The mingling of art and politics in America is, for the most part, clear and simple: Democrats are drawn as a donkey, Republicans are depicted as an elephant, and their views are summed up in word bubbles skirting the edges of a cartoon panel. The distinction is not quite as easy in Europe, where, as director Michael Benson illustrates in this hypnotic and intellectually demanding documentary, a couple of artful politicians named Hitler and Stalin elevated the aesthetics of propaganda to horrifying levels.
While Predictions of Fire evokes Europe’s totalitarian past, Benson’s main concern is with the contemporary art scene in the former Yugoslavia, specifically an avant-garde movement called the New Slovenian Arts (NSK). The group is a bureaucratic alliance of sorts among the incendiary industrial rock band Laibach, an anonymous painters’ collective known as Irwin, and a doomsaying theater group called Red Pilot. The goal of NSK — articulated prior to Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the early 1990′s — is to reveal Europe’s repressed desires for war and fascism. Their method is to create incredibly harsh, confrontational, and disturbing art, in effect holding up a mirror to Europeans’ collective conscience. Benson clearly intends his film to show this monstrous reflection to the rest of the world as well.
Predictions of Fire has the look of an old high school science film — charts, diagrams, and drawings, accompanied by the rapid-fire warblings of a disembodied narrator — but it feels like a postmodern nightmare. In an arresting display of editing skill, Benson reveals tensions between past and present, cause and effect, as he interweaves archival footage of fascist rallies with the pounding apocalyptic rock of Laibach. Among the many examples of art in the service of power, he includes a warning to disloyal Communists, thinly disguised as a fire-safety training film.
But there is simply too much information to digest in one sitting; two hours of Benson’s visual assault and non-linear history will leave even the most earnest filmgoers gasping for relief. NSK’s limited appeal to working class adults — Slovenian miners shrug off an abstract art show that is ostensibly about their lives — makes one wonder if the movement’s impact is limited to the intelligentsia and lost on everyone else. That notion is borne out during a baffling interview with a tongue-tied philosopher who explains that NSK’s subversiveness lies in its lack of irony – that is, its apparent conformity.
As NSK continues to reassert aesthetic control over art as well as examine its cultural schizophrenia, civil war and genocide consume Balkan civilization. Surely, the movement’s loyalists hope — against intellect, intuition, and evidence — history won’t repeat itself yet again.