Though the heart of Labor Day may be contentious at this moment in time, no one seems to have much of a problem with a day off. The history of labor is a huge part of America’s history and identity, though, and sometimes the best way to get a quick history lesson is through the movies.
So, if you’re not up for a BBQ today and don’t happen to have a copy of Out of This Furnace around to curl up with, take a cinematic tour of labor courtesy of Sam Adams et al over at AV Club.
1. Earth (1930)
Inspired by Communist dogma, Soviet filmmakers staged a political and cinematic revolution with silent-era masterpieces like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Strike or Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother. But for sheer visual poetry, Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth has no equals. Opening with majestic shots of lush fields swaying in the wind before harvest—cue Woody Allen in Love And Death: “Fields of rippling wheat.”—and persistently setting its characters against the sheltering sky, the film presages Terrence Malick’s obsession with the relationship between humans and the natural world. Once it settles into the simplest of stories, Earth hails the glories of collectivism by showing a community of Russian peasants rally around the tractor that will bring prosperity and sustenance to all of them. There’s violent resistance from some of the locals, but Dovzhenko’s poetic idealism proves too overwhelming. It takes a village to raise a loaf of bread.
2. Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang’s German expressionist classic offers up a simple model for understanding capitalist class relations. In the dystopian future megalopolis depicted in the film, the wealthy, intellectual elite rule from towers looming high above ground, while the laborers sustaining their decadent society toil underground, shoveling fuel into the gaping maw of a fire-breathing machine/monster. As a narrative about the liberation of a dispirited, literal underclass, Metropolis errs in casting as its hero a liberating upper-cruster rushing to the rescue of the weary workers, largely as an excuse for winning the affections of Brigitte Helm’s virginal heroine. Nonetheless, the film’s elaborate depiction of the basic labor relations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie captured the mood of early-20th century Europe, and especially a Weimar Germany adrift between ideals of constitutional democracy and the proceeding tides of fascism.
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