‘Workingman’s Death’ Film Review: Dirty jobs, global edition

Michael Glawogger’s “sequel” to Megacities (which I reviewed last week in two installments, part 1 and part 2), Workingman’s Death, also documents the plight of workers from around the globe. It is not meant of course, by any means, to be Megacities II.

His style has evolved in the last few years, from a more experimental approach in Megacities, with its exploration of staged shots, unorthodox soundtrack, and a complete lack of structure to a more traditional documentary approach in Workingman’s Death.

In Workingman’s Death, Glawogger hews a more traditional approach to documentary filmmaking than in Megacities. He rejects reenactments, but he also does not favor the shaky first-person style common to many documentaries. Rather, he crafts his images with close attention to traditional cinematic forms-composition, color, lighting, camera movement-which juxtaposes with the jumbled and often jarring sights within these alien workplaces. Even without reenactments of intimate moments-the dehumanizing striptease scene in Megacities, for example-Glawogger still conveys, through the contrast of time and place, a poignant sense of personal narrative.
In one scene, the camera looks out at the Ukrainian miners, who are having a picnic of sorts. They proceed to carry on a seemingly mundane conversation about their daughters. Only the viewer can appreciate the bizarre gaze of the situation-their picnic is in the crawlspace of a deadly abandoned mine buried deep beneath the barren land.

I think what makes these two films stand out is that they reject the more or less standard conventions of documentaries to rely on a “voice of God” narrator (see Michael Apted and his 7UP series). While Megacities is to some extent filmed in the interventional mode-due to the staging of certain scenes-this film, as well as Workingman’s Death, is very much in the observational spirit. Glawogger, stripped of his voice and presence, certainly still stamped his own editorial style on the two films, by overlaying found objects, such as background sounds, text, archival footage, and conversational recordings, to the recorded image.

Workingman’s Death relies more heavily on dialogue, which contributes to developing the characters that he encounters. Here, on-camera characters provide the narration. Glawogger shows rather than tells. We hear the dialogue between two Indonesian sulfur carriers: “I like the way she moves,” says one about his favorite prostitute. “Well, moves aren’t everything,” cracks the other. Such intimacy enable the viewer to develop empathy with the workers, who are humanized here.

One of the sulfur carrriers proceeds to narrate, through dialogue, his life outside the sulfur field. “I go down to Banyuwangi after weighing in. You have a little fun, you come back up here, climb the mountain, go back down, and have your load weighted,” he says with little expression. The backdrop, a moonscape set against a sky shrouded by the volcanic smoke, underscores the despondency of this situation. We realize these workers spend their precious earnings on prostitutes because it is the only happiness they can procure.

Workingman’s Death boasts of a substantially more tangible structure to Megacities, namely in the narrative arc that revolves around five distinct profiles which together trace the progression of a worker’s paradise from the past to present and the future. He begins in the figurative past, in a sequence titled “HEROES,” alluding to the Stakhanov worker’s mentality that grew from the Soviet communism movement.

Glawogger splices in footage from Enthusiasm (1932) that sets the paternal lineage between the two generations of miners. The next three sequences-GHOSTS, LIONS, and BROTHERS-all reference this Stakhanov sensibility, but places the gaze in the present, as Indonesian sulfur workers have to contend with Japanese tourists, Nigerian goat butchers fight for the heads and skins while the choice cuts are ferried far away, and Pakistani workers disassemble the ships that have made the international shipping business possible.

Through these workers, Glawogger gives the viewer a glimpse of the implications of globalization, although he shows rather than judges. These scenes, more so than the ones in Megacities, also show processes, which in itself give the film a skeleton of structure. For instance, we follow the sulfur carriers in an epic journey from the volcanic hell-hole to the weighing station miles away. We follow the butchers on a typical day’s work in the killing fields, in all its blood and glory.

The next sequence-FUTURE-brings the story to a hopeful resolution in China, where workers no longer toil in the death-defying conditions that their Ukrainian comrades must endure. Finally, he ends at a steelwork complex-turned-fairground, an epilogue that, by paralleling the abandoned heavy equipment at Duisburg with the Promethean struggles of the Stakhanov worker, elicits the nostalgia of a past era.

Unlike most filmmakers, Glawogger moved from a more experimental school of filmmaking, as seen in Megacities, to the more conventional mode in Workingman’s Death. But through both films, Glawogger has redrawn the limits of documentary filmmaking. His restaging of events in Megacities calls into question the axiographic nature of pursuing the truth and of imagining reality. His postmodern approach to narration in both films, and in particular the skillful use of alternative soundtracks, has introduced new possibilities of storytelling. And his minimalist structure in Megacities, and to a lesser extent Workingman’s Death, furthers his thesis that the world often cannot be reduced into simple narratives.

‘Megacities’ Film Review: An eye-opening tour of the world’s greatest cities

Think you know New York or Moscow? That you’ve seen all the sights in Mexico City or even took a tour of the slums of Mumbai? Well, you haven’t seen anything until you watch Megacities by Michael Glawogger, one of my favorite documentaries. It’ll take you to places and people in these four megacities that you’ve never seen. Oh, and the cinematography!

“I don’t use beauty filters!” says Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger, concerning his 1998 documentary, Megacities. “If the place wouldn’t have beauty in itself, it’s not possible for me to make it look beautiful.” Through a mastery of cinema aesthetics-from color and composition to the mixing of the soundtrack and manipulation of the scene transitions-Glawogger infused the apocalyptic urban wastelands he saw, a world populated by blue-dyed men, knife-wielding hustlers, and sagging prostitutes in the nude, with an aura of the surreal.

This film reject standard documentary conventions, such as the use of voiceovers and a strict narrative arc; yet they ultimately offer, through their flipbook storytelling structure, a coherent narrative of a world in flux, buffeted by unseen forces of globalization.

Glawogger noticeably restages many scenes in Megacities, and while some shots were staged due to logistical reasons (for instance, hiring extras for a scene inside a train carriage since there were too many bystanders in the way), other shots were so fantastical in their intimacy that they require a conscious suspension of disbelief. Two particular scenes, both involving Tony the New York hustler, are particularly salient to the degree that they were staged.

The first involves Tony hustling a young 20-somethings man, whose eyes dart every which way in suspicion-but never in the direction of the camera. The target is led to believe that for $60, he can have an hour “to do anything you want” with a prostitute. The camera follows him up the stairs to the prostitute’s alleged room, where a gruff stranger (a man, no less) answers the door and promptly slams it in his face.

This scene stretches the imagination: why did the target never question the presence of the camera, or acknowledge it? Why didn’t he display any emotions after finding out he had been hustled, or direct his anger to the cameraman, for that matter? The cognitive dissonance resolves itself once the viewer realizes Glawogger hired the target, albeit without telling him the exact context of the gig. “So, to a degree, those people also didn’t know what was going to happen. And it almost looks like what it looked like when I saw him really do it,” explains Glawogger.

The second, more controversial scene, involves Tony once again hustling a man, this time someone slightly older and of Persian descent. The two go up to a room, where both Tony and the target completely undress. As they are about to have sex, Tony pulls out a box-cutter and mugs the man; in the process, he smacks him on the head in intimidation.

This scene pushes the limits of what one would consider a documentary (and one reason you should go watch the film). Granted, such intimacy is logistically impossible to film, as Glawogger elaborates, “If you’re in a small room and somebody robs some other preson or even if there’s a private conversation between a couple, that’s not, in that sense, ‘documentary’ filmmaking-that even though you’re there it will happen anyway.” Thus, the resulting image fulfills the voyeuristic urge of a viewer in a similar, but more corporeal manner than that of a fiction biopic of a New York hustler.

Although we witness Tony hustling his marks, in another sense, we see Glawogger hustling Tony. Here, Glawogger subverts the traditional role of the documentary filmmaker as one who assigns, rather than records, the dynamics of social actors within his gaze. Ironically, the most powerful scene from this story, and possibly the film, is unscripted: the sight of Tony, high on heroin and splayed out on a couch, ranting on about the realities of his life. Although his words are visceral, the very image of this hustler at his most vulnerable, with eyes drooping under the lull of a drug addiction and his bare chest drenched in sweat, says more about the human condition and his alienation in this urban jungle than any of the staged scenes. The section on Tony ends here as he drifts off, mid-speech, into a drug-laced stupor.

Part 2 tomorrow