“In a time when trust in institutions is consistently undermined, documentaries like For the Many are important to show just what these people ‘burning taxpayer money’, as criticasters would call it, are doing for the citizens they serve.”
The Austrian Chamber of Labour, the Arbeiterkammer, is a globally unique organization that represents every employee in Austria (membership is compulsory). The AK, as it’s colloquially called, can help workers with advice and legal support whenever they come into conflict with their employer. As the sixth film of Austrian director Constantin Wulff makes clear, the organization is still very much needed, as a seemingly never-ending stream of wronged workers shows up at its reception desk. Through commitment to ‘fairness’, a word consistently repeated throughout the Vienna offices as portrayed in For the Many, the Chamber of Labour tries to fight for rights within the workplace, rights the workers have both by law and by common social standards. As the Chamber prepares a big campaign to celebrate its centenary and keep itself on the map, suddenly in early 2020 the pandemic strikes. The organization has to scramble to adapt to this new and limiting situation in order to still fully represent the ideals that are symbolized by the man-sized red fist in its lobby.
In discussing For the Many, bringing up the great Frederick Wiseman feels almost lazy. But the similarities are too many to ignore. Observational cinema in a public or semi-public institution, documenting its processes by following a small group of the people working within: this is Wiseman’s bread and butter. Wulff follows in his footsteps, but the temptation to call him the ‘Austrian Frederick Wiseman’, even as a compliment, would sell this director and his film short. Very much like his subjects, Wulff had to adapt mid-film to the wrench that COVID had thrown in the works, suddenly changing his perspective but also making him realize that he in a sense is also an employer. Working conditions change, both for him and for the people at the Chamber of Labour, although the work itself doesn’t. Neither Wulff’s observational style nor the tireless consultations and team meetings of the people working at the Chamber suffer from this, further underlining the commitment of the people and the idea of social welfare that they represent.
A documentary like For the Many rises or falls by the people it portrays, at the risk of becoming a dry portrait of office procedures. Luckily for Wulff these are people with a passion for their jobs, dedicated to fairness for the workers they represent, clearly evident from the meetings and conversations that Wulff’s camera observes. They draw up studies about imbalances in wealth distribution; they organize a symposium with famed French economist Thomas Piketty as its main guest; they align their policies with left-wing Austrian parties. Socialism is very much the name of the game around the AK offices, as if that red fist in the lobby didn’t make it abundantly clear. In a neo-liberal world that would love to chip away at everything the Chamber of Labour has achieved in the past century, they have as much a political role as an advisory and legal one, given that they take part in Austria’s policy making. But as For the Many shows it is a continuous struggle against capitalist forces, both on a personal level when employers try to take advantage of unknowing workers, and in parliament when the Chamber’s director, in the role of expert, is attacked by politicians whose ideas don’t align with his.
A short, flashy video was created for the campaign that would accompany the 100-year anniversary. It’s not clear what happened with that campaign and video, but the AK could set up a campaign around For the Many as well. Wulff’s direct cinema paints a clear picture of its activities and structure, without finery or frills. Mileage may vary with viewers depending on their interest in the subject matter, but in a time when trust in institutions is consistently undermined, documentaries like For the Many are important to show just what these people ‘burning taxpayer money’, as criticasters would call it, are doing for the citizens they serve.