In the upcoming DOUBLE FEATURE, the SCHIRN is screening two films by the Berlin-based artist Bjørn Melhus. After the ensuing discussion, we will present Melhus’s favorite film, “The Visitors” by Elia Kazan.
When youth culture began to become involved in politics in the 1960s within the framework of the proxy war in Vietnam, pop music and Hollywood cinema quickly followed. Even back then, the sociologist and philosopher Theodor W. Adorno called the so-called protest song "unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption qualities out of it." One could to some extent also confront (anti)war cinema with the same reproach. As impeaching as films such as "Apocalypse Now" are in their intention, they also threaten to degenerate into mere brands: as motifs printed on T-shirts or models on which video games are based in which one has to kill the enemy in seemingly realistic war scenarios. "The horror! The horror!" that the characters in "Apocalypse Now" have to experience firsthand survives as a pop-historical quote and only indirectly makes reference to the savagery from which it actually emanated.
"They just don't come back the same"
"I'm Not the Enemy" (2011) by Bjørn Melhus confronts us with these same quotes and at the same time relates them to Federal German reality. In the more than fourteen-minute film, the Berlin-based artist time and again repeats direct quotes from (anti)war films. A man, evidently a veteran, is lying on the couch in his apartment in a small German town and becomes wrapped up in a dialogue with his mother and brother, who--all of them played by Melhus--seem to have originated in his imagination. Based on the quotes, the various topoi of antiwar films are addressed, such as homeland and alienation, trauma and madness, or death and guilt, and what develops seems to be an extensive summary of the genre that remains oddly foreign and detached, despite the associations that have been conjured up.
"Sudden Destruction" (2013) employs a similar technique, which in this case is used in a short film that is reminiscent of the genre of the horror film. However, the direct quotes in it do not stem from feature films but from apocalyptic prophets that Bjørn Melhus has assembled from YouTube videos. An apparently lifeless body in a white shirt wakes up on a hotel room bed and emphatically announces the unexpected destruction of the world that will soon come to pass. The man holding the medium's hand can also only tell of war and the end of the world, and even the news broadcast in the background cites one catastrophe after the other. While in "I'm Not the Enemy" Melhus apparently aspires to examine quotes from realistic films with respect to their suitability for everyday use, in "Sudden Destruction" he places direct quotes from the reality of the lives of apocalyptic visionaries in a horror-film context and by doing so deals with the influence of fiction on reality, and vice versa.
"It's kill or be killed"
Consistent with his own work, Bjørn Melhus has opted for "The Visitors" (1972) by Elia Kazan as his favorite film. More of an unknown film in the oeuvre of the American director, it tells the story of the Vietnam veteran Bill Schmidt (James Wood), who lives in secluded country house with his girlfriend Martha Wayne (Patricia Joyce) and her father. One day, Mike (Steve Railsback) and Tony (Chico Martínez), with whom Bill served in Vietnam, unexpectedly come by. Over the course of the day, Bill sees himself confronted with suppressed experiences that ultimately lead to an outbreak of violence and horror for him and his girlfriend.
The film makes reference to an article published in the "New Yorker" in 1969 by Daniel Lang that brings home the crime suppressed by the character Bill Schmidt to a wide American public. Yet Kazan is more interested in the returning soldiers and their place in society than in the atrocities committed by American servicemen. For the individual soldier, the violence that was justified and subsidized by the state during the war cannot simply be tuned out after it has ended, and to a certain extent the horror is carried over into life at home. "The Visitors" is considered the first in a whole series of films that seriously examine the Vietnam War and its repercussions for America. In contrast, "I'm Not the Enemy" by Bjørn Melhus seems to inquire into what the numerous scenes and quotes from those films that have been burned into our memory are in general capable of conveying today.