Unser täglich Brot
Germany / Austria, 2005
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 17 October 2006
Source 3Sat 35mm Print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
For a few years now, I’ve wanted to make a documentary entitled, Where Does the Poop Go? The idea would be to stalk the streets of New York, camera in hand, and randomly accost passers-by with the titular question. The point is not necessarily to answer this question — an afternoon on the internet will provide one with more than enough information about city infrastructure — but to ponder the reactions of the people to whom it is posed: annoyance, disgust, incredulity, hilarity, offense, and, most of all, bafflement. Because what’s interesting is that almost no one (including me, incidentally) knows the answer. To most, waste removal is one of modern life’s little mysteries, and more often than not, it is a mystery about which one is usually content to remain ignorant. Indeed, one may even feel superior not knowing. As a friend of mine — a literally card-carrying socialist — explained, much to my disbelief, “That’s the advantage of living in a civilized society — we don’t have to know.”
In Our Daily Bread, Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter and his editor/partner Wolfgang Widerhofer play upon a similarly widespread (and related) ignorance of a purportedly more savory nature. Modern farming, agriculture, and food production is an enormous industry that, in spite of its elemental importance, remains largely hidden from public view. Part of this ignorance is indeed willful — predicated upon the apparently widespread desire not to know the origins of the Twinkie, the pork rind, or the hamburger — but it extends beyond the more patently unpleasant forms of food production (like the fast-food industry, as revealed in Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation) to even the seemingly trustworthier universe of organically farmed, monitored, and grass-fed edibles. The commercial value that the word “organic” now has suggests a greater interest in the origins of food, but this interest is not necessarily matched by a wider proliferation of images of food production in the media. This documentary functions partly to close that gap, to reconnect the consumer with the highly streamlined and mechanized means by which food of all varieties is produced.
So, what is particularly interesting about Geyrhalter and Widerhofer’s film is that it does not function as an exposé of the more obviously processed forms of food production, but rather provides an insight into modern farming and food-making as a whole. Indeed, though one might enter a film like this with the expectation of gag-inducing scenes of animal dismemberment (of which there are plenty), one may not anticipate the lengthy sequence shots of sunflower or cucumber farming. For every shot of a pig being sliced and diced, there is a shot of a rows upon rows of perfectly formed vine-ripened tomatoes of the kind one sees lining supermarket produce aisles by the thousands.
On the one hand, this makes the documentary a good deal less hysterical and incriminating than one might imagine, and on the other hand, a good deal more informative, despite the complete lack of interviews or narration in the film. Geyrhalter’s strategy is to shoot the processes of food production in lengthy, mostly static sequence shots, usually framed in chilly, rigorously symmetrical compositions that resemble Kubrick’s shots of the interiors of spacecraft in 2001. With the repeated use of these “plate shots,” Geyrhalter is able to emphasize the vanishing point in every scene, heightening the sense of infinite space in each field, barn, or factory in the same manner that Kubrick underscores distance and depth in his film. The constant use of this cinematic device further highlights the tightly regulated and mechanically consistent work of the laborers and machines onscreen. And on the rare occasions when Geyrhalter’s camera departs from this practice — as in a handheld shot following a worker’s path through a vast barn full of young, shrill chickens — the result is jarring, even a little frightening.
But despite the quantity of blood spilled in the film, eliciting fear and anxiety is not Geyrhalter and Widerhofer’s primary objective. As in the best work of Frederick Wiseman (see his scenes of tater-tot production in Belfast, Maine) and the subtly Marxist process films on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (“where do pencils come from?”), Our Daily Bread mostly aims to situate the viewer in the places of the many laborers onscreen as they silently conduct the mechanically repetitive business of mining salt, extracting bull’s semen, severing pigs’ feet with a pneumatic tool, or shunting untold numbers of fluffy, yellow baby chicks along conveyor belts. Indeed, the film is even constructed like the capitalist model of an ideal workday: workers wordlessly and mechanically do their jobs, stopping only periodically for a rather awkward lunch-, coffee-, or cigarette-break before returning to their duties.
With only the flattened images and the sounds of machines and animals to guide us, the film becomes hypnotic, numbing, and even soothing at times, uninterrupted (as it might have been) by voiceover horror stories or damning statistics. This is itself a possible flaw of the film: the highly monotonous and machine-like rhythms of the editing tend to collude with the similar rhythms of the labor itself in dehumanizing the workers. In depriving them of voices and characters of their own, the filmmakers risk reifying their positions as cogs in the enormous capitalist wheel of high-tech farming. But of course, the inclusion of interviews would make this an entirely different film, and its very lack of overt questioning gives the film a semblance of objectivity that probably enabled the film to be made in the first place. As the film is in part a subtle exposition of the totalizing regulations of agriculture in the European Union, Geryrhalter could hardly have received the EU’s funding and imprimatur without this objective, dispassionate tone. Similarly, he could hardly have gained access to the farms, factories, and processing centers without the objective of presenting these spaces more or less as they are with at least a seeming objectivity or equivocality. But Our Daily Bread’s great political and social function is that this seeming objectivity, this silence in the face of the massive, hypertechnologized food industry, is itself thoroughly interrogatory and demanding.