Haunting as well as most impressive, British documentarian Bill Morrison’s The Miners’ Hymns mines black-and-white archival material from one hundred years earlier, and more, to assemble a portrait of workers—coal miners—lost to time, and to juxtapose their permanent anonymity with the expanses of land in northeast England below which the mines, long since permanently shut down, retain something of their former aura and cacophonous “melody,” before the mines were stripped bare, before the health of the miners, likewise stripped bare and routinely assaulted, became an issue, before and after labor organized, addressing their exploitation: hazardous work, at long hours, for too little pay. Is this part of the reason for Morrison’s application of careful slow motion to footage of the past? Indeed, Morrison has made a marvelous movie.
The past has been made silent, too—and speechless, all underscoring the anonymity of workers. Who are they—who were they? Almost all of them were already lost to time the moment they stepped, or stumbled, into time. Ownership may have considered them nothings, but workers did all the work. I may be in the minority, but I feel that Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, fine as it is, intrudes on the film’s vision of the past.
One other element is dubious, whatever the directorial intention. The opening panoramic aerial shots in Durham County—a graveyard of mines, now comforted by a lush cover of gorgeous green—may be too stridently ironical to achieve what Alain Resnais subtly, mesmerizingly achieves in his visit to Auschwitz, whose contribution to the Holocaust has similarly been covered with a blanket of serene grass, as humanity endeavors to obscure, and repress, an awful history, that is to say, traumatic shared memory, in Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), a sharper, more penetrating documentary than The Miners’ Hymns.
All that said, Morrison’s film is among the noblest—and nimblest—movies ever made; drawing upon the trenchant, powerful and indeed magical properties of silence, slow motion, and black and white, it composes a hymn to workers and their families and neighbors (at first, we may think the orderly procession is headed for church), whose ghosts confront the police again during a strike protest, and, across time, confront us, eerily spooking us, as ghosts always do. Morrison employs one more feature that we associate with silent cinema: expressionism. Sometimes the miners appear as shadows: figures blackened out by coal and time. But they are also given new life in the light of Morrison’s archaeological eye—for now and for all time.
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