Michael Benson’s Predictions of Fire
is a provocative, dense and demanding exploration of the relationship of art, politics and war as it has been played out over the turbulent 20th century in what was once Yugoslavia.It examines how the Slovenian industrial rock group Laibach and the art movement NSK (New Slovenian Arts), to which the band belongs, attempt to expose the ways in which totalitarian regimes traditionally exploit the arts to serve their own purposes.The documentary is composed of sequences of performances by Laibach, a small group of five or six stern-looking guys; various projects of NSK; commentary by various critics and philosophers on Laibach and NSK; and, finally, archival images, some of them familiar. All of this is presented to show how dictators have stirred the masses with powerfully symbolic displays of public pomp and circumstance.
Along the way, Benson punctuates Predictions of Fire with as many philosophical quotes as Jean-Luc Godard did in his early films.
Even Laibach’s name is politically provocative, for it is the onetime German name of Slovenia’s beautiful and ancient capital city, Ljubljana. Formed in 1980, Laibach, whose music is ominous and insistent, evokes the goose-steppers of Nazi rallies. In fact, the group incorporates historical texts from totalitarian regimes. For example, in 1989, while performing in Belgrade, Laibach quoted from Britain’s prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, [sic] who appeased the Nazis, as well as from Hitler.
One of Benson’s commentators observes that “in order to be really subversive,” Laibach–whose purpose has been defined as “the destruction of historical naivete”–must take itself more seriously than totalitarian regimes take themselves. But there’s also a crucial distinction between Laibach and a totalitarian regime, one observer notes, in that Laibach is intent upon revealing the mechanism of totalitarianism, whereas real totalitarianism never reveals the way it works.
Laibach itself has declared, “Our mission is to make evil lose its nerve.” Benson has said his film “tries to explore the mechanisms of mass propaganda used to trigger the war in ex-Yugoslavia.” As far back as 1983, Laibach gave a landmark performance warning of the catastrophe that could and did overcome Yugoslavia.
In “Predictions of Fire,” there are few of the backstage glimpses and band interviews usually found in concert films. There are some scenes of the band performing, but they are interspersed with much different footage, like sequences showing NSK unfolding, Christo-like, an immense solid black flag in Moscow’s Red Square and staging an art exhibition on the walls of the tunnel entrance to a coal mine, the site of a crucial uprising early in the century.
There is no question that Predictions of Fire, which offers a dizzying barrage of ideas and pronouncements, will have the greatest meaning for art, music and Central European experts.
However, the fact that for most of us there will be a somewhat remote quality to all that unfolds on the screen–perhaps because the tortuous twists and turns of Balkan history are so confounding–makes it easier to see the ways ideology can corrupt art.
Benson leaves us with the warning that, as the 20th century closes, art pales before the power of TV–and that whoever controls television controls a country.
© Copyright 1997 Los Angeles Times