Messy and Vital

Nick Pinkerton on the films of Michael Glawogger

Left: Michael Glawogger, Megacities, 1998, still from a color film, 90 minutes. Right: Michael Glawogger, France, Here We Come!, 2000, still from a color film, 80 minutes.

“THE ABSURD IS THE CULTURAL HERITAGE OF ALL MANKIND,” says a man who identifies himself as SuperBarrio Gomez, declaiming to the slums of Mexico City while wearing the flamboyant uniform of a masked lucha libre wrestler, as though to illustrate his own point. SuperBarrio Gomez is one of hundreds of subjects in Austrian Michael Glawogger’s sensory overload Megacities (1998), a sui generis global-symphony film that displays its author’s intrepid, incurably curious camera and his dab-handed editing from the opening set piece sequence, which follows a train through Mumbai’s Govandi slums, breaking away along the tracks to isolate quotidian vignettes.

Megacities squirms with details of scraped-by, subsistence-level life as lived in the lower depths of Mumbai, Mexico City, Moscow, and New York. Our shared heritage of absurdity, and the tenacity with which humanity as a whole continues to bear up under it, is something like the film’s subject as well as the continuing theme of Glawogger’s hemisphere-hopping documentaries, which teem with bodies and bickering ideas.

In fact, SuperBarrio Gomez partially mouths Glawogger’s sentiments—of his dialogue, the filmmaker once said, “It’s sort of a commentary that was made between him and me.” Like Ulrich Seidl, Glawogger’s countryman, mate from the Vienna Film Academy, and sometime collaborator, he makes films that exist in the perilous no-man’s-land between observed documentary and scripted fiction, contrasting the veracity of their life-marred subjects and locations with obviously staged and blocked scenes, frequently ennobling formal tableaux and diorama-like compositions. (Glawogger has made a number of films that classify more purely as fiction, but none quite so awesome and awful as his documentaries, which connect to the heritage of the ’60s mondo film, while adding a philosophical breadth and reserve all their own.)

Glawogger’s 2000 France, Here We Come! follows the Austrian national team through the 1998 World Cup, counterbalancing spectator hopes at home and abroad as his camera travels to Cameroon, Chile, and then Italy to view the matches as reflected in the expectant faces of Austria’s national enemies on the soccer pitch. Illustrating the workaday function of hope and faith in that which is well beyond the faithful’s control, France, Here We Come! is a companion to Seidl’s collection of confessional religious longings like Jesus, You Know of 2003—the films are also linked by their superlative cinematographer, Wolfgang Thaler, who has lucidly framed much of Seidl and Glawogger’s best work.

Evidences of sorely tested light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel faith abound in Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005), which collects instances of wretched work from around the globe. The film begins with potent images epitomizing the film’s subject, life on the perilous margins: Squatters mine an abandoned colliery in the Ukraine, their work consisting of wriggling into an underground claustrophobic nightmare, working their seam while separated from catastrophe by mere centimeters, trust in one’s fellows, and a prayer. We are all, in this world, one mistake away from disaster, but it is dizzying to see this plight made so tactile and immediate.

Material that would provide a full feature for most filmmakers is, for Glawogger, only one element in a larger cross-cultural dialogue of interacting pictorial parts, an unfolding multipanel work. Bong-Nam Park’s 2009 Iron Crows, for instance, documents life in the Chittagong ship-breaking yards and is, down to the ritual animal sacrifices, very near to a section in Workingmen’s set in a Pakistani yard. Glawogger’s latest documentary, the not entirely ironically titled prostitution panorama Whores’ Glory (2011), is in fact described as a “triptych,” and that word’s medieval associations pervade Glawogger’s work, showing not only the continued existence of toil, squalor, and superstition that seem distinctly premodern, but also a sense of doomsday that recalls plague times, as in Workingman’s open-air abattoir in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the ground a mess of mud and surging arterial blood, the sky choked with Triumph of Death smoke from burning-rubber pit barbecues.

“Why should my job bother you so much?” sings a streetwalker in some Dhallywood confection excerpted in Glory, which, as with any of Glawogger’s meditations on labor, suggests a cacophony of point-counterpoint answers to that question. Glory is practically a sequel to Death, for it concerns rough shift-work—the sort done mostly horizontally—in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico, and, as in Death, it shows people dealing, or failing to deal, with circumstances that almost anyone in a position to view these films would deem unendurable. Says one of Glory’s if not happy then at least pragmatic hookers: “A job is a job. We have to enjoy what we do.” Too true—and few today are doing the messy, vital job of etching life onto the screen as well as Michael Glawogger.

The first US retrospective of the films of Michael Glawogger runs April 19–29 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Whores’ Glory has its US theatrical premiere in New York and select cities on Friday, April 27.