Workingman’s Death (2005)
“We imitate the figures and pose like the soldiers and our ancestors up there. We think these poses look really funny and avant-garde.”
Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005) is the kind of film that helps illustrate why an authorial viewpoint is so important in documentary filmmaking. More than anything, Glawogger’s film suffers from the absence of a voiceover. This occasional pseudo-neutrality and non-involvement of the filmmaker is troubling precisely because it runs the risk of alienating the subject from the filmmaker. When you set out to make a documentary on the lives of the oppressed and unprivileged, there are only two ways you can take. One, you film their situation from at a considerable distance, clinically analyzing the causes of their misery and, preferably, pointing out a way out of it. Or two, you go up, close and personal, empathize with them, understand them and document their condition as you would your own, always being critical of what they are going through. Merely gawking at their wretchedness, in the name of neutral observation, amounts to nothing more than crowding near a man run over by a car. Filmmakers such as Pedro Costa have tried to resolve the deadlock between the imperative to avoid exploitation of one’s subjects and the need to document their living condition by, as Michael Sicinski sharply notes, making them active participants in the creative process, by fictionalizing the documentary with the consent of its participants. What this effectively does is that it gives a voice to the subjects, as if they are expressing themselves through the film incidentally organized by the director. Additionally, other filmmakers like Werner Herzog (who has done some atrocious things as well) continually (and, some might say, overbearingly) intrude on their subject’s space – interrupting them, commenting upon them and essentially reducing what they’ve shot to the level of found footage – and hence display a deep personal commitment towards the topic at hand.
What is interesting about Workingman’s Death is that it assumes all the above attitudes in turn. There are phases in the film that are simply brilliant, some interesting, some insipid and some plainly worthy of contempt. There is nothing you learn from the film that’s not summed up in its title. What one expects from it, then, is to study the politico-historical reasons for the eponymous demise of the worker and what it means to the proletariat today. And the film starts on the right note. As the title credits play, we are shown a collage of news reels and archival footage, all depicting workers doing various strenuous activities, cut at a rapid pace reminiscent of the early Soviet films. Likewise, the soundtrack is a patchwork of drilling noise and ominous percussion-heavy music. This prelude ends with a clip depicting a pair of bubbling Soviet workers pledging that they will mine an amount of coal that is much more than is expected from them in a single year. They are filmed with the camera pointing upwards towards them. Following this, Glawogger cuts to the present, to the image of a tired worker, whose face is covered with coal dust, posing for the camera. An on-screen quote from Faulkner reads: “You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours — all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy”. The contrast that the subsequent image – a wintry, deserted townscape – provides to the preceding montage is jarring and drives home the point right away. That the town is in Ukraine – an erstwhile member of the Soviet Union – only reinforces the central idea, which is the failure of the Utopian socialist dream of the omnipotent worker.
‘Heroes’, this ironically titled and finely directed first part of the film, is set in Donbass, Ukraine, a former mining hub of Soviet Russia, and follows the working routine of a bunch of freelance miners who gather the last pieces of coal left in the mountains. We are told that the government-run mining industry has been shut down and these workers have been left with no choice other than to form small groups, dig out whatever coal they can, sell them and share the profits. Glawogger intercuts these snippets of interviews with a piece of propaganda that details Andrey Stakhanov’s record-breaking stint at the same mine in 1935 when his team collected 102 tons in a single shift, virtually triggering off the Stakhanovite movement. The image of charged workers carrying their drills over their shoulders like rifles and marching forward, heaving their chests and singing under the open sky stands in stark opposition to these handful of miners crawling in a mineshaft that is hardy a couple of feet high and which could collapse on the slightest of errors. We realize how the image of the worker as envisioned (and perhaps constructed) by the Stalinists became more of a self-deceiving prison than a liberating guide for the common worker (an idea that was superbly explored in Makavejev’s Man Is Not A Bird (1965)). Glawogger enters the mine along with the workers, crawling about just like them, to document them (It is an achievement that the movie is shot in film and not in video, which would have been logistically easier). It’s a Herzogian moment no doubt, but to bring in an auteurist dimension would be to undermine the vision of the film, which is nearly what Glawogger himself ends up doing later in the film.
We are also shown the women in the area, who, too, make money by mining and whose camaraderie reflects the men’s. They are more cynical about education and believe that they would have ended up at the same position even if they had gone to college. They laugh at the idea that a faith in God might save them. Perhaps this gender equality is all that remains of the socialist dream. The workers are no more the all-powerful beings in control of the machinery they operate and the nature they exploit. They are now gleaners squeezing every ounce of coal they can out the nearly exhausted mines. The 102 tons of coal that Stakhanov mined in a single shift has become the stuff of legends, much like Stakhanov himself. They are less like Stakhanov and more like Sisyphus – mining to live and living to mine – with seemingly no way out of this wearing circle. Much like the mythological hero, these people seem to have come to terms with their condition. Glawogger, too, ends the section on a note that isn’t much different from how Camus concludes his essay: “…one must imagine Sisyphus happy”. For the first time in the film, we see something that’s really cheerful – a wedding. The couple and their friends celebrate near the Stakhanov statue at the centre of the town. They have bonfires. They leave. Lest it should become a gesture of complacence, Glawogger signs off with the image of the Stakhanov statue standing alone in the wintry night, with the bride’s headwear hanging from his left arm – the answer to a question that will be asked at the end of the film.
‘Ghosts’ is shot in Kawahljen, Indonesia, where we see a group of workers chip away large chunks of Sulphur from a valley and carry them all the way to a factory where they get paid. Although the section stands in contrast to the claustrophobic undergrounds of the previous segment, it is equally suffocating to see these workers gagging themselves to avoid getting poisoned while mining these pieces of Sulphur. Glawogger directs the segment with traces of fiction, including what appear like rehearsed conversations and with dynamic camera movements which are simply too beautiful for their own good. There is even a thread consisting of what seems like a gay couple, which is clearly ridiculed by the other workers, that throws light upon the hierarchies of marginalization. We are also shown tourists who visit this breathtaking valley and have themselves photographed along with these workers or temporarily assuming their roles. These tourists humour the workers, treating them condescendingly. One of the workers even talks about a French woman who wanted to kiss him. Evidently, Glawogger is criticizing these middle-class folks for their hypocrisy and for glamorizing what is essentially a life of ordeals. The irony here is that Glawogger does the same thing later in the film. However, there is one sequence which shows one worker selling a improvised Sulphur curio to the tourists at exorbitant prices. For a moment the film attains remarkable density where, for once, the basic human elements of the film are not overshadowed by class-level analysis. However, the political context in this segment is weaker as compared to the previous segment. For one, there is no reason why the film must be set in Indonesia. The only reason for this deadly routine of these workers that we can think of is globalization. But unlike in ‘Heroes’, that connection is not stressed upon one bit (apart from the fact that one worker is wearing a football jersey!).
But it is in the third and fourth segments that the film really plummets. The middle section, ‘Lions’, takes place in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and inside a slaughter-ground where hundreds of cattle are sacrificed, skinned and processed every day. Glawogger shows us all the killings in fine detail, without any restraint, spending considerable time chronicling the process of slaying, skinning and roasting the animals and lesser time talking to the people who do that. Of course, the reference point here is Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949, from which shots are borrowed by Glawogger for the title sequence), where the director took us through a graphic tour of Parisian slaughterhouses, revealing the opaqueness of our morality, among other things. But the subtle difference between the stylistics of Glawogger and of Franju reveals a world’s difference between the attitudes of both the filmmakers towards the killings. While Franju assembled the clips and provided a voice over that built on the material, Glawogger seems to treat the footage of the slaughter as an end in itself. As a result, Franju’s film became an analysis that based itself on the everyday work at the abattoirs whereas Glawogger’s film seems as if it merely wants to record workplace details (and possibly pass itself off as a “mature” film). The shots of animals being slit become the only destination for Glawogger here since his relationship between the people who carry out this task remains tenuous, at best, in this segment. The workers at the slaughter grounds mark the severed heads of the cattle they’ve slain so that they can reclaim them later. They ward off each other so that their share is not taken away. As indicated by the title of the segment and by its visual scheme where the workers appear nearly buried beneath the chunks of meat, Glawogger is actually comparing them with a pack of lions fiercely holding on to what they’ve hunted – quite a reproachable comparison I’d say.
The fourth part of the film, titled ‘Brothers’, sees the film shift base from Africa back to Asia, this time to a shipyard in Gaddani, Pakistan. We witness workers dismantling large ships, piece by piece, where one false move could result in death (In fact, all the workers shown in the film stand on the verge of death. They risk their lives in order to survive). The group consists of a large number of native and immigrant workers – perhaps from Afghanistan – who help and motivate each other at the workplace. They pine for their beloveds, whom they get to see only during the year ends. We also get to see one photographer who visits the shipyard, offering people a chance to get photographed with a rifle for ten rupees. Are we supposed to pity these workers that they are misguidedly revering terrorists? Or are we supposed to see how deep the Islamic resistance to westernization goes? Glawogger doesn’t answer, and perhaps rightly so. The problem in this section, however, lies in its aesthetics. Glawogger shoots the dismantling work from various angles and distances, creating a symphony of destruction. He uses ultra slow motion and lets us see every speck of dust that rises as the pieces fall. The sense of awe near completely undoes the drudgery that we are witnessing. That Workingman’s Death is shot in film makes it all the more beautiful and hence very objectionable. But that is not the biggest flaw of this segment.
There is no apparent reason why both ‘Lions’ and ‘Brothers’ should be shot where they have been. The slogging that we witness at both the shipyard and the slaughter house is neither geopolitically specific nor a result of global politics. As Michael Atkinson says, there is no reason to believe that it the condition of these workers would have been much better during some other century (the film is subtitled “5 Portraits of Work in the 21st Century”) or if they were in some other country with similar political climate (one worker in Nigeria says that they would be better off if their country allowed them to export meat – a statement that called for further examination, even if it seems shortsighted). Perhaps Glawogger’s exploration is metaphysical rather than political, but the fact that he sets the film entirely in socialist or third world countries throws that argument into question (I guess it would have done the film some good had there been a segment chronicling workers living in developed countries). Moreover, three of the five segments document certain religious practices of the workers, two of which involve animal sacrifice. In all the three segments, the workers have a deep faith in God, deterministically accepting what God has preordained for them. The suffering is taken as a given and some of them are even proud of what they do. Perhaps they find solace and meaning in religion. That all the three countries are Islamic is somewhat troubling (the film was made in 2005 – a time when the demonizing of Muslims was at its peak), especially given that Glawogger could have chosen any three countries for his purpose since there is nothing very specific about Nigeria, Pakistan or Indonesia that he underscores.
However, the film comes right back on track (or should I say, west of the track?!) in the final segment – the shortest and the best – of the film, “Future”, set in Liaoning, an industrial town in northeastern China. The segment opens with a bunch of men writing text on a platform at the town centre, moving backwards (Mandarin is written vertically), with what looks like volatile ink. The soundtrack plays the voice of chairman Mao extolling industrial workers. The point is clearly made: everything that we see and hear is transitory and is a relic of the past. This phenomenon of getting trapped in failed visions and unfulfilled promises of the past is what forms the central theme of ‘Future’ (in contrast to the disillusionment of ‘Heroes’). The focus soon shifts to the workers in the smelting factories of the township. The workers who are interviewed seem to have deep faith in their country and what it is doing for (and to) them. They acknowledge that times have changed, but retain that by equipping the factories with newer technologies, the nation could be back on the path of progress. These interview snippets are followed by a short conversation with a couple of youngsters standing near a people’s monument, located in the town, depicting workers enthusiastically toiling around a giant statue of Mao. The youngsters tell us that they like coming to this place and getting themselves photographed while assuming the poses of their ancestors. Of course, this attitude seems indicative of the workers as well, who insist on repeating rhetoric of the past even when the nation has moved into a market economy like the west.
There is also an epilog to the film, set in Duisburg-Nord Country Park, Germany – once the Duisburg-Meiderich Steelworks. The factory is evidently in a deplorable condition. We sense that only the phantom of the smelting plant remains. Kids have infested the rusted factory premises, hurling water balloons at each other. As night falls, we see teenagers making out. A narrator gives us the history of the smelting factory and what became of it later: “Then came the last shift. But not the end; rather a new beginning. The smelting plant was transformed into a unique leisure park. When night falls in Duisburg, the blast furnaces flare up. In neon green and fantastic colors. ARTificial light in the truest sense.” We realize that the factory was closed down, but we wonder what happened to the workers. Glawogger, meanwhile, seems to be wondering what happened to “the worker”. May be that’s what he was trying to ask – however objectionably, however inconsistently – throughout the film. As the attractions at the park wind down, as the teenagers and kids move out, as the neon lights fade to black, the manager at the theme park asks a question (which also happens to be the final line in the film), in the public announcement system, whose answer was already given by the image of the solitary statue of Andrey Stakhanov standing in the snow in the first segment: “Have we left anyone sitting in the dark?”