Workingman's Death

March, 2005, Documentary

An obscure title perhaps, but this movie's content is as plain and straightforward as an old-maid schoolmarm. Written and directed by Michael Glawogger, a veteran Austrian filmmaker, Death examines the continuing global presence of back-breaking physical labor. In stunning images, the director examines the efforts of the world's poor to scratch out a marginal living when equipped with little more than muscle power and sheer determination. It ought to be required viewing for every able-bodied American teenager over the age of 12.

Glawogger presents this world of grinding, dangerous work via a handful of carefully selected cases. First, miners equipped with only the simplest hand tools lie on their sides in the frightening confinement of a long abandoned Ukrainian coal mine, their lungs ingesting the blackened dust which accompanies that fuel as surely as it coats every inch of their unprotected bodies. Then the director follows the manual harvesting of sulfur residue from an active volcano high in the mountains of Indonesia. A pair of more exotic professions come next; Glawogger spends a day at the open-air slaughter house of Port Harcourt Nigeria, (where animals are sliced open and then roasted whole in order to preserve them) - - then it's on to the sea coast of Pakistan, where decrepit, ocean-going commercial ships are deliberately beached like aged whales so they can be reduced to scrap metal by welders perched precariously above the waters of the Persian Gulf. Lastly, Chinese steel workers, illuminated by blizzards of flying sparks, fashion steel out of white-hot iron ore. 

There's no gender-bias here, no labor-saving equipment or the kind of protective clothing that's employed in more advanced societies. Most tellingly, the work is done without a single thought to minimizing exposure to the potentially fatal side effects of these chosen livelihoods. It's not that the workers are unaware of the risks involved; it's the alternative that provides a crushing logic. As one of them put it, "either we do this, or we die". Without any other means of making a living and absent political institutions to provide more suitable employment or increased job safety, things simply are as they are. 

Given the harsh circumstances and bleak outlook for any hope of improvement in their condition, Glawogger's subjects may surprise first-world audiences with the equanimity these toilers bring to their lot in life. Almost all speak in terms of deep affection for their families and with a simple faith in the Almighty. With the most modest of dreams, a complete lack of self-pity and no discernable rancor towards the governments under which they live, their labors speak volumes about simple human tenacity.

Glawogger’s cinematography has perfect documentary pitch; it's straightforward and visually dramatic without being artsy or staged. (He's so close to his subjects that it's easy to feel the same apprehension for his safety that you do for theirs.).  If the director selectively included only those who were willing to speak with good-natured acceptance about their lives, he'd be guilty of nothing more than demonstrating, with his gorgeous cinematography, the admirable stoicism of his subjects. 

Glawogger's camera observes without intruding; no sermon is given and no value-laden conclusion drawn. Yet there are two instances in which the director silently editorializes; in the first, he presents without comment, scenes in which tourists in Indonesia photograph each other, oblivious to laborers in the background, struggling up rock-strewn mountain paths carrying 150 pound baskets of unprocessed sulfuric residue on their backs. And he closes his handsomely composed study of manual labor with scenes of a decommissioned German steel mill that's been converted into an urban park used by teenagers for "hanging out" and necking. Is Glawogger challenging what he sees as the smug acceptance of those in the first world at their privileged lot in life?  He's much too subtle to say; instead, he presents lives of considerable risk and quiet dignity and asks audiences to judge for themselves.

This one's worthy of Oscar consideration next spring. 

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