They were, as the narrator puts it, “the forgotten cogs in America’s vast industrial machine,” the human sacrifices whose blood kept that contraption running smoothly. Conversely, you could argue that it was their sacrifice that awakened a nation to the human cost of America’s growing prosperity. They were mostly young Jewish and Italian girls, the youngest of them only 14, and it took the death of 146 of them to sound an alarm that still needs to be rung regularly. When the Triangle ShirtWaist Company’s factory burned to the ground 100 years ago March 25, the loss of life, of young lives, shook New York City to its core. Watching the new PBS documentary “Triangle Fire,” which airs on The American Experience Feb. 28, should shake viewers again, good and hard.
As the film points out, this was the “Gilded Age,” a time of unbridled and unregulated industrial growth and greed, a time when girls as young as ten worked in sweatshops, enduring a 14-hour day for $2. Of course, they seldom received that daily wage because their pay was docked for needles, thread and electricity. In the interests of expanding profits, the owners of the Triangle firm locked one of only two doors to the shop floors so that girls could be searched as they left work. As a result, when a fire broke out on that March day, hundreds were trapped in the flames. It was the worst workplace catastrophe in the city’s history until 9/11.
Director Jamila Wignot makes excellent use of what little film footage exists from the time and of photographs of the young immigrant women whose lives were cut short in the factories. It is impossible to see the sad, haunted faces of these girls and not be moved. With many so-called libertarians and limited government advocates calling for a rollback of legislation both federal and local to the age of Grover Cleveland, “Triangle Fire” is a stark and compelling reminder of just what that would mean.
“Triangle Fire” will air on Monday, Feb. 28, 9 p.m. on PBS stations, including WNET-13 and WLIW-21.
Managing A Scarce Resource —
Human Feelings: Eran Riklis’
‘The Human Resource Manager.’
When Eran Riklis’ breakthrough second film, “Cup Final,” was released in 1992, he was heralded as a major new talent from Israel at a time when such filmmakers were thin on the ground. He kept working regularly, but only in the last few years has he begun to make good on the promise of that early film. With his latest film, “The Human Resources Manager,” he continues the run of very accomplished miniatures that he began with “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree.”
In each of those films, he managed to offer a very different take on the clichés of Middle-Eastern politics by shifting his perspective to the problems of a tiny handful of, mostly, ordinary people. Even the politically powerful characters in “Lemon Tree” turn out to be peripheral to the story and its themes. In his new film, adapted by Noah Stollman from A. B. Yeshoshua’s “A Woman in Jerusalem,” he continues to mine the rich vein of feeling that ran through “Lemon Tree” and “The Syrian Bride” by once again looking at a universal human dilemma through the eyes of an ordinary person on the periphery of the suffering.
The title character of “The Human Resource Manager,” played with a wonderful hang-dog expressiveness by Mark Ivanir, is the nominal head of personnel at a Jerusalem-based bakery. He has suffered a mysterious career setback that has landed him in a job he neither wants nor enjoys. When a tabloid milks the death of an ex-employee in a suicide bombing for cheap headlines at the firm’s expense, he finds himself thrust into the onerous task of taking the dead woman’s body back to her native Romania. On one level, Riklis treats this like a shaggy-dog story, and there is a fair amount of enjoyable broad humor rooted in the cultural collisions between Israeli brusqueness and Romanian disorganization. But the film’s first images, of hundreds of interchangeable, identical loaves of bread being turned out by machine, say everything about the plight of the film’s characters, compounded by the fact that the dead woman, Yulia Petracke, is the only person in the film who has a name rather than a position. (The characters include the Ex-Husband, Consul, Vice-Consul, the Boy and the Weasel, the sobriquet attached to the tabloid reporter who tags along.)
At the heart of the film is the universal human desire to be recognized as an individual. The human resources manager himself and the film that bears his “name” both reach that understanding in the world of seemingly logical absurdism and deeply suppressed feelings that Riklis is making his own personal domain. In a world increasingly dominated by obstinate bureaucrats, he has found a gentle but forceful narrative niche that isn’t going to go out of style anytime soon.
“The Human Resources Manager,” directed by Eran Riklis, opens March 4 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema (Broadway and 62nd Street, (212) 757-2280, www.lincolnplazacinema.com, and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema (143 E. Houston St. (212) 330-8182, www.landmarktheatres.com/market/newyork.