Die Presse has passed along word from the Fachverband der Film- und Musikindustrie (Film and Music Austria) that Michael Glawogger has died while filming in Africa. As of this writing, we know nothing about the circumstances of his death other than that it was sudden—he was only 54.
Two years ago, on the occasion of a retrospective that traveled to both coasts, Michael Fox wrote here in Keyframe that “Glawogger, an Austrian who studied in Vienna and San Francisco, achieved international prominence with Megacities (1998), an ambitious, elegantly shot snapshot of tenuous life on the cusp of the millennium in the tense, teeming metropolises of Bombay, Mexico City, Moscow and New York. Experiential rather than educational, this sobering film employed a strong, bold aesthetic but provided few facts and no moral. For moviegoers used to sifting and weighing meaning from nonfiction, Megacities was an odd, disorienting experience.”
“The sheer beauty in Michael Glawogger’s trilogy of documentaries showing people at work across the globe can be startling,” wrote Nicolas Rapold in the New York Times, also in 2012. “Whether it’s a scene involving an Indian dye worker coated head to toe in ochre, a voluptuous Mexican stripper turned into a touchable goddess by mesmerized men, or a roiling open-air slaughterhouse in Nigeria, Mr. Glawogger’s spectacles can induce in viewers awe at the visuals, surprise at the intimate access to exotic lives, and perhaps a vague sense of guilt. You might wonder: Is this for real, and is it O.K. to like it?” After Megacities (1998), the trilogy includes Workingman’s Death (2005), “a heady travelogue of elemental manual labor in Ukraine (coal fields), Indonesia (sulfur pits), Nigeria (that abattoir), Pakistan (gargantuan ship salvage) and China (steelworks),” and Whores’ Glory (2012), a “triptych of prostitution—observing the hustle and conversation in a Bangkok whorehouse called the Fish Tank, a Bangladeshi brothel ghetto and a roadside strip in Mexico.”
The Harvard Film Archive also screened what it called the “Globalization Trilogy”:
Joining fellow Austrians Ulrich Seidl and Nikolaus Geyrhalter as leaders of an emerging wave of adventurous documentary, Glawogger also belongs to a tradition of documentarians who have traveled far and wide to find images that reveal the way the world works—from the Soviet Union’s Dziga Vertov to the Netherlands’ Joris Ivens and Johan van der Keuken to the American Godfrey Reggio…. Despite their aesthetic veneer, Glawogger’s films neither romanticize nor trivialize the lives of his subjects. On the contrary, his trilogy is nothing less than a quest to reveal their lives as difficult and complex, yet containing resonant moments of what Glawogger calls “human beauty” that humanize and enrich the films.
In a 2012 conversation with Dennis Lim, a transcript of which we ran here in Keyframe, Glawogger noted that “my films are called documentaries, but they’re maybe not the kind of journalistic work many people expect when they think about things like prostitution, big cities, manual labor… [W]hat you’re bound to see is more artistic documentary filmmaking—some call it even experimental, some call it provocative, I don’t know—you can judge that.”
Glawogger also made narrative features such as Slumming (2006), which Twitch‘s Kurt Halfyard has called “a fascinating character study, specifically looking at how people function outside their closed little worlds they form around themselves,” and Das Vaterspiel (Kill Daddy Good Night, 2009), about which Notebook editor Danny Kasman has written: “[T]here is something to Glawogger’s handling of the material (and careful adaptation of Josef Haslinger’s source book) that makes the gaps, the awkwardness and the brazen allusions strange and challenging rather than ignorant or ham-handed. Though destined to be set aside and shrugged off because of this unusual and very fine sense of puzzlement it creates, Kill Daddy Good Night also remains the most interesting movie of the 2009 Berlinale.”
Updates: Der Standard, which has been running Glawogger’s diary entries from around the world as he embarked on the year-long production of the film he was working on, reports that he’d contracted malaria in Liberia and died Tuesday night before he could be transported out of the country.
“Glawogger was no one-issue filmmaker,” writes Scott Roxborough in the Hollywood Reporter, noting that Glawogger “last worked on the 3D architectural documentary series Cathedrals of Culture, alongside such luminaries as Robert Redford and Wim Wenders. In Glawogger’s segment, he examined the life and history of Russia’s National Library.”
“Glawogger’s work covered everything from handheld vérité to sit-down interviews to expressionistic silent-style montage,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club, “and he didn’t think twice about having his subjects stage scenes or perform for the camera. Part of what made his documentaries so exhilarating was the way he would adapt his approach, tuning style and structure to each subject. Uniting all of these diverse techniques was a sense of empathy and perspective.”
“In person, Glawogger was a gruff, suffers-no-fools type who wasn’t afraid to tell you if your question didn’t interest him,” writes Ryan Lattanzio at Thompson on Hollywood. “He especially wasn’t interested in talking about the ‘craft’ of filmmaking but, rather, he loved sharing his extraordinary encounters with the world. You could almost say he was more visual anthropologist than filmmaker. Glawogger never cared for tidy conclusions or reassuring answers, and he worked tirelessly up until the very moment of his death.”
The Dissolve‘s Noel Murray: “While Glawogger’s death won’t be the end of the kind of documentaries he made—because they’ve practically become a genre unto themselves—it still stings to lose someone whose work was so artistically vital and culturally important.”
When Glawogger was in Seattle in 2012, he helped out two students of documentary filmmaking as they worked on a profile piece on a local heavy metal clothing designer. Dalyce Lazaris and John Ned’s seven-minute short about that process is The Three Body Problem, which you can watch online.
In 2012 (again), Glawogger sent his list of top ten films of all time to Sight & Sound: “I chose three experimental films, three narrative features and four documentaries, and I wanted all of them to have a poetic quality and a strong visual, rhythmic and almost haptic tone.”
That same year, Notebook editor Danny Kasman spoke with Glawogger about Whores’ Glory—and Nick Pinkerton wrote for Artforum: “Says one of Glory’s if not happy then at least pragmatic hookers: ‘A job is a job. We have to enjoy what we do.’ Too true—and few today are doing the messy, vital job of etching life onto the screen as well as Michael Glawogger.”
Update, 4/24: “I thought of him the other day while watching Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss, one of Michael’s favorite films,” writes Film Society of Lincoln Center director of programming Dennis Lim, “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.’ … 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.”
Update, 4/25: The New York Times has posted Douglas Martin‘s obituary: “Mr. Glawogger was accused of staging scenes. His answer, in a 2012 interview with Cineaste magazine, was to ask, ‘What exactly is that definition of reality?’ … Mr. Glawogger won numerous awards, including the London Film Festival’s Grierson Award for Workingman’s Death; the Austrian Film Award for best documentary for Whore’s Glory; and the award for best screenplay at the Ghent Film Festival for Slumming.”