It was one of the last films I programmed while living in Minneapolis. Michael Glawogger’s WORKING MAN’S DEATH is probably one of the fiercest encounters with the world I’ve ever seen put to film. A testament to its creator’s ability to view the world, in all of its beauty and horror at once, WORKING MAN’S DEATH isn’t so much a call to action as a call to awareness.
Some seven years later, I had the great fortune of meeting Michael when I screened several of his films at Northwest Film Forum. He came for what turned out to be nearly a week’s worth of screenings that included Megacities, Working Man’s Death, and at that time his latest Whore’s Glory. I wasn’t sure what I to expect when I drove out to the airport to pick him up. His films, whose vibrant colors gave luminance and expression to the horrible working conditions that many suffer in other parts of the world, suggested a larger than life personality. Stepping off the escalator with his shiny western boots, long hair and denim shirt, the man I began to refer to as the Austrian Cowboy entered my life with a disarming smile of kindness. His is the kind of smile that made it easy to understand how he made his way into just about anyone’s life.
Over the course of the week Michael and I spent a lot of time drinking, exploring the city on foot, and meeting with excited filmmakers and students. He always had a cunning way of cutting to heart of everything. On one such occasion, we sat in a Seattle University classroom listening to students pitch their new short documentary film projects. It was more like listening to the epic tales of Homer, as one after another student suggested these vast narratives they wanted to capture with their 5 minute or less films. When all the groups had finished presenting, Michael smiled like he had at the airport, and said in his beguiling Austrian accent, “Do you know how short five minutes is?” And while we all laughed, Michael was serious in his criticism. He proceeded to offer new approaches to each student’s film, seeing the weed in the weeds if you will.
Towards the end of his stay Michael decided to participate in a little game I often offered to visiting filmmakers; making a one-shot film. At the time he was working on a photo book on hotel rooms. More than enchanted by the accommodations we provided at the Panama Hotel (he suggested it was the best hotel he ever stayed in), Michael decided to make a hand cranked silent 35mm film in which he looked at the camera and spoke without us hearing anything. Despite some jams the cameraman encountered, the resulting film feels a bit like a Lumiere actualité. Michael insisted that he never wanted to see the film, but would put it on his filmography and that all he wanted was a still pulled to possibly include in his book. He said we could show the film whenever and wherever we wanted.
Later that summer I found myself in Vienna in between the Locarno and Venice film festivals. Michael and I met at a cafe in the heart of town. We spoke about the 3D project he was directing for Wim Wenders’s company and his excitement in getting funding for his Untitled film about Nothing, which he excitedly described as a project in which he and a small crew would drive around the world finding a subject but not knowing what the film was actually about. Like so many of his other projects, it was a film about discovery.
Bitterly, it’s a project that will remain nameless. Last Tuesday night, several months into the filming, while on location in Liberia, he apparently contracted malaria and died. He was only 54. Do you know how short fifty-four years are?