The World Viewed, Part 2

The globe-spanning, category-defying works of Michael Glawogger
by Olaf Möller  posted April 18, 2012
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

The following text, translated by Kurt Beals, is an excerpt from Olaf Möller's forthcoming book on Michael Glawogger, Weltwärts (Worldwards). Part 1 can be found here.


What unites Michael Glawogger's documentaries and feature films stylistically is their narrative style, which is very fragmentary, with eccentric, highly expressive details woven together. Or to borrow a phrase from the Austrian writer Heimito Ritter von Doderer: they are almost all episodically centered. In this respect, Contact High represents the high point of Glawogger's work to date. When you see the film for the first time, you feel lost in a baroque drug trip full of wild ideas and visions arising in the moment out of hedonistic impulses. But when you watch it again, when you know the story and let yourself be taken in by the production and the structure of the script, then you begin to recognize that the film is as precisely structured as a Bach fugue, that even the smallest detail communicates something, usually subliminally, so that the aesthetic harmony of the whole becomes clear, even if you can't identify all of its components. A few examples: similar paintings of wolves hang in Vienna and Kraków, though the painting in Vienna only briefly flashes by; a little girl's hair barrette looks exactly like the stone bird on a mosaic in the pizzeria in the train station in Drogomysl?1; etc. It gets a bit more complex with the not-so-Babelian mixture of languages in the film: German-English-Polish-Spanish-French. It begins with the pleasantly trivial surprise that there is a hotel in Kraków called "Blaue Krone"; continues with the sudden ability of one character to exchange niceties in Polish; and then with the surprising moment when Johann asks a Polish train conductor out of the blue, in French, if they've arrived in "DrogomüSELL" (which, given the historical importance of the French language for Polish intellectual life, actually isn't such a stretch); culminating in the moment when Max and Johann simply speak Spanish with each other, because after all, the whole scene is being played by "Mexican rules."

Contact High

Michael Ostrowski  in Contact High

This fragmentary form of storytelling has always interested Glawogger: Ant Street is a web of subtly intertwined anecdotes and observations; the earlier War in Vienna was assembled in a completely associative manner, a sort of mosaic. Going further back, to the short films that he made while he was a student at the Vienna Film Academy, one discovers even there Glawogger's pleasure in ornament, which seems to have vexed the faculty at the time. In his first year, Glawogger was supposed to make a film about a work process, but it developed into a Godardian fractured narrative, a sci-fi mystery about a contract killer. His instructors were so confounded that they threatened to kick him out, so he responded with a second work film—a farmer clearing a field with his scythe—that functions almost like a parody of the idea of realism. (His instructors understood it as such, and accepted it with good humor.) The first film is pure fiction, but it has reality dripping out of every pore; the second is an exercise in affirmative realism, but what it shows above all is the false universality of all gestures and movements.

Here, Glawogger's own filmic and literary tastes can prove illuminating. When asked for Top 10 lists in each category—an exercise comparable to the I Ching, or to a Rorschach test—he sent the following: Films: The Age of the Earth (Glauber Rocha, 1980), Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985), Mothlight (Stan Brakhage, 1963 [short film]), Fat City (John Huston, 1972), Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter, 1941), Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978), Hécate (Daniel Schmid, 1982), Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1954), In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000), Tiempo de morir (Arturo Ripstein, 1965). Prose: Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (Jan Graf Potocki, 1815), Mi (Su Tóng, 1990), Alive (Ha Jin, 2000), Wánr de jiùshì xintiào (Wáng Shuò, 1989), Roman No. 7. Zweiter Teil. Der Grenzwald. Fragment (Heimito Ritter von Doderer, 1967), Ubik (Philip K. Dick, 1969), Chokher Bali (Rabindranath Thakur, 1902), Yukiguni (Kawabata Yasunari, 1947), Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1902), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Laurence Sterne, 1767), as well as The Atlas, mentioned above. But five minutes after sending these lists he followed up with another email, replacing one of the books (doesn't matter which) with Obryv (Ivan Goncarov, 1869).

Notable in these lists are two omissions. Jean-Luc Godard does not appear among the directors, though his photo still decorates Glawogger's desk (they share a birthday, Glawogger says, that's what unites them). And Kurt Vonnegut is missing from the list of writers, though Glawogger has repeatedly cited him as a central influence on Contact High, and Kill Daddy Good Night also displays decidedly Vonnegutian dimensions: the jarring montage of various temporal frames, for instance, is strongly reminiscent of Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,' a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace (1969). Be that as it may—he said that lists like this are always changing anyway, every half-hour or so.2 For instance, he first came across Ripstein when he was preparing to make Whores' Glory, because Ripstein's El carnaval de Sodoma (2006) takes place in an extravagant luxury bordello. He liked the film, he wanted to see more by the same director, so he came across Tiempo de morir, which he has been raving about ever since. Herzog, Visconti, and Brakhage, on the other hand, are among his first loves. It's revealing that he doesn't name a single documentary film on this list, but it's not surprising; revealing, too, that many films on the list have a moment of trance, of drifting, of experiencing the world in a state of elevated consciousness. The Glauber and Brakhage films are veritable trips; Klimov's has an element of the kind of nightmare that you cling to because the shock in it reminds you that you're alive, while Schmid speaks of losing oneself in the foreign, being swallowed up by an Other.

Whores' Glory

Whores' Glory

His list of belles lettres is notable for the disproportionate number of Asian authors. The traditional long forms in Chinese, Japanese, and Indian literature are—by our standards—more sketch-like than the Western European bourgeois novel. They devote more attention to describing the circumstances of the moment, the atmosphere, rather than the chain of events and the development of dramatic arcs. If we were to speak of "Eastern" literature, the proportions would be even more dramatic (Conrad, remember, was born Józef Teodor Nalecz Konrad Korzeniowski), while Potocki's Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (the French original, remember, is lost) is probably everything in a novel that Glawogger would like to create one day in film.3 And it's almost a joke that the work he cites by Doderer is Roman No. 7. Zweiter Teil. Der Grenzwald. Fragment, an incarnation of incompletion—perhaps because in the end everything is only a splinter of something else, perhaps because that novel offers a key for Glawogger's understanding of the streams and eddies of existence: In the end it was almost as if nothing at all had happened in the meantime. The water of time was standing clear, layer upon layer, decade upon decade, and it almost seemed that you could see right through it, all the way to the ground.

One final note: Chokher Bali and Senso are powerful examinations of desire and nationalism, the borders of classes and nations, treason and (self-)destruction. They are works about the emergence of the world whose decay is described in Glawogger's works, film after film. What remains today of Behari and Roberto, of Binodini and Livia, in all their burning and infatuation, are types like Andreas (the protagonist of Running Stray, one of Glawogger's current projects), and the negative potential in Mao.


Among Glawogger's feature films, Slugs is the only one that adheres to a relatively conventional, compact dramatic structure—i.e., Slugs could be produced in a theater without any major changes. Three Oblomov(a)s from Graz—Max, Johann, and Mao—want to solve their financial problems (and, in the case of the two young men, find release for their sexual urges) by making a porno—but they learn that sex on demand is hard work, a job they can't, or won't, perform. Maybe these ladies' men, eternal students, and other desperate types just can't perform because they make their own effort contingent on certain expectations, wanting everything to unfold Hollywood-style in several acts. It only works when they cast aside all of their ordinary expectations, when they all act like animals until they've thrown off the weight of civilization and they can just fall on top of each other. It turns out soon enough that this is just a short-lived utopia—but the few minutes when it was working, when there was some sense of what it would mean for everything to be different, those few minutes were magnificent, and maybe even worth all the trouble.

Slugs had its fantastical moments with these animal guises—in its continuation, Contact High, Glawogger cultivates his stoner comedy version of magical realism, driven at least as much by Louis de Funés and Adriano Celentano as by Vonnegut, Lewis Carroll, and Hunter S. Thompson. Reality here is nothing but one side of the mirror that Alice steps through, but in the course of the film it becomes less and less clear which side is which, what's real and what's imaginary.

It's easy to get lost in Glawogger's films: reality has something of an illusion to it, fantasies become true. Adding to this is his hopping back and forth between tonalities: just as he changes from documentary to fiction and back, he also changes seamlessly in his feature films from comedy to drama and back—if it even makes sense to speak of these subcategories. Glawogger, at least, certainly sees the serious, often melancholy, and always wise aspect of his comedies, just as he sees the comic-absurd, sometimes grotesque aspect in the details of his grimmer works such as Slumming and Kill Daddy Good Night. The former follows three lost souls drifting through Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Indonesia; the latter follows the life of a Vienna politician's son from the '80s to the present, and that of a Lithuanian-Jewish petit bourgeois from the '30s to the '50s. The stories are separated in space and time, but they share a common psychological motivation in father-son relationships, and they may ultimately coincide in a suburb of New York—they may, though upon closer examination of the film a certain gray trace of doubt remains. In Slumming, the stories and fates become more and more tightly woven together like motifs, until the moment near the end when the characters, unbeknownst to each other, all arrive at the same place, but only the cutting of the film brings them together. In Kill Daddy Good Night, on the other hand, all of the characters remain locked in their own worlds, and there's no getting out. The horrible thing is that the son, who has spent his life designing a game in which players try to kill their fathers, experiences a moment of regret and realization after his own father dies, but he is powerless to stop the game's success on the Internet. In the end, the only thing he can do is recognize his own inner father, and play the game with himself as the father.

Kill Daddy Good Night

Sabine Timoteo in Kill Daddy Good Night


What would an image of Glawogger look like? How can his creative work be summed up? Perhaps in the description of a project that he has been working on for years, but so far has been unable to produce: For Gods Only-The Kim Eng Teochew Opera. Here is the preamble to the treatment that he wrote in 2008 in Zurich (where the initiator of the project, Hannes Schmid, lives), Vienna, and Singapore:

An actor stands on a simple wooden stage and looks at many rows of empty red seats. He proudly delivers the sentence: "The art of opera is passed on from one generation to the next, it will never perish." The actor is over 90 years old—even he doesn't know exactly how old he is, or how many of those years he's spent on this hand-built stage. All in all, it was his life. A life for art.

He and all the other members of this theater have almost always performed like this, in front of temples—and empty seats. The sound of their words, songs, and prayers, and with it the spirit of opera, has ascended into the infinite space of the heavens, and to the gods who live there.

For Gods Only-The Kim Eng Teochew Opera

For Gods Only-The Kim Eng Teochew Opera

Today it no longer appears that this opera will exist forever. These days the stage of the Kim Eng Teochew Opera only rarely pops up between housing complexes or among the skyscrapers of one of the most modern and best organized cities in the world—in the streets and parks and in front of the last temples of Singapore. Like a fleeting shadow, it turns up for a few days or just a few hours. For those that see it, it looks like a phantom, a vague memory from the past. And once the spectator has left the site, he can no longer be sure if this opera really exists. And that's how it should be. For the performances are for the gods, and not for men.

And yet we have the all-too-understandable need to preserve the final moments of this art before it ascends forever like smoke to the heavens and disappears. The moment is right, for the sun is never more beautiful than in the moment of its setting.

This is Michael Glawogger, the driving force behind his creative work:

-To film something that no one has ever seen, and that wasn't—and never will be—made for human eyes.

-To preserve something for the world to come, before it's too late (we can assume that in addition to the documentary's projected run-time of about one hour, Glawogger will also record a performance, for future reference).

-To play with death, dance with it, play tricks on death at work (think Jean Cocteau).

Or be tricked by death. Who knows, for instance, if Teo Cheng Lim, the old man who delivers these powerful sentences about the eternity of his art, is even alive anymore? What's certain is that the King Eng Teochew Opera doesn't exist anymore—according to the treatment from 2008, Chua Hock Kee, who ran the opera company, wanted to dissolve it in 2007 because all of the participants were getting too old; he carried out his plan in February. If Glawogger returned to the treatment in 2008, that must mean that the Kim Eng story itself was only part of what interested him, that his real interest is in the history of traveling opera companies more generally—i.e., he might be able to realize this concept with another troupe.

If you look into the history of the Kim Eng troupe in particular, or of Teochew opera in general, you can quickly see where Glawogger has intensified things a bit, condensed them. Kim Eng didn't just perform for the gods (of course, one might be inclined to say), but also for mere mortals, as the treatment itself suggests after this attention-getting opening: Mr. Chau interrupts his performance, lets the actors take the stage, and speaks in a lowered voice about the gods and the rituals. He explains when a piece is for humans, and when it is for the gods. Then he picks up his suona and plays another piece. He briefly explains that what is happening on the stage right now is a ritual, and that it is being performed exclusively for the gods. We may watch, but we should be reverent before the gods. We could even provoke the wrath of the gods via the medium of film, if we aren't the right spectators. This last notion, that film can reach into the lives of its spectators, that cinema can be dangerous, clearly appeals to Glawogger.

By way of explanation, it should be mentioned that Teochew opera, like all the Southern Chinese traveling opera traditions that have taken root in Singapore, has an inherently spiritual dimension—in practical terms, the productions are a mixture of popular entertainment and religious rituals, which is why (in the past) temples normally paid for these spectacles. The audience members knew what was done when for whom—i.e., when then should watch, and when they should look away.

Until the '80s, traveling troupes like the Kim Eng, the Sin Yong Hua Heng, Lao Sai Tao Yuan, or Sin Sai Hong (who perform Hokkien, not Teochew operas) were part of the urban image of Singapore. That all changed by 1997, with the Asian financial crisis: on the one hand, there was less money to go around, and as so often happens, cuts were made in the cultural sector; on the other hand, street cultures like the Teochew and Hokkien traveling operas no longer fit into the urban image of one of the most modern and best organized cities in the world. Or to put it another way, one of the most neurotic nations on earth4—a country that so consistently, obsessively reshapes itself that a 40-year-old soft drink bottle can be treated as an archaeological treasure. "Disneyland With the Death Penalty" (William Gibson, 1993) tries hard to look like a timelessly modern city, but it ends up looking more and more like a combination of a high-end shopping center and an amusement park for the whole family—these, meanwhile, are the places to which the classical regional operas have been consigned, at least in part, which of course drastically changes both their function and the way they are perceived. But between the rows of houses, they still call to mind something older and deeper in their inhabitants, something that can't be driven out by architecture or other ordering principles—at least not without a loss.

And so this picture, too, of Teo Cheng Lim saying The art of opera is passed on from one generation to the next, it will never perish, will never be taken. And so another piece of (narrative) culture is entrusted to that most fragile, most unreliable of all media: a person, with a sense of responsibility. A person who might one day tell a story about an opera form in Southeast Asia that the audience wasn't even allowed to watch, because parts of the performance were meant for the gods alone. And maybe this story will grab a listener, who will begin to do research, and who will find a copy—digital, or whatever format it might have when the whole world is like Bangladesh—in an archive of the treatment of For Gods Only-The Kim Eng Teochew Opera, and after reading it will imagine this art form as Glawogger describes it and depicts it in the photos that accompany the text. Then this art form will rise up again, just as Glawogger dreamt of it when he saw it with his own eyes. 

1. Glawogger understands the special erotics of diacritics: It would never occur to him to do away with the acute accent in Drogomysl, or to use the German name of this small Polish city, Drahomischl. Likewise the sensuality of foreign scripts in general: In the titles of his films, he almost always gives place names, etc., in their native script (exception: Whores' Glory), and in the beautiful Workingman's Death book, the texts of his collaborators from the People's Republic of China, the Ukraine, etc., are given in the original alongside the German translations.

2. Besides, lists such as these are always influenced by their intended audience and circumstances of publication, i.e., these lists were written especially for this book, and surely for its author as well. Michael Glawogger and I have known each other for about 15 years, and we don't just see each other on the usual occasions when directors and critics make contact, i.e. receptions, interviews, etc. We quickly noticed that we see the world similarly, that we're often enthusiastic about the same things, etc. So we actually meet up whenever I'm in Vienna or he's in Cologne, get something to eat together, watch soccer, or sit at the bar and chitchat, etc. I never bring a recorder, why should I? Glawogger's statements and opinions that turn up in this text are drawn from these conversations. Since Glawogger read the manuscript in advance to iron out any errors, naturally everything is true.

3. The director of the film based on this novel, Wojciech Jerzy Has, is someone whose absence can also be felt in Glawogger's list. It's hard, for instance, to watch Contact High without thinking of Sanatorium pod Klepsydra (1973), and the same goes for Kill Daddy Good Night and Jak byc kochana (1963).

4. Singapore is also the only nation to become independent against its will. In 1963, Singapore—which was already autonomously governed, but still nominally belonged to the British crown—declared independence and joined the Federation of Malaya, which became known as Malaysia. Two years later, Singapore was expelled from this federation—as the only member with a more Chinese-than Malay-influenced culture, Singapore's agenda often clashed with those of the other states. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

The Match Factory
Michael Ostrowski in Contact High, directed by Michael Glawogger


April 19–29, 2012 Michael Glawogger


The World Viewed, Part 1 by Olaf Möller
More: Article Archive


Olaf Möller is a Cologne-based author and programmer.

More articles by Olaf Möller