Work in motion

Siegfried Mattl, 2007

The first cinematographic picture, at least the first film, that was shown to the general public was La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon, 1895, 45 seconds. Whether it is a documentary remains controversial, as there are some indications that the brothers Lumière directed the workers when these left the factory stores. Be that as it may. La Sortie bears witness of a tight connection between film, industry and the workforce – a connection, which on the level of production relationships, the criticism of the “studio system”, is well known, especially so in terms of the composition of the early cinema audience. What the film as social subject and collective actor may mean to the workforce (and vice versa), and whether the film’s intrinsic “realistic” political power is to be discovered anew and originally by each new generation of filmmakers are questions which can only be addressed through case studies.

Even in both of Ruth Beckermann’s early films (made together with Josef Aichholzer), the camera repeatedly returns to the factory gate. The gate is border and threshold, an area in which at the moment of changing shifts everything is set in motion. The formed and fixed mass behind the barrier dissolves into individual figures and faces – the relationship to the camera becomes ambiguous, ranging from tired ignorance to inquisitive attempts of contact. Power relationships and identities are registered. Is the attention directed at the person, the man, the woman, young or old, monosyllabic or expressive, self-confident or resigned? Or is one simply a figure in a landscape – an accessory? – part of an ever thought of nameless and thoughtless collective? And if the latter: on whose instruction is the camera there – at the order of the factory management or at the instruction of a T.V. channel?

Ruth Beckermann’s films about the strike at the tire producer Semperit (SUDDENLY, A STRIKE, 1978) and about the protest demonstrations at the steel work Judenburg (THE STEEL HAMMER OUT THERE ON THE GRASS, 1981) do not dispense with the film icon of Sortie, but only to give the camera a different job, namely, the ability to eliminate the power of the gate as border and threshold. It is the beginning of a complex undertaking – to penetrate the factory and to uncover the power and violence relationships in a production publicity, as Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt called their joined literary political project. (Part of this is the fact that management denied shootings on company grounds. The interviews could only be conducted on the partially free territory of restaurants.) Against the aesthetic distribution of lordly and factually oriented reports of the dominant media, Beckermann and Aichholzer hold the self articulation of the workers, their passions, their memory, also their seriousness and pride in their material labor, which around 25 years later appears in the “Mac-Job Society” almost as an anachronism (or as a testament, depending). The intent of the film is the communication of ongoing events, not their commentary from the outside. The goal is, with the help of the camera to create a social area which usually is absorbed by the established word games of professionalized interest groups. The means are meager, in the aesthetic as well as in the literary sense: video interviews and discussion records in black and white, long lasting shots, recordings of radio and television announcements dominate the visual shape of the Semperit film. The poetic sequences produced in color (camera: Bernd Watzek) for the Judenburg film subordinate themselves to the gray and rough general picture, even if, in retrospect, they allow the emergence of a deeper understanding of the culture of a disappeared industrial landscape. (Their use was based less on dramatic assessment and more on the availability of resources –on who made money and material available at any given time for this autonomous project.)

SUDDENLY, A STRIKE and THE STEEL HAMMER OUT THERE ON THE GRASS originated in a phase of social, political, and cultural change, whose duration and effect could only be understood in retrospect. The European wide intensive and long industrial conflicts of the 60ies and 70ies ended with the dissolution of the large factory structures and the establishment of globalized network production – not without the help of politics- which thereby followed Margaret Thatcher, having come to power in 1979, in the destruction of the state regulated instruments of the Fordian factory society. While in 1978 the Semperit workers, backed by rising production, wanted to achieve higher salaries by striking, today instead of 4000 only 400 people work in Traiskirchen. In the interval, the partially state owned German company Continental was sold, the company was decimated, and the tire production was transferred to Eastern Europe and the Far East. Of Styria, Judenburg, two to three steel works with 350 of the once 1500 workers remained after the privatization in the mid 90ies. The Company Towns, which once harbored a tight-knit community, who shared the workplace, were members of the same sports clubs, participated in the fire department and held a mute understanding of the materials, technology and work organization, are now structurally weak areas, hoping to be able to join the leisure and tourism economy. For the two film projects something else, however, was the center of attention, namely, the complete or almost complete imprinting of the social construction of reality through the industrial production conditions. Everything, ranging from education to health to cultural politics, had been subordinated to the national goal of continuous industrial growth. Both films thus are to be understood without difficulty as an exposition about the disciplinary society and its main representatives, the company bosses and the unions. This happens in the Semperit film, next to the off commentaries, in an at times extremely ironic way through the inter-medial use of cartoons (Manfred Deix) and contradictory background music. In the Judenburg film things are more complicated and require a short explanation. At the beginning of the filming one could not tell who among the rivaling speakers for the workers would take the lead. Even before this became apparent, Ruth Beckermann and Josef Aichholzer concentrated on the works counsel Horst Scvarza (I believe because of his “authentic” appearance), who rebelled against his own faction. Scvarza, the grass root speaker, later called the, “Lech Walesa of Judenburg”, who was ready to breach discipline, throughout the progression of the film folows the picture in order to end in the climax of the works assembly. It is a picture, which, it seems to me today, catches with extraordinary sensitivity the tensions, the personally expressed wavering between doubt and determination, and creates a psycho gram of social conflict of outlasting significance.

To allow oneself to get involved, to improvise, to employ the camera as a social actor – these I imagine are the lead ideas of Ruth Beckermann and Josef Aichholzer in 1978, 1981. This in the political environment of a quantitatively hardly important Austrian, i.e., Viennese Left, which had established contact with the local literary and film Avant-gardes before its time and thus had to, or was permitted to, create its own instruments and philosophy – separated from but also connected to the mainstream successful authors in the thus reformed Austrian television. If in this environment anything connected to tradition existed, then it was transmitted through the revolution myth – a sympathy for Sergej Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, for the disdain towards rules of the Nouvelle Vague, opened up through the “Maoist” Jean-Luc Goddard. I don’t know whether Chris Marker’s “Die Kamera in der Fabrik” (1970) (1) was shown in cinemas in this country. But perhaps one does not need a reflective cinema graphic sense of style in order to use Marker’s methods on the occasion of an intervention in a strike in Beacon: to give the floor to the workers, to subordinate oneself to them or more precisely to a specific constellation of social battles – to direct the film against the politics of unawareness, like Jacques Rancière, who once again emphatically stresses its potential. Perhaps, the agitation film was in the air just like the strike to which it attached itself.

Translated from German by Samia Geldner


1) DIE KAMERA IN DER FABRIK, Chris Marker, Group Medvedkine, compilation of the films À BIENTÔT, J’ESPÈRE (1968) and CLASSE DE LUTTE (1969)