A challenging documentary of art and politics in the former Yugoslavia
ROCK-AND-ROLL bands usually adopt the outlaw stance towards society that Marlon Brando took in The Wild One: “What have you got?” goes the famous answer, when asked what he was rebelling against. Even determined ruffians like The Sex Pistols only seemed to be spewing a charming but messy sort of anger with their God Save the Queen. It’s the rare band that takes as its mission sustained and pointed political commentary–as did Laibach, an artistically ambitious musical group from the former Yugoslavia.
American filmmaker Michael Benson documents the output of the ’80s group Laibach and the New Slovenian Arts (NSK), an artistic collective of painters, musicians and a theater group all dedicated to investigating the connection between aesthetics and the totalitarian state. Laibach’s shtick was to act, dress, sing, and talk like fascists, though they espoused no political doctrine at all. In Benson’s film, the guys in Laibach come off as a cross between Devo and Ozzy Osborne (heavy on the Devo) with their stiff collars, groomed hair, and jackboots–like new-wave brown shirts. “Lust is dead, death is dead, God is dead,” they sing (in Slovenian), in a deep, heavy-metal chortle, while a techno-beat thuds in the background. No one smiles. It’s sort of… scary.
Benson’s filmmaking style contains echoes of a totalitarian aesthetic, as invented by the famous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Strong, iconic shots of rings of fire alternate with archival footage of flocks of school children doing calisthenics in unison, waves of marching boots, a line of rising flags. His method of combining “found” footage with up-to-date commentary is reminiscent of American experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin’s work–which uses archival footage to poke at consumerism and artistic censorship, among other things. Here, Benson seeks to criticize the whole totalitarian aesthetic in the same way that the subjects of his film do–by adopting it themselves.
Yes, these guys look, act and talk like genuine fascists. There’s something really creepy about the performance footage of Laibach. As one philosopher interviewed in the film notes, they lack irony. They’re deadly serious about enacting totalitarian rituals and exposing the complicity between aesthetics and the state. This may seem a little fuzzy to American audiences, who connect style and politics in only the most tangential way–perhaps by noting the way all male politicians have that hair-sprayed, side-part hairdo. But in Central Europe, where the shadows of the Third Reich and dictatorships loom, the connection, as Predictions of Fire points out, is much more clear. Hitler was himself a failed art student, and he and Stalin both were dedicated to creating “vast, ritualistic states” held together by a unifying vision of cooperation and order.
While totalitarian states have used art in the service of politics, the film points out that the NSK uses politics in the service of art. Their project involves exposing something present but hidden–unearthing the hidden totalitarianism lurking in Central Europe (a project that seems all the more prescient since the rise of bloody nationalist movements there). Their work has a kind of subtly and humor nonetheless. The NSK decided to push the issue a step farther and actually declare itself a state, with an embassy in Moscow that issued passports, all in the service of fulfilling their project of “designing” a state.
The film also chronicles the group’s interest in resurrecting the modernist idea of the artistic collective. They’re particularly fond of the Suprematist artist Kasimir Malevich, a forefather of abstraction, and go so far as to install a giant, cloth version of his “Black Square” in the middle of Red Square, in Moscow, as an example of how art and politics can be layered atop one another.
Laibach, NSK and the theater group Red Pilot all seem to have a flair for inventing challenging, disturbing rituals that an American curator would probably term performance art. At times, it seems that Benson is unable to simply roll the camera and let them do their stuff. Sometimes the film talks about the art more than it shows it. Analysis constantly accompanies the images in voice over–quite interesting analysis, at that, but it’s difficult to absorb it all. This is a self-consciously intellectual film that tends to get a little dense. The material itself is layered and challenging, but ultimately, Predictions of Fire is a stylish, rewarding documentary that presents an interesting way of looking at the connections between art and politics.