Bright Lights Film Journal

“We Still Have to Work Just as Hard as Before”: Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death

“The tourist says that it’s a lot to carry and the worker agrees, then gets on with his work.”

Fifteen years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the “triumph of capitalism,” Michael Glawogger’s revealing documentary Workingman’s Death examines the nature of work/industrial relations in the context of the globalised world, its scientific and technological progress and a transition to service economy, the most significant processes affecting the world in the twenty-first century. We are rarely reminded of the persistently marginalised pockets of (post)industrial world in which menial workers still represent a substantial section of the workforce and working conditions are reminiscent of the era when unskilled labour was crucial for economic development.

Told in six chapters, Workingmen’s Death focuses on the life of unskilled workers in the underdeveloped countries and looks at the last vestiges of physically intensive menial labor in socially, economically, and culturally diverse regions of the Ukraine, China, Nigeria, and Indonesia. In the gloomy opening sequence titled Heroes, the miners of Donets Basin (Donbass), once proud heroes of the Soviet economy (the best economy of the nineteenth century according to the late 1970s joke), are now working in abandoned mines struggling to make ends meet. The camera follows them as they work in freezing and dangerous conditions, contemplate their daily existence and the difference between the old Soviet Union and the present-day market economy, and nostalgically lay flowers on the monuments of the forgotten heroes of the world’s proletariat. In 1935, Alexei Stakhanov, a coal digger from Donbass, was celebrated as a hero for extracting fourteen times more than the work norm. A city and a movement were named after him. These days, the unemployed miners crawl for hundreds of yards in abandoned “mousetraps,” not higher than sixteen inches, break the coal into pieces, and shovel it lying flat on their stomachs. Ironically, they work illegally in the mines that were once state-owned and, as the communist ideology proudly boasted, belonged to the workers. Donbass is now awaiting complete closure or privatisation. Glawogger suggests that its former workers are the collateral damage of post-communist transition and the rapidly changing economies of Eastern Europe.

Workingmen’s Death shows how uncontrolled growth and concessions to speculative greed have generated an array of unacceptable working conditions in the underdeveloped, unregulated global market. The globalised world patently discriminates against the lower classes and does nothing to alleviate the basic injustice. There are no unions to bargain collectively and press for higher wages and better working conditions. When a tourist asks the miner of Kawah Ijen (Indonesia) who carries large chunks of sulphur on his back, how much is he carrying, the worker replies: 125 kilograms. The tourist says that it’s a lot to carry and the worker agrees, then gets on with his work. Director Glawogger composes the almost surreal scenes in the extremely difficult circumstances in which the miners break sulphur with bare hands and brave the suffocating fumes to earn their daily bread; but, unlike contemporary documentarists who focus on political or environmental issues, he does so without moralising. The filmmaker is more concerned with the contrast between the intensity of globalisation and the situations and circumstances of his heroes that remain largely unchanged.

Economic grievances are not the only cause for concern for Glawogger. The sequence shot in the slaughteryards of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, a city wracked by nervous sickness bordering on collective insanity, shows the slaughtering of bulls and goats and the roasting of carcasses on burning tyres. The chaotic, claustrophobic life in the Nigerian city reveals the ambiguities and contradictions of the globalised world; a sense of resignation amidst the squalor and despair of the largely forgotten African society.

Glawogger’s portrayal of sites, circumstances, and individuals engaged in hard manual labor echoes the photographs by Sebastião Salgado, especially when he visits the large shipyards in Pakistan where workers cut the huge oil tankers into pieces. We are too often confronted by politically driven media representations of Pashtuns as aggressive Islamic fundamentalists with guns and long beards, re-living the fantasy of seventh-century Mecca. However, Glawogger is more interested in this intensely Islamic and patriarchal world where mosques are built amidst the debris and squalor of oil tankers, as a social and cultural context, providing solace for lonely workers away from home.

In the sequence shot in the steelworks of Angang, China, Glawogger finds more optimism than anywhere else on his journey. Yet it is not blind ideological faith, but belief in modernisation, scientific, and technological growth. The interviewed Chinese steel workers believe in knowledge, education, and efficiency as much as they nostalgically look back at the heroes of socialist progress. They know that their children will live and work in a different society; however, their circumstances remain unchanged: “We still have to work — just as hard as before,’ says one.

The last sequence, shot in Germany, at the former Duisburg-Meiderich smelting works of the Thyssen Krupp plant, now converted into an art installation, provides a fitting epilogue to this documentary narrative. The filmmaker suggests that at the former Duisburg-Meiderich site, the future of hard manual labor has arrived. A bastion of order and cleanliness, technological growth, and industrial sophistication at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Duisburg-Meiderich complex is now converted into a leisure park where adolescents gather to have good time. Those running along metal stairways and taking photographs at observation platforms look into the brightly coloured sky above the complex unaware of its past, relegated to the humus of history and the memories of the industrialized world.