Are we shaped by the work we do?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter poses this question to an Austrian factory worker, one of the last remaining employees of the Anderl textile plant in Austria’s rural Waldwiertel region. The man’s answer is almost beside the point. The early scenes of the film speak for him. Over the Years begins with a clear argument that yes, the aging workforce of this particular factory is very much influenced by their work. They are all quiet, deliberate people. The experience of spending all day at a towering, loud machine, often by oneself, builds a certain kind of social restraint.
There is, also, the hovering threat of unemployment. Over the Years begins in 2004, at the death knell of its subject factory. Demand has dropped for these textiles. The cloth diapers, one of many near-obsolete products, sit in stock storage while Austrians buy disposable Pampers en masse. The equipment is old and the market has changed. And so, early on in Over the Years, the workers say goodbye to the textile plant. Some of them had worked there for well over 30 years.
Yet Geyrhalter was not content to let the story end there. The rest of the film’s 188 minutes consist of return visits to the now-dispersed Anderl team, taken over the course of the following ten years. Some of them spend most, or all, of this time unemployed. Others manage to find a succession of jobs, jumping between fields in order to get by. They get older, their children grow up, and the world moves on around them. The changes are often subtle, even in the wake of major family crises. And in spite of Geyrhalter’s fairly simple structure, which moves from subject to subject in a very linear manner, it doesn’t plod.
Somewhat paradoxically, its briskness comes from how confidently Geyrhalter takes his time. Not a single edit feels rushed. Every subject, every event is given space to breathe. There’s a real sense of how long it takes one of the characters to enter his massive collection of German pop songs into his new computer, how much work another character must put into the smithing of a single piece of metal. There is no narrative structure churning forward, no crushing need for closure. If anything, the film’s only weak spots come in its last half hour, when Geyrhalter finally seems compelled to tie up some loose ends. It is at its best when, like life itself, it proceeds with patience. 188 minutes is a long time, but it’s nothing compared to 10 years.
And as in real life, people come and go. Over the Years is a series of visitations, not a work of biography. A particularly remarkable example of this comes midway through the film, when Geyrhalter is visiting the quarry where one of his subjects has gotten an administrative job. She gives him a tour. Amidst the enormous piles of rock, he stumbles across another former Anderl employee who he hasn’t seen in more than three years. The man agrees to what turns out to be the most awkward interview in the whole film. He answers Geyrhalter’s questions with single-syllable responses or not at all, and we’re left wondering why he resisted being in the film after the closing of the Anderl factory.
One wonders whether his reticence has something to do with embarrassment. At the beginning of the film, while still at the factory, he told Geyrhalter how much luckier he feels than his two brothers, both of whom had hard jobs in quarries. Now, years later, he’s in their situation. It’s not easy to find new work when you’re well into your 40s or 50s, and all of the Anderl workers were decidedly middle aged when the factory closed. From the government employment office to the side of the road, where aluminum can be found in garbage cans and then resold, Geyrhalter returns again and again to this struggle.
Yet the fact of middle-age is also what makes Over the Years a unique exercise in cinematic construction. The central conceit is a gesture with no small risk of gimmicky banality. Watching time pass on the faces of an actor or documentary subject can be exciting, but it can also be a remarkably facile gesture that replaces other sorts of meaning. When compared to a film like Boyhood, which features the dramatic physical and emotional changes of youth, Over the Years seems downright subtle. Some of them grow gray, some of them change their hair, but there are few really dramatic visual signs. In a sense, Geyrhalter is forced to find more nuanced changes in the lives of his protagonists because their physical changes aren’t particularly tremendous.
And so he returns to that initial question. Are we shaped by our work? Are these people, who for so long worked in a single place, further shaped by the subsequent years of new employment and/or unemployment? As these people move from job to job, the initially easy association of solitary factory work and a quiet, deliberate personality becomes much more complex.
Geyrhalter responds to this problem not by trying to isolate the shifts in people’s personalities, but by emphasizing their relationship with work itself. Over the Years is a humble showcase of labor, and nearly countless varieties of it. The mid-length shot of someone working is the second-most common type of shot in the film, after the simply staged interviews. We see the subjects treating metal at a smithy, crushing aluminum cans to sell for scrap, chopping up ham, folding and packaging diapers, tallying votes in a local election, tearing up dead trees for firewood, pitching products at a Tupperware party, and more. The distinction between paid work and “hobbies,” a concept brought up by Geyrhalter on multiple occasions, dissolves.
These images of solitary work share a rhythm that seems to suggest their importance for reasons beyond the financial. This is not to say that Geyrhalter has neither interest nor empathy for the struggle of these middle-aged rural factory workers to survive in the current economy. It is, rather, a remarkably prosaic assertion of the beauty of their lives and their physical resilience. It is no accident that the film’s final shots take place at the meeting of a local line dancing club, where one of his subjects has found both therapeutic solace for her own struggles in the intervening decade. In this repetitive, rhythmic action, not unlike the varied labor done by her and her colleagues over the course of the entire film, she finds the therapeutic energy of life.