The title and premise of the festival favorite Workingman's Death both seem to promise an unbearably grim wallow in the inhuman suffering of the international laborer. The filmmakers deliver just that, yet it's not only bearable, but strangely entertaining as well.
Writer-director Michael Glawogger travels the globe to explore a handful of the most dangerous, backbreaking jobs imaginable, from Ukrainian coal-digging to ship-dismantling to animal-slaughtering. The film opens with ironic archival footage of Soviet laborers heroically vowing to increase productivity for their glorious workers' utopia, but the laborers on display here only aspire to survive, and they approach their lives and jobs with grim resignation. The pie-eyed idealism of early Soviet propaganda is a luxury they simply can't afford. Parts of Workingman's Death are predictably painful to watch—at least for people who don't enjoy seeing animals get butchered—but there are also delightful, unexpected moments of levity, as when an Indonesian sulfur worker tries to explain one of his favorite groups, Bon Jovi, to a colleague. The message is clear: Though manual labor varies according to region and culture, the love of shitty music is apparently universal.
But Workingman's Death's primary pleasures are aesthetic. Glawogger is an extraordinarily elegant filmmaker with a photographer's eye for striking compositions. He seems to have selected the jobs documented here as much for their telegenic qualities as their all-around awfulness, and he excels at divining moments of pure cinema and haunting beauty out of the most perilous places and professions on Earth. Workingman's Death immerses audiences in the drudgery and bleakness of toil for two hours, but strikes a few hopeful notes, such as footage of a former German steel plant that's been transformed into a palace of leisure. After exploring the soul-deadening aspects of work, Workingman's Death can still dream of a world beyond labor.