Over the past few years, a wealth of filmmakers have embraced creative techniques while representing the toil and toll of manual labor across the broad spectrum of modern non-fiction cinema. There have been strict ethnographic chronicles, formally and visually dexterous meditations, sensory explorations as well as political histories. Chinese documentarian Zhao Liang adopts a poetic approach to the subject matter in his extraordinary Behemoth, taking Dante’s Divine Comedy as inspiration for an image-led descent into a hellish underworld (and out the other side) to lay bare the human cost of rampant industrialization in his homeland.
“And of course it is doomed. The mountains, the moors; for a time, for a few decades, they will shelter the wilderness still. But it will go down.”
—J.A. Baker, On the Essex Coast
Ben Russell’s recent ethnographic epic on labor in Serbia and Suriname, Good Luck, begins with a mechanical descent into a mine. Zhao includes one as well, but it features later. Much like Dante’s gradual journey through the circles of hell, Zhao’s camera begins on the edge of the pit, opening on a still, wide shot of a vast quarry. The silence is suddenly shattered by a controlled explosion, and the slow decline begins. Zhao may follow the path of a poet—in essence, Dante acts as Zhao’s guide—but it is in his own breathtaking imagery that Behemoth’s deepest poetry coalesces. Tiny trucks wend their way across the gravelly expanse, servants of the beast, and soon the camera comes down to eye level with the people undertaking the "agony of toil" on the surface and below it. And it is agony.
Long static shots watch individuals as they shovel coal and rock into vehicles, as they operate machinery in the mine and in the open air. At around the 50-minute mark, the action shifts from the dark recesses of the mine to the roaring molten glow of a steelworks. Here you can almost feel the hellfire burning, like Tolkien's Mordor by way of the foundry pyrotechnics of Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament. By the time this burning core has been reached, Zhao has begun to play more with visual and aural modes. The entire screen turns bright red, giving proceedings an unexpectedly experimental edge, but the solid color slowly gives way to a blown out and polarized vision of workers in an orange shower of sparks. Concurrently, the ominous sound of Tuvan throat singing that punctuates the earlier mining has been drowned out by an atonal industrial soundtrack and electric guitar, screeching to an overwhelming crescendo.
As well as attempting to articulate a physical descent through both sight and sound, Zhao is also keen to illustrate a societal one. From the opening moments of the film, the mine is regularly framed in juxtaposition with the verdant Inner Mongolian steppe beside it, the green of the meadow being consumed by the grey of the slag heap. Milton’s description of the biblical Behemoth ‘upheaving’ is hard to shake when confronted with images of the mountainous mine looming out from the otherwise flat grassland. Zhao’s narration states that it was once “lush with vegetation. Now not a blade of grass survives. A land of deathly silence.” The fact that he chooses to show some people still straining to continue traditional lives, with flocks grazing in the shadow of this industrial colossus, only serves to emphasize his point.
“Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
—Karl Marx, Capital
Indeed, it is the consequences of the work in the mines and the factories for the people involved that make up the section in which Zhao explicitly references the second part of Dante’s work. His narration speaks of returning from the depths of the factory to the valley: “a purgatory of a place.” He is referring to the physical cost of the work to many of the workers, cutting from those sporting calloused hands and wounded legs, to those breathing heavily through respiratory diseases, and then to a woman holding up her husband’s portrait in memoriam.
Zhao doesn’t offer context within the film, but a text epilogue explains that millions of migrant workers suffer from pneumoconiosis in China, and that hundreds of thousands have already died. They’re seen staging a silent protest outside the gates of a factory, but one suspects their ire is in vain. Behemoth feels like a call for workers to awaken, but Zhao has candidly spoken of how they remain isolated and alienated within a system that knows how to control them. Once again a different landscape is juxtaposed against the mine in the distance, this time an unending graveyard crammed with tombstones.
Alongside his overt reference to purgatory as the state of these physical frail workers, Zhao offers two recurring visual motifs, usually accompanied by his narration, which blends adaptations of Dante with his own words. The first includes a naked figure lying within the landscape, often with the image fractured, toying with perspective. These images reflect a warped reality that becomes all the more pertinent when contextualized by the final act revelation of just what constitutes 'heaven.' Even more pertinently, they co-opt the prelapsarian innocence of Dante’s 'Earthly Paradise,' here represented by an exposed body in the fetal position. The other motif is a man walking through the landscape carrying a mirror on his back, holding it up to the viewer and his own culpability.
“…scarce from his mould / Behemoth, biggest born of earth, upheaved…”
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
Emerging from a motorway tunnel, Zhao presents ‘paradise.’ Where Dante’s third piece represented the soul’s ascent to God, Zhao's portrays man reaching for the gods. “All the sacrifices transmuted into steel are carried off to build the paradise of our desires.” Gargantuan new cities stretching towards the heavens lie devoid of inhabitants but immaculate and clean. The end titles suggest that hundreds of such “ghost cities” exist in modern China.
The imagery once again juxtaposes the lush greenery of the plain against yellow high-rises. For all their moneyed trappings, they can't help but evoke the plumes of dust rising from the mines, or the sulfurous smoke and towering chimneys of the foundry. When the slopes of the mine rose out of the grass, it seemed certain that it was the Behemoth, but to return to that passage from Milton, the mine was the upheaval—this blood-soaked folly is the beast. “We are the monster,” claims Zhao, “the monster minions.” While suffering may be stark, and the gaping fissures in the earth an abhorration, Zhao's lyrical journey charts this warped process that feeds egos even as it breaks backs.