“The theatre is not a classroom, so there is nothing to learn. But there is a lot to see,” Michael Glawogger quipped at the Flaherty seminar in 2010—just one of many choice aphorisms given (not just) on that occasion, demonstrating several of the unique gifts of this one-of-a-kind Austrian director. He not only was a wonderful person who made astonishing movies, but he also had the ability to talk about them, as well as those of others, in illuminating ways, vividly bringing forth ideas and impressions instead of resorting to academic abstractions or preconceived notions. He was also a fabulous writer, not just for movies. His poetic annotations of the coffee-table books of photos shot during the making of his prize-winning documentaries, or a recent contribution on John Huston’s great 1972 loser saga Fat City in the Austrian Filmmuseum’s 50th-anniversary book-set, deliver contraptions as fantastic as any of his fiction films. It’s an ability few filmmakers have (and they don’t have to: that’s why they’re filmmakers, not lecturers), and even fewer have Glawogger’s characteristic knack for the striking combination of humour and depth. The self-evident irony of the above statement is that there is something to learn when there is a lot to see, because there is always something to discover. Actually serious, but not self-serious, which may explain how Glawogger, always with a twinkle in his eye, seemed to slightly stand apart in the wave of success that made Austrian cinema an international festival mainstay (and a cliché, usually associated with a not-exactly-optimistic outlook) during the last two decades.
That particular aphorism could also be read as a mission statement. The act of seeing is a guiding motif of Glawogger’s cinema of discovery, and forcefully unites the two (only seemingly) disparate strands of his filmography (ignoring, for the moment, its rich sidebars). On the one hand, there are his internationally acclaimed, globe-trotting documentaries Megacities (1998), Workingman’s Death (2005), and Whores’ Glory (2011), on the other his no less accomplished “Austrian” fictions (some of which nevertheless stray pretty far from the home turf, further testifying to Glawogger’s world-spanning curiosity), criminally underseen outside of German-speaking territories for reasons that have little to do with the films themselves, but with timid distribution and festival politics increasingly relying on marketable hooks. Such a hook was amply provided by the aforementioned documentary triptych, thanks to the “globalization” buzzword that Glawogger himself tackled with a clear-eyed, critical stance. “I don’t like this word and have it removed from all the synopses in my press books. Because it is one of those words that serves as a projection screen: everybody uses it the way he needs it at the moment. I think that globalization is not a clear word,” he pointed out when Olaf Möller and I interviewed him about Whores’ Glory, a film in which you can discover quite a bit about globalization or about the exchange of money (and sex), but at whose core is an idea of love and its rituals.
“Issues are not our issues sometimes” was another Glawogger aphorism at the Flaherty, and it perfectly sums up the challenges faced by independent thinkers and artists like Glawogger in a world whose discourses feel increasingly tailor-made for middlebrow consumption. Thus also the sometimes divisive nature of his project, which cared little for compartmentalization; with film-school buddy Ulrich Seidl, he immediately crossed the documentary-fiction divide. How dare the “12 Stories of Survival” in Megacities show poverty in such sensuous, beautiful images (“Beauty is the splendor of truth,” the director would quote Plato), not to mention the oh-so politically incorrect approach of Whores’ Glory, devoid of handwringing about the exploitation of female sex workers? (As if its juxtaposition of three very different brothel areas in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico would not illustrate the nature of systemic exploitation under very different economic circumstances.) The whole (starting) point of Workingman’s Death was to find traces of something once crucial, but now lost in Western civilization: handmade labour. Instead of sentimental nostalgia, Glawogger’s chronicle of a disappearance hewed closer to the magical mix of down-to-earth cynicism and history-conscious eulogy of the Rolling Stones hymn “Salt of the Earth” (which he could not get for the soundtrack).
Whether music, football (recommended: Glawogger’s 1999 documentary France, Here We Come!, following Austria’s progress in the tournament, i.e., not very far), literature, or all kinds of cinema (and so much else, often discovered on his ceaseless trips around the world), Glawogger’s interest was boundless and infectious, whether holding forth enthusiastically about a recent re-read of Kerouac’s On the Road on a long-distance flight (“It has to be read in one breath: That is actually what makes it great, not the content”), or on documentaries by Robert Gardner and Joris Ivens, Mothlight (1963) by Stan Brakhage and Fata Morgana (1971) by Werner Herzog, the collected works of Frank Henenlotter, the freewheeling comedies of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, or H. C. Potter’s beloved Hellzapoppin’ (1941), the granddaddy of surrealist nonsense. Which leads directly to his superb comedies Slugs (2004) and Contact High (2009): the first is proudly lo-fi (and with a healthy dose of the melancholy lurking beneath its most exuberant visions), the second is high-gloss and seemingly inexhaustible in its euphoric free-associations, which on closer inspection (many re-viewings are warranted) reveal themselves as masterfully arranged, intricate patterns. In that sense, including its multi-faceted and staggering stylistic inventiveness, Contact High may be the most direct filmic expression of the gregarious pleasure afforded in the presence of Glawogger’s ceaselessly active mind. Applying his enthusiasm for researching details to the broad field of stoner comedy—he compared himself to a squirrel hoarding all footage of Stakhanov’s famous mining record for Workingman’s Death—Contact High also provided the welcome basis for my longest article for this magazine, and by all accounts, the most popular one. Thank you, Michael.
Most importantly, Glawogger understood himself as part of a sadly endangered species: a popular filmmaker with a hidden agenda, which did not translate as fodder for dominant ideologies and theories, but as the eternal wisdom of nonconformist enlightenment, expressed in the mind-boggling variations of classic farce formulas in his comedies. (“I want the audience to say: I’ve never seen it like this,” he once explained.) His cooler fictions, like 2009’s mostly misunderstood, modernist and personal bestseller adaptation Kill Daddy Goodnight, could be said to probe the downside, as if frozen by the protagonist’s inability to (bring) change—free will is another crucial subject in Glawogger. That yearning for discovery also drove his documentaries, and him, around the world, bringing back poetic images and sounds to electrify the senses and inspire individual thoughts, not to give educational advice. Glawogger often mentioned that he had to let go of the most intriguing details he found on these cine-journeys because of production necessities; after long funding battles, he finally set out with cameraman Attila Boa and sound recordist Manuel Siebert on his year-long project Untitled to film around the world without thematic constraints—four-and-half months and 50 hours of material into the shoot he died from multiple organ failure on April 22nd at Monrovia Airport in Nigeria while waiting to be flown out, after having contracted malaria tropica, initially misdiagnosed as typhus. The human loss is indescribable, no matter how hard we try, but maybe we can take comfort in his legacy (and the strangely reassuring fact that Glawogger died as he lived, out in search of new discoveries).
I am reminded of Jacques Becker, another key filmmaker of his time, who died aged 54 and whose filmography in retrospect looks like an awe-inspiring achievement—yet also like a promise unfulfilled. Of course, it needn’t be like that: over time we will learn how Glawogger has left us a lot to see, and see again.