It’s complacent rock band that doesn’t yearn to storm the Bastille, smash the state, incite panic, and inflame the mass libido with the music of the Apocalypse — at least in a video. But, if the Elvis-Woodstock-Sex Pistols notion of rock-’n’-roll collective ecstasy has been consigned to the museum of 20th century-isms, the news has yet to reach Slovenia, home of Laibach — the industrial art-rockers cum media-wise conceptual artists who are the subject of Michael Benson’s pleasingly bombastic Predictions of Fire.
Two minutes into Benson’s densely-packed documentary assemblage, the kettle drum is pounding out a tribal backbeat for Laibach’s stentorian dirge: “Lust is dead, death is dead, sorrow – dead, God is dead.” Dressed in military uniforms, striking Mussolini poses amid miniature flaming crosses, swiping a bit of mise-en-scene from Triumph of the Will, the band literalizes the concept of the Pop Icon. The most outrageous instance of their spectacularly deadpan fascist-Stalinist ritualistic techno-rock appears to have been in 1990 Belgrade, where Benson shows a member of the band delivering a nationalist harangue in German and Serbian.
The most successful of East European rock ensembles, per Benson, Laibach projects the blatant theatricality of a Kiss or Devo, but is also a band with an analysis: “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.” Actually, Laibach — whose provocations began by taking the German name for the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana — is nothing if not historically minded. (So is Predictions of Fire which, among other things, provides a capsule course in modern Slovenian history — from the Hapsburg Empire and World War I through the creation of Yugoslavia, the incorporation of Slovenia into the Third Reich, the post-World War II victory of Communism, and the cult of Tito, to secession, independence, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.)
Laibach originated in Trbovlje, an industrial-mining town with a particularly convoluted Nazi Communist past, a year before Tito’s death presaged the Soviet collapse. In the late ‘80’s, the band joined forces with the art collective Irwin and the theatrical company Red Pilot under the rubric NSK (New Slovenian Culture). A self-consciously retro revival of the modernist vanguard, specifically Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematism, NSK purported to produce “art in the image of the state.” Indeed, once Yugoslavia fell apart, NSK itself began to act like a state, issuing passports, opening foreign embassies, and staging international demonstrations. (Benson documents the Irwin group’s pilgrimage to Moscow to unfurl a Suprematist black square in the middle of Red Square, which we see also populated by a crazed-looking gaggle of placard-wielding CP die-hards.)
Maintaining that “art and totalitarianism do not exclude each other,” NSK polemically reversed the relationship between the two by placing politics in the service of theater, rather than vice versa. But, as the once sacred trapping of the total state were reduced to stage props, a primitive nationalism came violently to the fore. Since bloody civil war engulfed the former Yugoslavia within a decade after Laibach began its prophetic performances, it’s worth pointing out the band’s trademark absence of irony. Indeed, arguing that cynicism is an integral part of the world political system, Slovenian psychologist Slavoj Zizek appears on camera to note that Laibach’s originality lay in its proposing to take the system more seriously than the system took itself.
So are the NSK guys really fascists — or do they only play fascists on stage? Suggesting that the re-Balkanized Balkans are a mirror of Europe, Benson faithfully conveys the NSK credo that history is “a series of consensual myths” typically manufactured in ritualist spectacle. Whether juxtaposing Laibach’s hypnotic noise-drone with archival footage of totalitarian parades or following a Laibach performance with a Slobodan Milosevic rally — the Serbian crowd chanting “We want weapons” — Predictions of Fire is a 20th-century saga as well as a sensational promo and a lively, clever, somewhat opaque piece of filmmaking.