A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Henri Nestlé born, 1814
On this day in 1814, Henri Nestlé was born, as Heinrich Nestle, in Frankfurt am Rhein, Germany. His father was a glazier and the business had been passed down the family line for five generations at least. Heinrich trained and qualified as a pharmacist, changing his name to Henri Nestlé on the way, because he was now living in a French-speaking part of Switzerland and wanted to fit in. In 1843, he bought his way into a company involved in the synthesis of oil from rape seed. It also produced alcoholic drinks, vinegar, mineral waters and soda. By 1857, he had switched his attention to fertiliser and gas for lighting. Nestlé was by now wealthy, but the foundation of his fortune was the baby milk formula he came up with in the mid 1860s, aimed at women who weren’t able to breast feed, in towns where a supply of fresh milk was difficult and infant mortality rates were high. His formula consisted of cow’s milk mixed with sugar and flour. It was an immediate success at home and all over Europe, eventually the world. Though Nestlé sold his company in 1875 and devoted his life to philanthropy, the company that bore his name went on to become the biggest food conglomerate in the world. He and his wife had no children.
Our Daily Bread (2005, dir: Nikolaus Geyrhalter)
Some films have universal relevance. We all eat, and so Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary about the way our food is produced on a mass scale should stir at least the beginnings of an interest in anyone who watches it. One thing is certain: the dehumanised production lines and the sight of mechanised modern food production is unlikely to pique the appetite. Geyrhalter shows us vast polytunnels, abattoirs of robotic mass slaughter, football fields of salad, all shot without voiceover, usually with a static camera, with no identifiers as to which company is involved. It’s a tableau of the way we live now – we’re all implicated in this ugly/impressive agri-business.
There are lines of dead pigs being ripped open by a machine that deguts them, cows entering another machine that kills them and then neatly flips them over, salmon being pumped through a vast hose to yet another machine that whips out their innards, just like that.
As I said, no names are named, and no fingers are pointed. This is not a film designed to stir righteous anger but to document, and possibly to inspire awe, as its unblinking eye ranges from field to factory, its images precisely framed, shot on hi-def so we catch the details. The odd bit of human interaction is telling: the woman whose job is to catch the chickens who have somehow survived their appointment with the slaughter room and despatches them with a quick cut to the neck. This, of course, is how it used to be done before the machines moved in. Was it worse? More humane? Hardly.
The soundtrack is all clanks and hums, the odd snatch of dialogue in the background from whichever migrant worker is doing whatever unspeakable job, echoes from the sterile, bloody places. And then a “pillow shot”, of a worker quietly enjoying a sandwich in a break, filling undoubtedly the product of some food factory too. And then on to the production of sunflower oil, from vast fields of beauty, with a yellow plane lazily droning over the top, spraying away. And then back to the animal slaughter, a baby calf being cut from its mother, vast acreages of broccoli, the production of steaks, all of it the reason why food prices in the western world have been falling for most of our lifetimes.
Geyrhalter has an eye for the picturesque, that’s the irony, and one for framing and focus, constantly drawing our eye to the telling detail, or making a more general point that the telling detail is that there is no telling detail.
Do we need 90 minutes of this? Probably not. But the power of it is undeniable, and the lack of a polemicizing voiceover leaves us to come to our own conclusion. This is either remarkable evidence of human ingenuity, or a sign that we’ve lost the plot entirely. Food for thought.
- Remarkable sights
- It’s beautiful, amazingly
- The access
- Some scenes will probably stay with you for ever
© Steve Morrissey 2014