“Workingman’s Death” is a grandiose film

Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

Glawogger-who directed a similar conceptual film “Megacities” (1998), about various human destinies in variety of giant urban areas around the world-has this time chosen another global subject for his film: men around the world carrying out hard and dangerous manual labour. Though this kind of work is disappearing from the Western world, the film bears witness to its existence in parts of Asia and Africa.

It is a film that doesn’t draw in the audience by inviting them to identify with a few main characters; its fascination lies in its cinematographic beauty. It is a film comprised of stunning images, a carefully nurtured soundtrack and artful editing.

The theme is presented with clips from old Chinese and Soviet propaganda films that glorify the working man. The rest of the film shows the less glorifying reality of the workingman of today. Whether Ukrainian mine workers, Indonesian sulphur gatherers, Nigerian slaughtermen, Pakistani shipwreck-dismantlers or Chinese steelworkers, they do it not out of enthusiasm for their work, they do it to survive, to feed their families.

Death always lurks in the background, expressed in violent, full-shot images of the elements, the fire, water, soil, huge steel constructions, blood and animal carcasses. The images are full of power and danger, fascination and disgust. The camera follows the men carrying 110 kilos of sulphur on their back in two baskets down a small rocky mountain path. The only sound is the creaking baskets, merging at times with low music, like bells chiming. Glawogger creates suspense by crosscutting from several different angles when a huge section of a demolished ship slowly falls down. He composes a full shot of the open-air slaughterhouse, which is a chaos of the heads of creatures, intestines, a sea of blood and crowds of people working on a muddy ground. An epilogue shows that in the West the steel factories are turned into leisure parks. The dirty work isn’t present in our daily life.

04But Glawogger reminds us that it still exists. He is aestheticising dangerous, underpaid manual labour which begs the question: what is he trying to achieve? Instead of pitying the workers, he turns them into heroes, like in the old propaganda films. But he is not romanticizing their lives, he depicts the dangers they face, and they are given time to speak. They unanimously say that they are destroying themselves with this work only in order to survive. If they had other choices they would take them.

 

 


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