The Soft Machine: Tom Vanderbilt on Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread

Article excerpt

IN ONE EARLY SCENE of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, the Lithuanian-born protagonist reflects on his new job in Chicago's Packingtown. "Jurgis had," Sinclair writes, "stood with the rest up in the gallery and watched the men on the killing beds, marveling at their speed and power as if they had been wonderful machines; it somehow never occurred to one to think of the flesh-and-blood side of it--that is, not until he actually got down into the pit and took off his coat."

A century later, in Nikolaus Geyrhalter's documentary Our Daily Bread (which was screened in October at the New York Film Festival and goes on limited release in the United States this month), the "flesh-and-blood side of it" is similarly occluded, only this time most of the "wonderful machines" actually are machines: humming assembly lines that send pigs to their finely calibrated slaughter; whooshing sorters that whisk peeping yellow chicks to some unseen destination; elaborate instruments that saw open and scoop out the intestines of upside-down fish that are trolling by like targets in some macabre carnival shooting game.

Welcome to the jungle, circa 2006. To make Our Daily Bread, Geyrhalter, an Austrian filmmaker whose previous credits include the documentaries Pripyat (1999) and Elsewhere (2001), gained remarkable access to a wide range of European outposts of the secretive arena of globalized factory food--ranging from pigs, cows, and chickens to tomatoes, olives, and salt. The film consists exclusively of long, unnarrated, eerily static shots in which Geyrhalter documents environments and processes that seem more akin to the clean rooms of semiconductor fabrication plants than way stations in the journey from farm to table.

Our Daily Bread is quite shocking, though not, as might be expected, for scenes of horrific carnage and the squeals of dying animals; nor for the plight of the workers, who do not seem to suffer unduly; but rather for the bloodless sterility and antiseptic hush that prevail. In sterile, climate-controlled environments--even the lettuce-pickers work in the comfort of a kind of traveling greenhouse--the mostly voiceless humans in the film seem to do the work of some alien intelligence that operates on a vast, depersonalizing scale. In the realm of the wordless visual essay, Geyrhalter is the anti-Godfrey Reggio: instead of sweeping shots of epic, backbreaking human labor set to an urgently pulsating minimalist score, he gives us confined shots of clinical work enveloped by a claustrophobic silence.

Geyrhalter's stated goal is merely to chronicle the means by which we now feed ourselves. Yet a particular horror is evinced by the combination of the assembly line and the slaughterhouse that occurs in many scenes, a horror whose character was strangely anticipated in a disturbing claim made by philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1949: "Agriculture is now a motorized food-industry--in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of the countryside, the same as the production of the hydrogen bombs. …