Michael Glawogger (1959 – 2014). Photo: Tommy Pridnig

In memory of Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger, Art of the Real will present a special screening of his globe-spanning masterpiece, Workingman’s Death (2005), and his rarely seen, Vertovian film poem, Haiku (1987), on Monday, April 28 at 8:00pm.

Michael Glawogger was a one-of-a-kind filmmaker and human being. I presented his work at the Flaherty Seminar in 2010 and organized a touring retrospective of his films in 2012, and over the years we had many conversations I will never forget. I thought of him the other day while watching Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss, one of Michael’s favorite films, and wondered how he was doing on his latest adventure. The new film, called Untitled, would take him around the world over the course of a year, and he described it, with relish, as “a film about nothing.” Michael was several months into his trip—which had taken him and his crew, in a Volkswagen van, from Eastern Europe to West Africa—when he died, on Tuesday night, in Liberia, having apparently contracted malaria. He was only 54.  

I got to know Michael in the summer of 2010 at the Flaherty Seminar, an annual event that brings filmmakers, curators, scholars, and critics together for an intensive week of screenings and discussions around a themed program. Michael’s films—in particular Megacities (1998) and Workingman’s Death (2005), both immersive and unblinking looks at some of the harshest imaginable working and living conditions on the planet—were central to the program I put together, which was designed to provoke questions about cinematic representations of labor and what it means to bear witness to work. (Michael would go on to complete his globe-trotting labor trilogy with Whore’s Glory in 2011.)

I remember feeling nervous about how Michael would fare in the combative atmosphere of the seminar, which has a well-deserved reputation as a testing ground for filmmakers and a battle zone for ideas about their work. Discussions escalate into clashes; things can get heated, even personal. Michael’s films have a daredevil quality; one might reasonably expect the man behind them to carry himself with a bad-boy swagger. But in person, as many will attest, he was the perfect gentleman, bereft of ego, exuberant and gentle and kind, eager to listen and quick to laugh. Of course it made sense when you thought about it: his films required not just a certain fearlessness but also great reserves of compassion and empathy. His body of work stands as a testament to his own insatiable curiosity and speaks volumes about how vigorously he engaged with life, and with the people and the world around him.

People called him a provocateur, and he certainly had a contrarian, button-pushing side. He would reminisce fondly about the premiere of Megacities at Locarno’s enormous Piazza Grande, and the hostile, near-riotous reaction that ensued. But at the Flaherty, even when the questioning threatened to turn antagonistic, he was a thoroughly disarming presence, warm and open and never even slightly defensive. The thing that troubled some people about Michael’s work is its beauty—specifically, the beauty that it often found in scenes of squalor and abjection. Sometimes Michael would respond to these qualms by quoting Plato: “Beauty is the splendor of truth.” And sometimes he would opt for a blunt smackdown: “I have the feeling that for a lot of people a documentary looks more truthful when it’s filmed like shit.” For him, art was not meant to educate or elucidate; at its best, it would leave “knots in your head,” as he loved to say.

At the seminar, in the company of younger filmmakers and artists, like Lisandro Alonso, Pedro González-Rubio, Lucy Raven, Uruphong Raksasad, and Akosua Adoma Owusu, all of whose work he responded to intensely, with his agile, open mind and appetite for the new—Michael comfortably assumed the improbable role of elder statesman. At one discussion where the Chinese filmmaker Zhao Dayong, speaking through a translator, was being pressed on the matter of intervention, Michael stepped in to defend him: “The filmmaker is neither the police, nor a social worker, nor a teacher.” All week long, he offered choice aphorisms on the ethics and aesthetics of documentary, sound bites with depth: “Only a football game or a war zone can be shot without awareness of your presence.” “The worst documentaries show the rich and the poor. You have to choose one.” His generosity extended to actual gifts. When the film scholar Scott MacDonald told Michael how much he loved his 1987 short, Haiku, Michael promptly handed him the 35mm print. (Scott is loaning it to us for our Glawogger tribute on Monday night: we’re extending our Art of the Real program with a special screening of Workingman’s Death and Haiku.)

Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death

I spent more time with Michael in the spring of 2012 during his touring retrospective. The weather was warming, and we took a few long walks, through Midtown and Williamsburg. To be around Michael was to become more alert to one’s surroundings. It also usually meant good conversation, as well as good food and drink, notwithstanding his absurd fondness for New York street-vendor hot dogs. We talked a lot about films that time—he was preparing his 10-best list for the Sight & Sound poll, an exercise he took seriously. The list he came up with beautifully sums up his artistic sensibility and worldview, although I know he was seriously thinking of also including Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, a film he loved. The retro started at the Museum of the Moving Image and the Harvard Film Archive, and after flying out west, Michael drove from Seattle, where he presented his work at the Northwest Film Forum, to Berkeley, where I joined him for a series of conversations at the Pacific Film Archive. (The transcript for one of them is available here.)

The Bay Area screenings were especially meaningful to Michael, who had studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and filmed his first short, Street Noise, on Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue. One day during the PFA retrospective, we drove out to Point Reyes with a few friends, bought a bushel of oysters from a shellfish farm, and found a nearly empty beach. In the absence of proper implements, we pried open the oysters with a screwdriver and drank white wine that was warming in the sun. The water was frigid, and there was not a soul in it, but Michael casually disrobed and went out for a swim; a little girl next to us spotted him in the distance and excitedly told her parents that she had seen a whale. It was a perfect day.

Michael and I were in touch last year before he left on his shoot—the funding had been a long ordeal and he was excited to get going—but the last time I saw him was in late 2012, in Vienna. I was trying to catch as much as I could at the Viennale film festival and he was getting ready to leave for Mexico City, but we found time for a leisurely lunch. He suggested oysters again—a tradition in the making, we joked—but this time at a white-tablecloth place and with a properly chilled bottle of white.

Long before the current vogue for hybrid cinema, Michael was already moving back and forth between fiction and documentary, at times combining and subverting both modes. He was one of the guiding lights for our new Art of the Real festival, which is premised on a more fluid and expansive understanding of documentary film. Just two days before his death, my Art of the Real co-programmer Rachael Rakes and I were discussing ways to include Michael in next year’s program.

It goes without saying that for those of us who were lucky enough to know Michael, this is a shocking and heartbreaking loss. His passing is also a tragedy for the film world. He was already a major and singular filmmaker. It pains me to think of the films that will never be made. But the knots he left in our heads will not be easily undone.