March 25, 2008
Springtime: Three Portraits, 1976
A muted, yet provocative composition on the changing face of the labor movement - or more appropriately, its immobility - in Western Europe in the 1970s, Johan van der Keuken's Springtime: Three Portraits articulates the struggle of the working class under the protracted climate of an austere, stagnant global economy (stemming in part from the OPEC oil crisis) and industrial recession through first person testimonies and quotidian observations of society's increasingly fragile and economically vulnerable middle class. This sense of work time as stasis is prefigured in the opening shot of an impressive wall clock in the suburban home of unemployed garment factory foreman, Joop Uchtman in Den Helder who, despite his productive working relationship with the factory seamstresses under his supervision, was laid off during company downsizing, as local industries sought to shrink their higher waged domestic workforce in favor of overseas outsourcing as a means of reducing operational costs and retaining global competitiveness. Threading through Uchtman's alternately expressed pride at his work (and implied humiliation at having to become dependent on the state and his wife) and anxiety over the repercussions of his inability to find a new job on his young family, with his all too familiar daily routine of reporting to the labor office in person to confirm that he has not secured a job and is eligible to receive unemployment benefits, and seeking advice from a friend on the merits - and illusion - of enrolling in state-sponsored vocational retraining, the recurring image of the clock becomes, not only a metaphor for the bureaucratic rituals of his vain search to find a job, but also reminder of his expiring state-assisted benefits, the dream of a comfortable middle class life being slowly swept away with the swinging of the pendulum.
In Frankfurt, the intersection between past and present, history and memory is embodied in the establishing shot of social activist and former teacher, Doris Schwert listening to a reel tape recording of her father's wartime testimony as a partisan rebel and political prisoner who fought against the Fascists in Germany and Spain in the 1930s and 40s. Instilled with her father's socialist ideals of solidarity and worker empowerment, Schwert's student radicalism and subsequent political engagement as a young teacher had drawn increasing concern from school administrators and West German officials who saw her ties to the communist party as tantamount to an act of ideological sabotage in the waging of the Cold War. Contrasting the images of protest graffiti demanding the reinstatement of the blacklisted, left-leaning teachers at her former school with recruitment posters tacked near empty classrooms that paradoxically tout equal opportunity to job seekers even with such insidious former affiliations as the Nazi party and wartime service in the SS, van der Keuken presents the idea of work time as historical recursion, where lessons from the past are whitewashed and reinvented to conform to the sociopolitical and economic expediencies of an amnesic present, a sobering reality that is punctuated by the chapter's concluding, intercutting shot of a confectionery store window display that is lined with premium chocolate Easter baskets and archival footage of a postwar Frankfurt street in ruins, the metaphoric resurrection of a national soul, fueled not by moral enlightenment, but exploitation and consumerism.
The near wordless Amsterdam closing chapter chronicles a day in the work life of metal worker, Jan Van Haagen, from his early morning suburban commute on his bicycle, to the bellowing of a factory horn that signals the official start of the work day (a sound akin to an air raid signal that also recalls the image of wartime Europe introduced in the Frankfurt chapter), to the union-synchronized meal break, to a passing anecdote of a senior co-worker's health problems that led to an early death after refusing to use an exhaust hood during welding operations (in favor of the company's earlier policy of instituting milk breaks as a means of bolstering employee health after working with hazardous materials), to the closing of the workshop in the afternoon. As in the Den Helder chapter, the clock becomes a recurring motif, marking through the workers' prescribed labor and break schedule with the monotonous ritual of fabrication and assembly. Framed against the image of a constantly turning exhaust vent on the facing wall of the building, the juxtaposition between the factory clock and the exhaust fan illustrates the idea of work time as a cultivated environment for social as well as technological progress, a humanization of industrial production.