It’s time to unpack the car and head back to the grind. In preparation for another year of the rat race here are three films about work, workers and workplaces that will mostly leave you wondering why we still bother.
THE ARTHOUSE ESSENTIAL
La Commune Paris 1871 — YouTube
Peter Watkins’ five-hour experimental docudrama is hard work, but for those who have the staying power it’s a richly rewarding, intellectual experience that offers a fly-on-the-wall vision of a seminal moment in history.
Filmed in black and white as if a documentary of actual events unfolding during the socialist, utopian moment of the Paris Commune in 1871, it’s full of weighty political debate on the relationship between workers and owners in early industrial capitalism.
Watkins — one of the great political provocateurs of cinema — provides painstaking analysis and investigation of the the commune’s brief takeover of the French government and the promises of its ambitious socialist programmes.
It will make you rethink our acceptance of the unequal and often absurd conditions that continue to govern work and economic power relations today. It may be a difficult viewing experience with its almost wall-to-wall political and philosophical debates and intellectually twisting exchanges, but there is plenty of relevance in its celebration of a still-possible alternative vision of social, economic and power relations.
THE STONE COLD CLASSIC
Modern Times — Mubi.com
Charlie Chaplin’s last great largely silent outing for his beloved tramp character from 1936 may be politically naive and idealistic, but it still stands as an icon for the Sisyphean drudgery of the industrial worker on a factory production line.
Some of the sketches are recycled from other Chaplin classics but the tramp’s journey on the rat race of modern life — from the floor of a state-of-the-art factory to a bustling restaurant waiter and his eventual emergence as a stage performer — still has a vital urgency. Its sharp, satirical take down of the banality of work rings as true today as it was during the tail end of the Great Depression at the time of its original release.
Chaplin’s unique mix of relevant fun-poking, resigned laughter and poignant empathy keep the well-oiled machine running smoothly towards its predominantly hopeful conclusion on a journey that explores, as its opening title portentously promises, “humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”.
THE DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
The Nothing Factory — Mubi.com
Portuguese director Pedro Pinho’s epic dissection of the Kafkaesque nightmares faced by modern workers is a blisteringly provocative and stylistically diverse beast of a film. It’s often as frustrating and seemingly illogical as its subject but always interesting and surprising in its execution.
A group of workers arrive at their factory one night to find strange men trying to steal the equipment, and it soon becomes clear that their bosses are involved in some skulduggery to scrape together what cash they can before the businesses’ collapse. Naturally, the bosses have known about for ages but have failed to tell the workers. The furious and righteously indignant workers then band together and decide to occupy the factory in an attempt to stave off their imminent redundancy.
What starts off as a piece of classic 1960s style neo-realism soon branches off into a variety of different genres, including musical, political polemic and black anti-capitalist nihilistic comedy.
It’s a gloriously messy but boldly innovative attempt to explore modern working relations in all their perplexing, infuriating absurdity. The film can be a little uneven but it’s always intriguing and it’s carried by its undeniable singularity and energetic direction that keeps things moving towards a decidedly downbeat and uncertain conclusion.
Running for almost three hours, the film leaves plenty to ponder and an overarching feeling that the answer to the question, “Work, what is it good for?” is more likely “Absolutely nothing.”