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Working Class Cinema of the Western World

 | Essay |

  BY Gautam Valluri

Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)

“The business of making things is fast becoming a memory for much of the western world- the very business that once gave it mastery over the east and the south. Factories don’t just make objects. They created (and elsewhere go on creating) a way of life.” –Granta[1]

We live in the age of ‘outsourcing’. Companies from developed countries constantly look to outsource anything that can be outsourced for gigantic profits and tax exemptions. In the United Kingdom especially, where once we read about the great industrial revolution in our history books now presents a string of companies that would outsource their next “Business Process” to India, China or Vietnam. Europe somehow retains some of its small-scale establishments and one can wonder how long they will last.

Factories are where things are ‘created’, much like a film studio. ‘Workers’ are hired based on their ‘skill’ and one can argue that they are a cruder version of the ‘artist’ who is also chosen purely on the basis of skill. When a worker puts in a shift in an industry, he can somehow feel a sense of pride in playing his little part in the betterment of his country. He is after all, helping in the ‘creation’ of something that can be used by his countrymen. How does this hold up when a worker in India or China is helping ‘create’ something that will be used in some other country that he probably has not even heard of?

Workers and Working class in general transcends factories and industries. There are garbage men, miners, drivers, movers and packers; you get the idea. The thing with developed countries is that these jobs are now taken care of by waves of immigrant populations who have no other choice but to limit themselves to these areas of work. Thus, the traditional ‘Westerner’ has more or less, conveniently forgotten what it is like to be a working class individual. 

The working class was perhaps one of the last strata of the society that got its due depiction on the big screen. Perhaps Metropolis (1927) was the first instance where an almost prophetic image of workers moving in and out of the gigantic factory was depicted. Fritz Lang talks of a future where the capitalist class has risen way above ground level and lives in an utopia oblivious of the larger almost-enslaved class working in the lower rungs beneath their feet. The film, though sporting the premise of science fiction was actually closer to a film with a social message on the need for the unity of the mind and body- the thinking class and the working class.

Chaplin was the foremost in showing the working class as an integral part of his films. He understood, perhaps before anybody else that the largest audience to any film are the working class- looking for an escapist fantasy after a week of draining, repetitive work with little compensation. He struck a chord with them by showing his most famous online screen persona as one of them. One cannot accuse Chaplin of exploiting the sentiments of the workers because he himself grew up in and survived a very harsh turn of the century industrial work life. Chaplin was no stranger to soot-lined chambers and steam-spurting metallic demons and it was on this that he was able to provide an honest reconstruction of the working class life. Modern Times (1935) is perhaps his boldest statement on the factory life. In the film, his character is selected to be a guinea pig on a new machine that will feed people their meals.  One can contemplate on what Chaplin was trying to express here. Was it that the advent of machines that has made our lives so convenient extended beyond its original limitations, so much so that now a machine will perform such a basic of human functions as eating?

With the advent of the Second World War, the movies suddenly turned their interest towards Film Noir and Westerns - the echoes of violence that tore apart families and destroyed lives. The industry was doing no good either. Most of the world was busy reconstructing itself, life had to go on while the big leaders of the world divided the land of man among themselves. A saving repercussion however was the rise of the documentary film. As the working class went about rebuilding their nations, the documentary film, in the form of newsreels and otherwise, kept people up to date on what is going on in the world outside their own. The working class was suddenly becoming important as younger filmmakers, who have emerged from the same class started realizing that the largest audience was in fact, their own and they wanted to see their lives reflected on the screen.

The rise of the British New Wave was the first time in the history of the United Kingdom where the little man got to have his way.  Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson drew inspiration from the Italian Neo-realist movement and their expertise as documentary filmmakers from the Free Cinema Movement of 1950s Britain and realized there was a richer bank of cinema waiting to be made and it would come from their neighbours, their cousins and friends and their own experiences growing up in a time where ‘the industry’ was where you ended up eventually.

As the British New Wave came to a close and it patrons tasted the sweetness of fame and fortune it was left for filmmakers like Ken Loach to carry on the cinema of the working class. Loach’s film brought out the subject into a more social-realist setting as opposed to the limited aspect of the ‘kitchen sink’ drama of the British New Wave. The sixties were also the time when Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu made the final batch of his films and most of them were promptly set in an industrial Japan. An Autumn Afternoon (1962), Ozu’s final film deals with a Japanese family inside a Japan that was living its own version of the American dream.

As the sixties turned into the seventies, John Cassavetes was leading a large movement for American Independent cinema in the States. His film A Woman Under the Influence(1974) would go onto become one of the most disturbing and gritty representations of the working class American family. Though Gena Rowland’s performance in the film takes centre stage, Cassavetes throws light on a changing America or better yet, a rising America where the working class was now becoming more powerful than ever before.

Aki Kaurismaki’s Proletariat trilogy in the mid 1980s was perhaps the first time one saw what it was like to be a worker in Finland. His Helsinki is a closed loop and the workers no better than the machines that they operate: emotionless, mechanical and stiff.  Kaurismaki offers an almost sympathetic look towards his characters that range from Meat Cutter, Garbage Man, Check out Girl, Miner and a Match factory worker. Through Shadows in Paradise(1986), Ariel(1988) and The Match Factory Girl(1990), Kaurismaki’s protagonists become personifications of a highly overlooked class of Helsinki. The world was on the brink of new age and these people were still stuck in the same old rut that their parents had no other option but to put up with. They barely make an effort to break free or make something out of themselves. 

The nineties working class cinema reverts back to Britain or rather the United Kingdom in general. Films like The Commitments(1991), Jude(1996), Secrets & Lies(1996), The Full Monty(1997) bring us back to a country fighting unemployment and this time there is a new problem to deal with - a large wave of immigrant workers taking up the menial jobs for lower wages and making them unavailable for the home crowd. This is better addressed in Stephen Frear’s Dirty Pretty Things(2002).

So does working class cinema face extinction? What about the children born in the information age - especially in the western world? It would just be a foreign concept for them to watch a film about people working in a factory or perhaps even an exotic one. It seems Lang’s prophecy from Metropolis is coming true after all. The capitalist classes rise higher and higher and the labour class just keeps going lower but in the current state of things, all predictions point towards India and China slowly rising through the chimney smoke to take on the world as the new super powers.


1. Granta, issue 89 "The Factory"; Granta Publications, 2005.