By Olaf Möller
Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Austrian director Michael Glawogger?
One thing’s for sure: few entries in this year’s Venice Film Festival will be as hotly debated as Michael Glawogger’s latest.
Whores’ Glory is a movie meditation on the rites of love—a baroque documentary about hookers and their dreams, daily grinds, and anxieties, shot as events unfold in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico. Why the controversy? Because Whores’ Glory doesn’t confirm what the audience already thinks it knows. Glawogger doesn’t condemn prostitution, and he doesn’t present the hookers in his film only as victims and the johns and pimps as criminals. And he doesn’t investigate the underworld structures that underpin the trade. All of that information is there, out in the open, visible and audible, as part of these women’s lives: human trafficking, substance abuse, violence, etc., are etched on their bodies, present in their conversations and anecdotes. But there’s so much more to their lives that simply doesn’t fit with the views that well-meaning people hold about prostitution, ignoring the very real needs and desires in play and the inconvenient facts that women also exploit one another, that there are dead ends in life, and that miracles actually can happen. For Glawogger, prostitution is just another line of work in which value is traded, i.e., the illusion of love plus some kind of physical release in exchange for hard cash or soft favors. Human folly as usual.
Whores’ Glory is a companion piece to Workingman’s Death (05), Glawogger’s epic song about labor that, in five chapters and an epilogue, demonstrates that work is the essence of the human condition. Ideologies come and go but people will always need to buy or sell goods, slaughter animals for food, etc. The subject’s timelessness is given shape by the film’s final chapter devoted to smelting steel: first we see Shenyang workers in a steel mill, talking about their bright future the way their colleagues in West Germany probably did a half-century before; then we see Duisburg teenagers making out in an abandoned steel mill that has been transformed into a theme park, oblivious to the history under their feet. This is the reality that awaits Shenyang. Ever so tacitly, Workingman’s Death describes a circle: the first and last chapter are devoted to heavy industry (coal mining in chapter one, steel in chapter five), while the centerpiece, in an open-air slaughterhouse in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, is constructed as a cycle of life and death. Whatever the future brings, someone somewhere will labor away at something or other, in the same way that there’s always someone looking for love.
The main inspirations for Whores’ Glory were triptychs by Bosch and Brueghel: Thailand is Heaven, Bangladesh Earth, and Mexico Hell. Creamy colors, melodious whispers, and gracious manners are all part of the daily routine at Bangkok’s aptly named Fish Tank, where the women are separated from the johns by a glass wall, seen but not heard, chatting and making fun of their prospective clients, who study them carefully, wondering. Each becomes the other’s spectacle. The Fish Tank runs like a factory with a time clock, locker rooms, lunch breaks, etc. When we get to the City of Joy in Faridpur, Bangladesh, things become louder, lewder, and more chaotic: the often foul-mouthed girls simply grab the guys they want, take them to their rooms, and insult them if they resist. Johns are berated for not showing up regularly; catfights break out; the men often look puzzled and embarrassed—they’re certainly not in control of the situation.
Both workplace and home, the City of Joy is a matriarchy in which older hookers become madams, sometimes selling their own children or other girls they’ve either bought or “acquired.” It’s another cycle of life in all its alternately merry and monstrous messiness. In contrast to their Thai sisters, the Bangladeshi women don’t seem to know how to escape. The City of Joy is a maze whose inhabitants run in circles. In Reynosa, Mexico, in a neighborhood known as La Zona, the inhabitants run on empty in an eternal night of brutish neon and dread-filled darkness as cars endlessly circle the one-room shacks where the hookers bide their time between tricks. It looks as if the only way out of this place is death. La Zona is all about entropy in a society that’s on the verge of disintegrating. The End of Days seems near, devastation is all around, madness runs rampant.
War in Vienna
“Apocalypse rising” could be the motto of Glawogger’s cinema. Most of his work, be it fiction or documentary, ends with what might be best described as a Revelation. The truth is laid bare, no matter what, and in Slumming (06) and Kill Daddy Good Night (09), just as in Whores’ Glory, it’s devastating, as if Jonathan Edwards’s angry God had finally made a fist. In Slugs (04), Workingman’s Death, and Contact High (09), however, things settle into a kind of muted or stunned serenity—in the latter, it’s a blissful sense of transcendence and improbable contentment.
From the outset, Glawogger’s work has been fueled by a sense of impending doom. His first feature, War in Vienna (89), co-directed by film-school buddy Ulrich Seidl, was a quirky portrait of Austria’s capital and an absurdist exercise in mass media critique in which the city continues its boring day-to-day-existence while the rest of the world appears to be in turmoil. An amorphous mass of sounds and images stitched together from facts and imaginings, choice TV morsels from across the globe, and fiction scenes shot without any preconceived notion as to how they would fit in, War in Vienna somehow still holds together the way only juvenilia can. Ant Street (95), Glawogger’s solo debut, is a cinematic Wienerlied about the inhabitants of an apartment house who are all true originals in one way or another. It’s a continuation of War in Vienna in an altogether different register. This time the director opts for playful formalism, spectacularly weird production design, and a certain narrative rigor that befits many of the characters’ neuroses or temperaments. The influence of Seidl is obvious in the dollhouse aesthetic of many scenes, which make life look as if it’s happening within a makeshift proscenium—but where Seidl finds his dollhouses, Glawogger builds his. Multiple stories play out, though a narrator, a clerk in the city’s office of statistics by the name of Navratil, keeps everything in perspective. In the beginning, Navratil mutters that people never read “The Signs” and ignore the minuscule changes taking place all around them. Life moves on even when everything appears to be motionless. In the end, the apartment building becomes a prison for its inhabitants: nobody dares leave their apartment lest they discover that it has already been sold by the new landlord. A very Viennese sort of Hell.
Ant Street announced Glawogger as one of his homeland’s most unique voices, but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. It was his third feature and first documentary, Megacities (98), that put his name on the international cinema map. In contrast to his subsequent nonfiction films, Megacities is a stream-of-consciousness voyage of discovery, composed of encounters, views, and observations from Mumbai and Mexico City to Moscow and New York. To a certain degree, it’s Glawogger’s manifesto film: everything we’ll ever need to know is right in front of us, if only we will look—and accept the world for what it is. If it shines, or if there’s beauty, it must contain some truth. The rest is ideology, a hacking away at things to make them fit, for better or worse. Or as Anastasia in Kill Daddy Good Night says of her deceased husband, a former government minister: “The truth didn’t square with the way he imagined things to be. He was a politician; he thought there’s a solution for everything.”
All of which makes Glawogger’s films sound more apolitical than they actually are. Just because he never points an accusatory finger, that doesn’t mean he endorses poverty or exploitation. But however much degradation and global injustice he exposes, he isn’t negating the possibility of achieving happiness or contentment. In fact, the system works because people always find a way to cope. Every system will work, somehow, for a period of time.
In Megacities, Mexican “superhero” Superbarrio Gómez declares in his address to the world that the absurd is mankind’s shared heritage. The nameless grandfather of Ratz, the protagonist of Kill Daddy Good Night, would agree in his own way. Too weak to feel anything after being liberated from the Dachau concentration camp, he sat down on a bench and started to laugh, long and hard, as if it was the only thing he could do right then and there with his fear of an unknown future.
It’s easy to read Glawogger’s films—especially Slumming and Kill Daddy Good Night, his two most sinister and cold yet most politically alert works—as defeatist. There’s nothing idealistic in his cinema, nothing soothing or forgiving. Glawogger is definitely not handing out cinematic letters of indulgence. If we want change, we have to find it in ourselves, we have to work for it and see it in the world. Free will is his great subject: we make and shape each day. The protagonists of Slumming and Kill Daddy Good Night learn this the hard way, through exile and death. What they make of these lessons, we’ll never know. What we make of them is up to us to find out for ourselves, by the cold light of day.