"Working Man's Death": The Invisible Weavers Of Our Golden Robes By Pamela Biénzobas
“In war,” answered the weaver, “the strong make slaves of the weak, and in peace the rich make slaves of the poor. We must work to live, and they give us such mean wages that we die. We toil for them all day long, and they heap up gold in their coffers, and our children fade away before their time, and the faces of those we love become hard and evil. We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We sow the corn, and our own board is empty. We have chains, though no eye beholds them; and are slaves, though men call us free.” Oscar Wilde, The Young King
Whilst recently watching Michael Glawogger’s Working Man’s Death, one of the highlights of Venice’s Horizons section, I couldn’t help thinking of Oscar Wilde’s The Young King, even though it had been a while since I actually read it. In Wilde’s poignant short story, a teenage king-to-be has been brought up as a peasant but becomes obsessed with luxurious beauty. On the eve of his coronation he dreams of the workers and slaves who are risking their lives to find the jewels needed for his ceremonial garments.
In the five-chapter (plus an epilogue) documentary, we see those workers that are usually invisible to us well-fed and protected Westerners: the ones that risk their lives in order to survive, and whose hard labour is essential to keeping alive the very system that feeds and protects us. I would not dare to say that there is a clear intention of social denunciation behind the film; I cannot pretend that this interpretation is inherent to the Austrian director’s work. But since the beginning it was a compelling reading. We may not be young kings living in a world of luxuries, denying our past as goatherds. But we take such fundamental comforts for granted, that we deny our basic human nature. Left to our own physical devices, most of us would surely not survive, used as we are to just turning on the heating or buying our food already harvested or processed.
Then who is it that deals with the unpleasant work for us? No one, it would seem. And we can easily believe it as long as we don’t see it, nor question the conditions of inequality and exploitation, essential to making the product of this work so easily accessible to us. “The burden of this world is too great for one man to bear, and the world’s sorrow too heavy for one heart to suffer,” the cynical Bishop tells the Young King to his indignation, to soothe his social and moral concerns.
Again, I cannot say that Glawogger seeks to provoke that indignation in us. But perhaps when we are confronted with so many manipulative films, we become more sensitive to those that simply show, apparently without commenting. Such visual images, especially if they are as powerful as those in Working Man’s Death, speak for themselves. Sometimes showing, if it is done with this level of skill and art, can be enough. And what this film does is bring hidden concepts to the surface and into our field of vision. We see the workers doing the work, and not just as abstract symbols of a category of society.
Glawogger has said that his inspiration was this concept of the heroic “working man”, a symbol that was so important in the past century, especially in many former communist countries, and which used to contain a heroic and dignifying element that today has often been replaced by the simple need to survive. And which is apparently disappearing in our highly technological world.
The film’s title can work in two ways: since it restores the individual, concrete existence of each of these workers (at least before our eyes, which had hitherto ignored them), we could see it as the menace that hangs over most of their heads every day: the death of each of those working men. But it is mainly the death of the “working man” as the symbol it used to be, either within the productive system (but then again, can the system really afford to eradicate this symbolism that often validates exploitation?) or at least the disappearance of the recognition by the rest of the system that benefits from his work.
The portraits of “working men” in this film — illegal miners in Ukraine, ship dismantlers in Pakistan, slaughterers in Nigeria, sulphur miners in Indonesia, and steel workers in China — are not built on pathos. They simply show the workers’ realities as they are, something which makes the images even crueller and bolder. The camera is present, but does not intrude. It establishes a connection with the workers, but depicts their work from the viewpoint of an impartial, non-judgemental observer. The only problem comes when Glawogger attempts to do this in the context of daily, more intimate moments (such as filming personal conversations or, in the epilogue, teenagers interacting and kissing): even if the director is not staging the situation, people inevitably become self-conscious and stage themselves.
The powerful music by John Zorn punctuates the images, reinforcing their aesthetical dimension: happily (exceptionally?), Working Man’s Death is not just worth watching for its content. It is a work of art that mobilises the resources of film language, and in every scene it is apparent that Glawogger really cares for the form of his film. But it is not an aesthetics of hunger, or a glorification of the strong bodies doing the dangerous work for us, trying to disguise the inequality under the myth of a supposed dignity associated to physical work. Glawogger presents the hard-labourers in all their dignity, but not that lost dignity of a former social status. When the workers’ personal sacrifice for the better good of the community or the State has lost its meaning, it is his dignity as a human being that is rescued before our eyes.