The Austrian documentary film director Michael Glawogger died on April 22, 2014, a result of misdiagnosed malaria on a film shoot in Liberia. He was only 54.
The news came to me only this week. In some places, news does not travel fast, and this is a comfort to me. It allows time for the news to breathe, a gift of suspension we had when we wrote letters and when people had dignity in waiting.
Workingman’s Death is his 2005 documentary about hard labor, the kind of work we in the West prefer to believe banished to history books and now exists only as cinematic simulation. I saw it a few years ago at the Northwest Film Forum, the poster image in that week’s email of coming attractions some mix of color and shape and promise of unmodified truth I knew I had to see it, even on a school night.
I wrote about this night and the film’s sheer beauty and horror remains fixed but not frozen, its nebula spreading outward, coloring men behind counters, filling in shadows under the women manning construction barricades. Seattle has a serious fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. This would be a fortune to the people Glawogger filmed in Workingman’s Death.
I appreciate the film even more now. Unlike most films that nowadays declare themselves documentaries, Workingman’s Death has no message and no opinion. There is no narrator. The film crew goes into the same dangerous and inhuman environments as its subjects and the cameras roll. Glawogger is never seen. He knew to get out of the way of the color of the sulfur plumes, the gulping pause of tons of ship steel falling to a beach, the Bosch-cum-Kubrick horrorshow of a meatmarket-slaughterhouse, all the filth blooming color. Seeing this movie at 42 was like seeing Koyaanisqatsi at 13: a journey while sitting still, the view of a thing that could never fit in words streaming at rest in absolute time.
Glawogger was there that night at the Film Forum. Tall, bigger than befit lanky, scruffy but combed, his face the big, Teutonic block of someone who had made choices and not looked back, he took questions after the showing. His voice was soft and buttered with an accent: not harsh at all. He thought about his answers. He smacked around some twentysomethings who tried way too hard with their questions, something about whether he was exploiting the workers he filmed. Older people smiled and laughed. I rolled my eyes, because I might have asked similar questions that I now saw as naive. He wore cowboy boots. I liked him. In the lobby he was swarmed with people, and I decided I had nothing worthwhile to say to him. How many times can you hear I really enjoyed your movie, it showed me things I hadn’t seen in a way I hadn’t seen them before it gets boring? Now I guess the answer is: probably never enough. Making anything significant is hard.
Glawogger is not a big film name, at least in America. In a memorial essay by NWFF’s Adam Sekuler, Glawogger is described as a European film festival habitue, and “having a cunning way of cutting to the heart of everything.” Seattle U film students describing their epic ideas for their five-minute documentary piece, Glawogger said: “Do you know how short five minutes is?”
Here are the last two sentences of Sekuler’s memoriam: “He was only 54. Do you know how short fifty-four years are?”
ORF.at has an account of Glawogger’s death. My German isn’t good enough make significant sense of it, but Google’s translation is fitting: ethereal with the living body dream:
One day after the announcement of the sudden death of the malaria filmmaker Michael Glawogger were widow announced details for disease course…. Thus ill Glawogger last Friday in Harper, Liberia. The reanimation by the verge landed Austrian medical team remained without success. RETRIEVAL IS NO LONGER POSSIBLE
The poetry is chance from a dumb machine, but still beautiful, like something Glawogger would find. It is filmic beauty but with nothing to see.
Carpe diem has been thrown at me multiple times the past two weeks. I feel punchy, not quite glum, overtired; other days carried on a great current and held in a warm wind. The crawling glass tentacles of fear are gone, but so is some of the drive. Steady dedication is becoming a working substitute.
Those of us with careful lives have a lifetime of risk-aversion to overcome: save your money, get good grades, wear a sweater. Trouble is always around the corner. Your Uncle Eddie was fit as a fiddle, and then he didn’t put the lid back on the peanut butter, and two weeks later he was dead. So what do you think would happen if you didn’t have money coming in?
Needs and wants have become confused. We are rich enough, at least with the kind of rich that people mean. We can allow ourselves to turn the color up and let things happen without comment on what they are.