Workingman's Death (2005)
Directed by Michael Glawogger
Saturday, Apr 21 at the Museum of the Moving Image's Glawogger series
Unhappy are the latest heirs of Prometheus, their working lives a grueling disavowal of the ease which machines were meant to have brought to human lives. The subjects of Austrian documentarian Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death toil among flame-cast shadows—whether in the sulfurous craters of an Indonesian volcano or among the last seams of coal in an exhausted mine—at tasks which seem to have little, if any, relation to the post-industrial context of the doc's probable audience. Death is divided into quarters, with a two-part epilogue, and the Ukranian miners of the "Heroes" segment, like the Pakistani welders of "Brothers," eke out an existence that's best described as para-industrial—the mine is a government one, long abandoned, into which the miners crawl illegally, citing the need to survive; the welding in question takes apart decrepit oil tankers, one sad colossus after another falling to scrap in the surf of Pakistan's Gadani ship-breaking yard, the largest existing site for this work. In "Lions," Nigerian butchers, roasters, and cow's-head-washers work in a different, more classically gory open-air abattoir, nimbly avoiding the bloody pools in which cows lose their footing and to which they then immediately contribute.
Grim stuff this is, and craggily beautiful—Steadicammed by Wolfgang Thaler, the snowy, sparsely wooded hills of Donbass and the steam clouds of Javanese volcanoes are forbidding, but urgently animated by the men running through them, in the second case weighted down by 70 or so kilograms of sulfur. The sulfur miners pass at a steady pace through tourist photographs—perhaps a foot in the shot, or a wayward elbow. One, before selling a rock, asks for a picture of him with it, posing matter-of-factly for a shot unlikely to make its way to the vacation album.