There’s a leering quality to Workingman’s Death (subtitled “Five Portraits of Work in the 21st Century”) that puts it in the same league as those insidious Mondo Cane documentaries of the ‘60s. Few critics, though, will deign to make the comparison because Michael Glawogger’s high-glossed doc comes to us dressed in the trappings of an “art” film. (It’s telling the film was recommended to me on the basis of my love for The New World and Battle in Heaven.) The cosmopolitan Glawogger travels the world looking for devastating and revolting examples of grudge work, condescending to his subjects—Ukrainian coal miners, Indonesian sulfur haulers, Nigerian slaughterhouse workers, Pakistani shipbreakers, and Chinese steel millers—by soullessly and uninquisitively gawking at their misery. Glawogger dreams up a seductive orgy of sights and sounds, synching the sounds of crackling coal, volcanic gas, spewing cow blood, falling ship parts, and steel pistons with the impossible angles of Wolfgang Thaler’s camerawork and a site-specific electro-tribal score by John Zorn; the patina of this avant-garde exercise is swanky and alluring, but chip away at it and you will expose a hollow center. There is no direct address or snarky narration in the documentary, but Glawogger discovers interesting ways of getting his subjects to talk, like the Eisensteinian clip of Russian coal miners toiling away in the early 20th century that’s jarringly but excitingly cut into the first sequence of the film—a pretext that appears to get the present-day Ukrainian miners to talk about the evolution of their work in the region. The director is obviously talented, but his technical ambition and cleverness shouldn’t be confused for human interest—his concern isn’t to relieve pain but to record it from angles that will most flatter his audience’s sense of style. An epilogue set in Duisburg, Germany reveals how a shit site from the past becomes the playground for a generation of privileged young people—a stunning, no doubt unintentional, summation of Glawogger’s philosophy, which means perpetuating the death of the workingman by oppressing him with the movie camera.
- 7th Art Releasing
- 122 min
- Michael Glawogger
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