Life Is Tough All Over: The Films of Michael Glawogger

Large Image


The simple problem posed by any given Michael Glawogger film is a challenge to get one's head around it. The simple solution is to come out feeling a little faint, vowing never again to complain about one's job, and making helpless uneasy jokes about needing to swear off poultry for a while, or prostitutes. Right, but then what?

A native Austrian whose apprenticeship includes a stint at the San Francisco Art Institute, Glawogger has achieved international standing with a loose trilogy of documentaries about globalization and human labor. He returns to the Bay Area this week for two inevitably intense days of screening and conversation at the Pacific Film Archive.

Whores' Glory

Neither mushy profusions of shiny banalities nor hectoring calls to action, Glawogger's documentaries rebuke more familiar modes of nonfiction engagement. They might seem more like bourgeois-guilt-trip travel tours, neatly packaged in pungent nuggets of neo-Mondo masochism, if not for the director's conviction to keep looking: Whores' Glory, from last year, extends the scope of 2005's Workingman's Death, which in turn elaborates on 1998's Megacities. What he sees is unambiguously demeaning transactional labor, including sex, made even more untenable by the advent of technology. At times it's downright ghastly, and also challengingly quotidian.

Workingman's Death

Heavy-duty epigraphs -- from Faulkner, Dickinson, William Vollmann -- mitigate ostensible detachment by implying a mind at work. Glawogger suggests that condonation and condemnation aren't worth much, cinematically, whereas consideration is. And so he recognizes an immense, planet-wide squalor, from which sprouts of human culture tenaciously and perversely emerge. "The absurd is the cultural legacy of mankind," says one masked Mexican prophet. A Ukrainian coal miner tells us she wanted to be a dancer, but "now I dance with sacks of coal in the mine." A junkie hustler in New York asks, "What's my dream in life?" and passes out before he can answer. Meanwhile the so-called City of Joy in Bangladesh seems so ironically named as to suggest cosmic cruelty. The outdoor abattoir in Nigeria looks like a Bosch painting brought to life.

If these are places most of us would rather never go, their emotional auras are richly familiar, film history-wise. Unabashedly staged in parts, and aestheticized by increasingly slick cinematography and music supervision, Glawogger's nominal documentaries flit across geographical and categorical borders as if waved through by Werner Herzog, himself a proponent of invention as a way toward truth. It's the world but it's also an odd cinema dreamworld, where spectacles contrived by the likes of scrappy mysterio-wayfarer Jim Jarmusch and moneyed city-demolitionist Christopher Nolan have been held socially accountable. People in Megacities talk about going to the movies for recreation, and whether or not this explicitly endorses the Preston Sturges theory of movie make-believe as noble diversion from life's "cockeyed caravan" is hard to say. Paradoxically, it is safe to assume that they aren't going to see the films of Michael Glawogger.

Kill Daddy Good Night

The PFA's slate also includes one fiction feature: In Kill Daddy Good Night, based on Josef Haslinger's novel, a vaguely patricidal young Austrian video game designer finds himself refurbishing a Nazi war criminal's hideout, and therefore in dialogue with a bona fide first-person shooter. Even escapist catharsis, it seems, demands a reckoning.

Afterimage: Films of Michael Glawogger runs Friday, May 4, through Sunday May 6, 2012, with the filmmaker in conversation with New York critic and programmer Dennis Lim, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit

More on Movies

The Latest on KQED Arts

Theater Review | Apr 15, 2014

Doctor Faustus Gives Hamlet a Schooling in Witty 'Wittenberg'

Martin Luther, Hamlet and Doctor Faustus prove an irresistible combination for a college comedy. By Sam Hurwitt  

Multimedia | Apr 14, 2014

Here's to the Late Adopters

Sometimes it's OK to wait for the bugs to get worked out before jumping into new tech. By Emily Eifler  

Music | Apr 14, 2014

What Is Up With BottleRock 2014?

If I could use only one word to describe the 2014 edition of the Napa Valley wine, food and rock festival's eclectic rundown of artists (based on the opinions I've heard voiced and, to a lesser extent, my own) it would be: huh? By T.J. Mimbs  

Literature | Apr 13, 2014

Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson: Q+A with Maira Kalman

Author and illustrator Maira Kalman latest book, Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, is a whimsical and hypnotic look into one Founding Father's life and accomplishments. By Ingrid Rojas Contreras  

Performance | Apr 12, 2014

The Sean Keane Exit Interview

Last month, Sean Keane, one of San Francisco's top standup comedians, announced that he is moving to Los Angeles in May. Before letting him board that 'Greyhound of the Skies' flight to Bob Hope Airport, it seemed only fitting to subject him to that most ignominious of employment traditions: the exit interview. By Anthony Bedard  


Also on this week ...

The New Environmentalists: From Chicago to Karoo
KQED Celebrates the Earth

April 22 is Earth Day, but KQED is celebrating our planet all month long. Tune in for special programs, attend special events, and find more resources online.

View of a dry Mt. Diablo from Briones Regional Park in the East Bay. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)
Where's the Rain?

KQED covers news about California's drought, offers water-saving tips, and more.