Workingman’s Death (Austria/Germany, director Michael Glawogger): After you see this film, you’ll never complain about your job again. Subtitled something like “Five Portraits of Work in the Twenty-First Century,” Glawogger’s documentary features some of the most dangerous, difficult, or just plain unpleasant work in the world.
Each segment except the last one is about twenty-five minutes long, and is shot without any voiceover narration and very little editorializing. We are simply presented with people working and talking about their work. The director possesses a very painterly sense of composition, and we’re often presented with shots of workers posing as if they were in front of a still camera. The camerawork is even more impressive when it is moving, and I often found myself wondering how they were able to film in some of these conditions.
The segments follow, in order, a group of miners in Ukraine who have dug their own coal shafts, a group of men in Indonesia who collect sulfur from an active volcano and haul it down the mountainside, butchers at an open-air slaughterhouse in Nigeria, men who break apart rusting ships for scrap metal in Pakistan, and steelworkers in China. Although all of these workers are merely surviving, the thing that struck me most was how contented, even happy, most of them were.
That being said, three of the five segments featured Islamic societies, and I found myself wondering about the connections between the conditions these men were working in and the rise of Islamic radicalism. Among the shipbreakers in Pakistan, for instance, there was an interesting segment which followed a photographer who circulated among the men charging them a fee to take pictures of them holding an assault rifle. There was no voiceover, but I got the impression that these men wanted to be seen as revolutionaries instead of just subsistence scrap workers.
The most intense segment had to be among the butchers, and there was quite a lot of blood and gore evident as we watched the men work. But strangely, I found this a more honest approach to the production of food than I saw in the factory farms in We Feed The World. These butchers are “hands-on,” literally.
The final segment, filmed among steelworkers in China, was the shortest, and the least interesting, but the director was trying to end with the optimism of the Chinese workers for the steel industry, which he contrasts with shots of a defunct steel mill in Germany that’s been turned into an art installation. His point was slightly unclear, but overall, his unflinching eye for detail, even in some harrowing work environments, makes this documentary a must-see.