Working Man’s Death

December 23, 2006

Thus the title of Austrian director Michael Glawogger’s epic 2005 documentary about hard manual labour in the 21st century. I just returned from the very last screening of the film in Copenhagen. At least for now. And I do hope that it reappears in cinemas next year. If nowhere else then in the Danish film museum (which is a whole lot less dusty than my mentioning of it might seem to indicate).

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Working Man’s Death is monumental. Focusing on five extreme work places across the globe – interestingly 1 in Eastern Europe and 4 in Asia – we follow the daily routines of the workers, mostly on but also off duty. Predictably, conditions are horrifying. Yet this isn’t a film fighting the working man’s cause. Rather, it is a film bemoaning his death. Not as a hero of the masses nor as a victim of the system. If anything, perhaps as a curiosity.

“Is heavy manual labor disappearing or is it just becoming invisible?” Glawogger asks on the movie’s home page. Whatever the answer, it sure is hidden away well off the beaten track that leads off the beaten path. An illegal coal mine deep in the mountains of the Ukraine, a renegade slaughter yard somewhere in Nigeria, a boiling sulphureous volcano in Indonesia, and so on. It almost seems that whereever you would not look excruciating physical work is being done.

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An underlying – and perhaps obvious – theme in the film seems to be that the only reason people perform this kind of work is out of necessity. One of the Ukranian coal miners directly states: “I work to survive. No more, no less.” And it made me wonder, how about myself? Would I work if I didn’t have to? Probably not in any money-making sense of the word. Sure, I’d still be here writing, and sure, I’d still be lending a hand when my friends needed me to. But as for getting up on the bike and riding to yet another brainstorming session for yet another commercial project, I’m not so sure.

It’s true I don’t perform “heavy manual labor”, but I do perform heavy mental labour. And it’s true it doesn’t wear me down physically, but it does bide away at my time, and it does distract me from the things in life I value most, such as delving deep into whatever concerns me in my own personal life.

On his latest album Modern Times Bob Dylan sings:

The whole wide world is filled with speculation
The whole wide world which people say is round
They’ll tear your mind away from contemplation
They’ll jump on your misfortune when you’re down

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So – if I may take the liberty of saying so – the biggest difference between hard physical and hard non-physical labour in the world today seems to be the status it offers (and, of course, the money as well). The working man hasn’t disappeared, he’s simply changed. The primary goal of work has been removed from bread on the table to status in society. And without exagerration the two things have become equally important. What good is a well-prepared ecological meal if you haven’t got anybody to impress with it?

My greatest fear is my greatest paradox. To me, being a worker is the same as being just another bolt in the wheel of society. However, evolutionary speaking, it would be really hard for me to assert that I’m anything more than a bolt in the wheel of nature. Yet I strive to be something in my own right, and whenever I work I try as much as possible to work for myself. Not out of disdain for my fellow man, but out of respect for myself and the life that I’ve been given – or rather, the life that has been forced upon me.

So let my response to the call of “Workers unite!” be “Workers go hide!”. This is the true implication of Glawogger’s vision. The working man is dead, long live the working man!

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