For the Westerner, a cursory listen to Slovenian industrial art-rockers Laibach evokes a number of reactions, the first of which are laughter and dismissal. This is, after all, a group that released a track-by-track, bombastic deconstruction of the Beatles Let It Be and whose latest album, 1994’s Nato, featured horrific covers of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs of War” and Europe’s “The Final Countdown”, among others. Such anti-artistry has led most critics to write off the band as deluded Easterners jumping on a bandwagon that they don’t have the cultural legacy to pull off correctly — Boris Grebenschekov to Einsturzende Neubauten’s Lou Reed.
Anyone who has heard the band’s 1986 album, Opus Dei, however, should have different ideas. That album, like many of the band’s works, appropriated the aural imagery of totalitarianism and the calculated melodrama of “state art”, setting both to a rhythmic pounding reflective of proletarian ennui. This is the true Laibach — not clueless Yugoslavs attempting to play a Western style but driven philosophes who used the rudiments of a Western medium for its own ends. That distinction forms the core of the vivid documentary Predictions of Fire, a film that uses Laibach’s music and the work of NSK, the art collective to which the group belongs, as a lens through which to examine the history of 20th century Slovenia.
Fire begins with Czech writer Milan Kundera’s assertion that “all Central European arts can be interpreted as meditations on a possible end of European humanity.” The film then examines how that lack of humanity has touched Slovenia at every turn this century: from Hapsburg domination through Yugoslav monarchy, Nazi occupation, Marshall Tito’s Communist cult of personality, and, finally, post-Communist civil war. The various historical mythologies that emerged from this schizophrenic authoritarianism ultimately shaped the Slovenian cultural identity, “formed specifically through resistance to external assimilation.”
From this heap of conflicting historicist imagery sprang Laibach, a band from the tiny industrial town of Trbovlje. Taking its name from the archaic appellation of the Slovenian city Ljubljana, Laibach’s first performance in 1980 was equally grounded in music and performance art, a band “presenting themselves as the blank-faced robots of history, staging a carefully crafted challenge to state authority — the confrontation of one myth using the materials of another.”
Yet Laibach’s approach was hardly as obvious as ironic distance; the band in fact dispensed with irony and sought to hold a mirror up to the unspoken amorality inherent in Tito’s Yugoslavia. In Fire, a Yugoslav philosopher describes Laibach’s modus operandi as “taking the system more seriously than it takes itself.” If Tito, Stalin and Hitler could appropriate art for the state’s purposes, or if the state itself was their art, then Laibach and NSK sought to reverse the process, to appropriate the state for art’s sake. Such an undertaking has gotten the band’s bombastic sound and militaristic persona misinterpreted as ludicrous or fascistic, but ultimately forms the basis for what makes Laibach so interesting — its ability to accurately reflect those mythologies that shaped their culture, embracing them instead of fearing them.
Predictions of Fire begins to turn even more ominous as it moves into the post-Communist era. At a 1989 concert in the Serb capital of Belgrade, Laibach opened with a virulent monologue combining Serbian nationalist rhetoric with Nazi propaganda (in a manner more subtle than it might seem) a full two years before such prophecies began to play themselves out. And just as NSK sought to examine the non-existent role of the individual in Communist society, so, too, has it begun to dissect Western alienation, the perpetuated myth of freedom by the same trappings of capitalism — television, automobile, radio –that constrain it. The ultimate result is a statement of surprising universality. Well-made, fascinating, and pensive, Predictions of Fire is essential viewing for historians, artists, and anyone who isn’t afraid to confront fundamental questions about humanity in the 21st century.