'The Border Fence': Film Review | IDFA 2018

Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
A sensitive examination of the tricky frontiers between rhetoric and reality.

The latest production from leading Austrian documentarist Nikolaus Geyrhalter examines tensions around the historic Brenner Pass.

Prolific Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter takes a profitable turn towards topical reportage with The Border Fence (Die bauliche Massnahme), which takes recent tensions on the Italian-Austrian frontier as a microcosm for much wider geo-political malaises. Topical and thought-provoking, it's most unlikely to emulate the success of Geyrhalter's previous production — the more austerely contemplative, widely-screened Homo Sapiens (2016) — but could yet score theatrical exposure in receptive European areas.

Geyrhalter's status as a major name in the non-fiction world, dating back at least to Our Daily Bread (2005), will meanwhile ensure plentiful play at festivals and on small-screen outlets in the wake of the picture's international premiere in the main competition at IDFA. And the ongoing controversies about other "problematic" frontiers, such as the one between Mexico and the U.S., certainly won't do it any harm in terms of international appeal.

The focus here is on the Brenner Pass, a strategically vital conduit between northern and southern Europe for millennia, and which has been part of the European Union's soft-frontier "Schengen" zone since 2003. The so-called "migrant crisis" of the current decade has, however, altered the mental landscape of politicians and citizens in many of the continent's countries, often with concomitant consequences for the physical environment. The original title translates to "construction measures," a euphemism for the border fence which provides the more prosaic English-language moniker.

The debate about whether such a fence is desirable or even practically possible is the rumbling background noise of Geyrhalter's film, which downplays the role of elected officials — he sometimes shows them holding forth on television broadcasts, then cuts them off mid-flow — in favor of face-to-face interviews with ordinary people in and around the Brenner area. Heard but never seen, Geyrhalter proves an outstanding interviewer; he asks intelligent questions which dig beneath the genial, tolerant surfaces his subjects usually present. Sympathy for the migrants' plight is frequently mixed with a streak of prejudice and even xenophobia; the film thus provides valuable, coolly modulated contributions to a debate all too often beset by noisy headlines and populist manipulations.

Austria and Italy have both seen rightward changes of government in the last couple of years — The Border Fence was shot during the tenure of previous, relatively centrist regimes, and scores subtle but effective points in detailing the divergences between abstract rhetoric and practicalities. The migrants are endlessly discussed but (pointedly) never actually seen; even the fence is only very briefly glimpsed, its lengths of barbed wire shown coiled safely up in a container during the decidedly droll closing moments.

Production company: Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion GmbH
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Producers: Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Michael Kitzberger, Wolfgang Widerhofer
Editors: Emily Artmann, Gernot Grassl
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Autlook Filmsales, Vienna

In German, Italian, English
112 minutes