the Anderl company have when it was a flourishing concern?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: The Anderl company was one of several textile firms located in the Waldviertel region of northern Austria. We didn't pay great attention to the history of the company. Apparently in its heyday it employed 300 people and mainly produced industrial textiles. 

What state was the company in when you chose it as a subject for your project?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: When we first encountered the company it was obvious that it couldn't be profitable anymore. Clearly no money had been invested in it, and even when the factory was open it had the atmosphere of a museum.

The original title of your project was DIE LETZTEN TAGE (THE LAST DAYS), and now it is ÜBER DIE JAHRE (OVER THE YEARS). Instead of depicting the end of an era, the film is now the account of a transformation. Was the film intended from the outset as a long-term project?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: The film was always planned to be a long-term observation, though not this long. Originally we thought of three years. The fact that it was extended so much was a stroke of luck.

Wolfgang Widerhofer: It's quite true that we originally intended to observe "the last days", because we didn't know what would happen. “The Last Days” was a nice title, but the film ended up with a different perspective. It changed from the feeling of decline when the factory closed into something positive. We were surprised and pleased that despite the difficult situation, the film took on this positive energy. The film shows how people deal with a situation like this, and the creative, powerful solutions they find for their problems.

You were filming in a rural region where people aren't always very talkative, especially about themselves. How did you handle your protagonists' reticence?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: It varied a lot. It was easiest in the factory itself, because the owner, Herr Hein, wanted everybody to be in the film. He was pleased that the factory was getting some attention again. Later on it was different from one person to the next. Some of them needed more persuasion to start talking.

Wolfgang Widerhofer: I should also point out that Nikolaus is a master of persuasion. I won’t say it's a skill, because that would sound too technical. He manages to establish a basic feeling of trust in the way he deals with people. They can sense that nothing bad is going to come out of it. We both felt a very strong obligation towards those people, and they could sense it from the first minute.

The transformation is enacted on different levels, including attitudes to the camera. I'm thinking of the woman working in the secretariat at the beginning of the film. She doesn't look into the camera, even once. We can see how her relationship with you as an interviewer, and also with the camera, changes over time.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: Our relationship with the protagonists did change, but the protagonists changed as well. They grew and developed into different people.

Wolfgang Widerhofer: In this film you can see very clearly how people work and communicate. That is cut out of other films because they are based on other concepts. It's also something to do with the language. In Elsewhere, for example, the translation got in between. In OVER THE YEARS we have a more direct form of communication. I think it's extremely important in this film that on the one hand we have the stability of the film-makers, and on the other hand you can see there is more than just one form of communication. It's important to show that a conversation might just peter out, you might only get a brief answer, or none at all: that communication can fail. I think it's good to show how conversations develop. And I also think it's appropriate - because this is a core subject of the film - to show how processes and relationships change, and that the position you adopt when you're making a film isn’t a fixed position, either. The film is extremely open.

How did you establish the rhythm of going to see your protagonists in OVER THE YEARS?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: At the beginning I worked on the project very intensively, and then over the years I spent less time on it. There were 4 to 5 shooting days per year. Some years we shot less than that, some years more. It depended very directly on what the protagonists were doing. Naturally that was also reflected in our work. I think the reason it still has a certain continuity is that I follow certain basic principles which are important to me when shooting, connected with rhythm and composition. And that didn't change over the 10 years. That's not to say there wasn't any development. But my style didn't alter fundamentally. Experience shows that you tend to work on several projects at the same time. That's the everyday situation. From the moment it became clear the factory would close, everything took on a momentum of its own – and I completely subjected myself to it. There was no way we could know what would happen in the lives of the protagonists. We tried to follow the situation and adapt to it. It's like a tree. You plant it, but then which way a particular branch grows is completely uncertain.

Depicting unemployment tends to raise the fundamental question of what work is: a way of earning your daily bread or just any activity.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: Work is for life. That becomes particularly apparent in this film. If you have a job for the majority of your life, it dictates your existence. You get up, have breakfast, go to work, come home from work and go to bed. What does it mean when you suddenly don't have that job and have to fill the time in a different way? That’s something we were able to observe very clearly in this film.

Certain materials – wood, stone, metal, fabric – have a strong presence. Was it your intention to make these elementary materials a subject of the film?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: We were also part of the whole thing. These days there isn’t so much difference whether you work with fabric, stone or film (even when we were shooting on video). The aspect of workmanship always plays a considerable role. I think there's a great deal of craftsmanship in the activity of making films. And one thing which established a strong link with the protagonists was that we didn't set ourselves up as grand artists; we tried to do our work well, and also to convey how much work is involved, even for a small team.

Wolfgang Widerhofer: Many of the protagonists express themselves in the way they touch things. The way you handle objects says a lot about you. Another key point is the question Nikolaus would pose: "Do you think work molds a person?" It's a question about how much the material that you work with molds you, and how much you as an individual shape what you produce. To what extent do you shape a film? And how much does working on films shape you? These thoughts run through the work on OVER THE YEARS. Maybe it's less a matter of thoughts than something you feel.

To a certain extent OVER THE YEARS differs from all previous films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter in that as it moves away from the closure of the factory (the impulse of the film) it increasingly takes life itself is subject, which brings it particularly close to the essence of documentary film-making.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: I understand that it can be seen that way. That wasn’t the intention. Certainly the film is more intensively about people than many others I’ve made.

Wolfgang Widerhofer: I like it when a film remains undramatic, so the very simple has a grandeur of its own. Over three hours this epic structure shows a series of very simple human procedures which are unspectacular, but in the context of that length they gain a value that has something magical about it. It seems to me that Das Jahr nach Dayton has the strongest connection with OVER THE YEARS, because there too Nikolaus is very powerfully involved, and there is a powerful exchange with the team. That's an axis which runs through the whole work. OVER THE YEARS definitely shows all the previous films in a different light, because Nikolaus's personal presence hasn't been seen so powerfully before.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter:  We hadn’t intended our working methods to be revealed in this way. Originally we planned to cut out the questions, as always. A lot of the questions are posed in a way that makes it easier for the protagonists to give answers which can be edited. But that didn't work out, because the people often gave such brief replies. So during the editing process, over the last year, it emerged that we would have to keep the dialogue element. That's a level I generally like to get rid of during editing. If I'd known from the beginning that the questions would be kept, I’d have paid more attention to the way I formulated them. Sometimes they're a bit sloppy.

So the willingness to reveal yourself during the process of the filming also developed in you.
Nikolaus Geythalter: Over a period of 10 years you get more relaxed. The people we filmed opened up. Why shouldn't I do the same? It was a matter of give and take. It became obvious that there were more important things at stake than maintaining formal unity.

Machines always have an intrinsic place in Geyrhalter films, almost taking on the role of protagonists. As if this is the way the human-technical component of your film is communicated?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: Machines are part of our lives, and in a factory there is a very particular added component. You can't talk about a factory without devoting some space to the machines. They are hardly ever shown without the people who work with them. The machines determine those people's everyday lives through their physical presence, through the noise they create and the rhythm of working with them. A lot of work consists of operating machines, watching them and maintaining them. If you do that over many years, it has an effect on you. And in this factory the machines are even more like individuals: very capricious, old machines. You can't compare it with modern work on a conveyor belt.

Wolfgang Widerhofer: Nikolaus focuses on human development; actually the point where a certain human development reaches its climax and maybe even can't go any further. Machines are part of that. The war in Das Jahr nach Dayton is also a machine. But Nikolaus shows the human aspect, which isn't limited by machines. It's to do with duration. If you hold a shot for long enough, after a certain point you can't control it at all. That's what's so fascinating. You can compose something for the camera, but then suddenly time intervenes and changes the picture. It starts to reveal a completely different level, so you end up being totally open. And this leads to a quality of looking, of experiencing, which isn't dominated by machines at all. The starting point may be with a machine, because Nikolaus finds them fascinating.

Did this work over such a long time redefine your approach to film-making?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: The work certainly did take a long time. But I wasn't aware when we were making the film that it would end up looking so different due to the fact that the editing process left me in it. I did lots of things myself which are handled by interpreters or production managers in films made in a more compact style, such as keeping in touch with the protagonists, working out shooting schedules and so on.

Wolfgang Widerhofer: You wouldn't let yourself in for a project if you knew it would take this long. The second question that emerges is about finance. How would a project be financed if it were planned to take 10 years? We had no idea how long the finished film would be. Three hours is now its natural length, but it could also have been cut to 2 or 5 hours.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter: TV companies have become much stricter these days: they want to broadcast after a year or two. The fact that ORF kept on extending the deadline year after year, because they accepted our argument that the film would gain in quality if we pursued the subject over a longer period, was a matter of goodwill. Today we wouldn't be able to implement a project like this. That makes the film something special: the fact that you can't make such a film in the present system and probably won’t ever be able to again. I think the most powerful moments in the film are towards the end, when it becomes apparent how the people have aged.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
January 2015