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R.I.P. Michael Glawogger, documentary director

Michael Glawogger made documentaries about the underclass, the people toiling away at the world’s oldest professions: Ukrainian miners, Mexican sex workers, Russian beggars, Indian dye-makers, Nigerian butchers. His best-known films—Megacities (1998), Workingman’s Death (2005), and Whores’ Glory (2011)—examined life in the sub-margins, using polyptych structures and a freeform approach that allowed each section of the film to function as its own self-contained movie. Early this morning, Glawogger died of malaria in Liberia, where he was filming material for his next project. He was 54.

Born in Ganz, Glawogger studied at the San Francisco Art Institute before returning to Austria to attend the Vienna Film Academy. He made his debut with 1989’s War In Vienna, but achieved a creative and critical breakthrough in 1998, with the release of Megacities. Shot in Mumbai, Moscow, Manhattan, and Mexico City, the ambitious project—subtitled “12 Stories Of Survival”—vividly captures what it feels like to work at the bottom of the world’s largest cities, from the loneliness of the late shift to the packed bodies of a slum train.

Glawogger’s work covered everything from handheld vérité to sit-down interviews to expressionistic silent-style montage, 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.

Here’s one of Workingman’s Death’s chapters, taken from an Al-Jazeera broadcast, and preceded by an introduction. It focuses on “freelance” miners in Ukraine.

In addition to documentaries, Glawogger directed narrative films, including Slugs (2004), Slumming (2006), and Kill Daddy Good Night (2009). He also collaborated several times with his friend and fellow Austrian Ulrich Seidl, with whom he shared a regular cinematographer, Wolfgang Thaler. 

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