Empty spaces, rescue efforts, explanatory models, learning processes – and above all, people working tirelessly to ensure the provision of basic services for all. In the spring of 2020, a global pandemic hit humanity with unprecedented force, challenging all of its supposed securities and seemingly perfect routines. Set against the backdrop of the city of Vienna with its roughly two million inhabitants, THE STANDSTILL documents the Covid-19 crisis over a period of two years.


In March 2020, following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, 130 countries introduced major restrictions on social contact and movement. The crisis also hit Austria and its capital of Vienna, which is home to around two million people. Over the course of two years and three major lockdowns, public life in the city was repeatedly brought to a halt for months at a time: borders and businesses were closed, open spaces became prohibited areas, and many struggled with being confined to their own four walls. Initially, the citizens of Vienna shouldered the responsibility stoically, keen to do their part for the common goal of containing the further spread of the virus, protecting the elderly and the vulnerable, and helping prevent the healthcare system from reaching breaking point.

It is in this historic era that THE STANDSTILL takes place. Starting in the very early days of the pandemic, when film crews were only allowed to shoot in public spaces under the highest safety standards, Nikolaus Geyrhalter set out to capture “film documentation of a time when filmmaking was not actually possible” (Stefan Grissemann): snapshots and sequences of deserted locations and interviews with people for whom the term “state of emergency” had suddenly become a concrete reality.

Airport staff unload box after box of personal protective equipment from former passenger planes, now lined up at Vienna Airport waiting in vain for the return of their usual cargo; a priest holds his Easter Sunday service in front of an empty church, live-streaming his sermon to the congregation via a tablet; Vienna citizens pull up at a drive-through test centre and are swabbed for Covid-19 through their car windows; deserted shopping centres, large and small shops, stand like empty relics of an affluent society that has suddenly been erased.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter says of his work on THE STANDSTILL: “In many interviews, people spoke to us of their hopes for long-term positive change to our society, of their desire for more closeness, cohesion and solidarity. Certain aspects of the crisis were often seen in a very positive light. But what will remain of the plane-free blue skies and car-free streets, of the sudden lack of stress and the extra time spent with family? What do we want to go back to? And what do we wish to change going forward?”


Notes by Claus Philipp

In previously overcrowded spaces, suddenly barely anything moved; where once the haste of daily life made time pass by in a flash, suddenly everything seemed to slow down. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns, one – or at least I – was frequently reminded of the depopulated spaces of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s film HOMO SAPIENS. Somewhere in the back of my mind resonated passages from interviews in Geyrhalter’s OVER THE YEARS: tales of exhaustion and stagnation following the constant, relentless restriction of human living conditions and experiences.

Naturally, the mass media saw and presented a different picture of the situation in and around the societal lockdowns: they told the story of the pandemic in the form of a disaster serial with new episodes every day, each attempting to outdo the last in tension and excitement. Or as a triumph of statistics, where the most diverse efforts from politicians and civil society had barely any influence on the phases of steadily rising victim numbers.

In this respect, it can only be a good thing that Nikolaus Geyrhalter reacted so quickly to the crisis and set out to document the period with his appropriately small team. The images and sounds that he collected constitute an important and weighty contribution to an archive of increasingly accelerated times. THE STANDSTILL that the title of his film claims or at least proposes, despite being set in what is actually a very eventful public space, is a culmination of modern society’s perpetual state of war proclaimed by French cultural theorist Paul Virilio: it is the “raging standstill” of a society that controls time and space with its advanced technology, but in doing so is ultimately orchestrating its own obliteration. Sometimes this same society attempts something akin to salvation, through which it gains – as THE STANDSTILL demonstrates – its own, very personal experiences. I believe it is a worthwhile endeavour to consider and research where one can find such experiences and which new connections this creates, “in danger and deep distress...”



In mid-March 2020 Austria was in lockdown due to Covid, and our usual everyday life suddenly ground to a halt. How quickly did you decide to shoot the first sequences for this film?

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: At the very beginning everything came to a halt for me too, and I think I wasn’t the only one who felt strongly that there was a theme in the air. But I probably wouldn't have reacted so quickly if the dramaturge Claus Philipp hadn't contacted our production company and urged us to start capturing this exceptional situation on film – right away, more or less. Normally, films are developed and financed in various stages before you start shooting. There was no time for that here. We had the necessary equipment in the company; borrowing would hardly have been possible at that time. So we started filming relatively quickly, at our own risk, to make sure we didn’t miss the most exciting phase of the state of emergency.

Nobody had any idea what a long haul we were facing. What ideas and perspectives did you have when you embarked on the shoot?

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: One idea was the question of how a country or a city continues to function in a state of emergency, when most people couldn’t leave their homes, at least during the first lockdown. I was also interested – at least at the city level – in how politics works in a situation like that, and how decisions are made when things have to be rethought every day. There’s a simple way of explaining what we wanted to film: what’s different? That was basically it. We focused on institutions that functioned in their own way during this unexpected situation, or in some cases had to function for the first time. At the end of the day, it was all about capturing this special time; I sensed it was demanding a lot from everyone, and that people would like to forget or suppress it quickly afterwards. I also felt within myself the task of the chronicler.

Your films seldom feature conversations with protagonists. Why is it important in THE STANDSTILL to let people have their say?

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: I have to correct that generalisation. I have made three films that don’t have people being interviewed, but all the others do. It's just that the films without interviews are more memorable, because it's unusual. In general, I like to have conversations. Every now and then it turns out that the interviews don't deliver what was expected on the basis of the setting. Then you have to be radical. But it's really not that I want to make films without words. With THE STANDSTILL, it was clear that I wanted to interview people. The film is about the impact of the situation on people and, above all, about their personal experiences, both private and professional. It wouldn’t have been possible to depict that with images alone.

What emotions did you encounter? There are several times during the interviews when we sense a hope that society could be restarted from this zero hour.

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: That hope really was often expressed at the beginning: how beautiful the sky is without planes, how pleasant it is to ride a bike without heavy traffic. There was the idea that some of this could be retained in the post-pandemic period. Initially, this illusion was necessary for all of us to survive the whole thing. In the protests that took place later, we noticed that there was a lot of anger. Many people had suffered from solitude. The search was on for culprits. The illusions of the early days, as we can already see, were very quickly disappointed. The world works just as it used to, merely a little faster, and there are new problems. Apparently, it took a war for us to perceive the pandemic as over.

In THE STANDSTILL, unlike other films of yours, you don’t adopt a global perspective on the themes involved. The film was made in a situation where the restricted geographical area was a given. Did you nevertheless attempt to grasp the overall picture as exemplified on a small scale?

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: Vienna and Austria, as featured in THE STANDSTILL, are representative of many cities and countries where the situation was similar: Covid wasn’t quite as bad as had been feared initially, but still bad enough. I never thought about making a big film, certainly not one on a global scale. To be honest, when I started shooting, my idea was to capture these images for posterity. I had the feeling what was happening here should be recorded, so that when something like this happens again a hundred years from now, there will be images of it. We hardly have any pictures of the Spanish flu. And then the project grew. On the one hand, there was an unprecedented event, and for my part, the experience of capturing something like this even under difficult conditions became routine. That was enough to get me to work.

How did you, as a team, deal with the fatigue and the unexpected duration of the pandemic?

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: It certainly was exhausting for everyone. The film isn’t just about official institutions; it also features my son's school class, for example, where they spent two years alternating between mask on and mask off, homeschooling and face-to-face teaching. And, of course, the nose tests every morning. It was exhausting for everyone. And for us as a film team, too, because there was no end to it. For a long time, we’d wonder to ourselves when and how the film would end. In the end, the pandemic became less and less tangible, and there wasn’t much to report apart from demonstrations and dissatisfaction. We decided, with the necessary distance in the editing, to end the film in a relatively early pandemic phase, after about a year and a half.

This also means that the film creates two perspectives: on the one hand, the view from the middle of the catastrophe, when everyone just had to act in the short term, with little previous experience, and at the same time a retrospective from a distance, where we know many things better.

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: The view changes again and again over time. We started editing at a very early stage, when we were still in the middle of the pandemic, and we ourselves had a completely different view of it. With every six months that passed, the view changed, which meant the perspective for editing changed too, and that will continue to change. During the trial screenings, we experienced very strongly that everyone had their own personal experience of this Covid pandemic, and they wanted to see that perspective again. The film can’t fulfil that expectation and doesn’t want to. But I get the sense that nobody remains indifferent: some people emerge from the film moved, others angry, others with smiles on their face. Everyone is taken on this journey through time.

Precisely because everyone has such an individual perception of the events, one interesting aspect is the official crisis communication. What did you want to capture there?

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: We were interested in what was suddenly different. Consequently, communication policy was part of this. Communication has become a major issue, both privately and professionally. The extent to which official communication policy was designed to appeal to the population is indicated by our footage of government press conferences. We also have interesting interviews on this subject, but unfortunately, we couldn’t include them in the film due to the amount of material. We were also much more interested in the work of the Federal Government, but we couldn’t gain access to it, even though we were able to get footage of the then Minister of Health, Rudolf Anschober. The public figure of the pandemic was Sebastian Kurz, the Federal Chancellor, and the way he now comes across – aloof and only on the screen – is, I believe, a fair depiction of the situation.

THE STANDSTILL also shows how a high level of restrictions prompts disorderly forces to develop a growing dynamic. When did the demonstrations start?

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: They started relatively early. The first demonstration we shot took place at the State Opera, initially against the Covid measures. In the beginning, people took to the streets because they didn't want to be told what to do; later it was about opposition to vaccination and the government in general. In the last demos that we show in the film, the themes have become quite universal and are directed against all sorts of targets. Covid created a fertile soil for this: people learned that if they organize themselves, they can make their voices really loud. It is not surprising that something like this is quickly co-opted by political groups.

Do you feature opposition only in the form of mass demonstrations, or did you also have conversations with individual demonstrators?

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: We couldn't avoid talking to people. If only because we were confronted more and more as we stood there with a camera. In the end, people with cameras were regarded as absolute enemies. By the last demos, working had become really uncomfortable for us. I film using long shots, often from above, which means I’m standing on the roof of a car, for example, or I bring a big ladder with me and then face in one direction for a long time. That makes us visible for extended periods, like a lighthouse. I found myself in long discussions with people, so in the end I was spending more time talking than filming. There was a universal anger.

In terms of the many aspects of maintaining the system, as well as the individual handling of the exceptional pandemic situation, the film raises a fundamental question: how quickly is our overall ability to function placed in jeopardy?

NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: I see this as a great awakening – because it shows how quickly our system can collapse. Very quickly, in fact. In this case, the cause was a worldwide pandemic, but there could be other causes too. The sense of certainty we cherished beforehand, which we are already beginning to wallow in again is, in my opinion, based solely on the principle of hope.
There are enough scenarios that could happen and hopefully won't.
Our existence depends on a very complex interplay of many factors. As soon as something fails, it quickly results in a sizeable drama. We may have learned this from the pandemic. But I have the impression that we’re all just happy it’s over – and we’re not prepared to learn any major lessons from it.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
September 2023

Translation: Charles Osborne



Director & Cinematographer: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Editing: Gernot Grassl
Assistant Director & Research: Sophia Laggner
Sound: Sergey Martynyuk, Lenka Mikulova
2nd Camera & Camera Assistant:
Sebastian Arlamovsky, Alfred Zacharias
Dramaturgical Advisor: Claus Philipp
Colour Grading: Lukas Lerperger
VFX: Sebastian Arlamovsky

Sound Design: Nora Czamler,
Manuel Meichsner

Sound Mixing: Alexander Koller
Production Manager & Research:
Antonia Bernkopf
Producers: Nikolaus Geyrhalter,
Michael Kitzberger, Wolfgang Widerhofer, Markus Glaser

Production: NGF Geyrhalterfilm

With support of: Österreichisches Filminstitut, Filmfonds Wien, ORF Film/Fernsehabkommen, Filmstandort Austria