Text:Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen

Foolships were, in the baroque era, a poetical form of psychiatric sanctioning. Arthur Rimbaud turned himself into such when he wrote his poem Le Bateau ivre in 1871. In Elmar Hess’ debut work, the 1996 film War Years, similar symptoms reveal themselves. The diagnostic view, trained over centuries in artistic delirium, comes up against the known source of disease: “I, swollen by bitter love to the point of petrification.”

Kriegsjahre (War Years) by Elmar Hess is, in terms of the relationship between cause and effect, very reveal-ing. In contrast to paranoia vulgaris, the artist’s intoxication seeks the bitterness of love. And the feeling of parting arises not only when the shrew – transformed in the imagination into a ‘frigate‘ – is finally sunk, but also because in this film the modern artist goes under as well. In War Years, Elmar Hess is, in a double sense, an ‘actor.‘ He does not just slip into the role of the egomaniac, whose creative ambitions are but an excuse for worldly innocence; the film allows him, yet again, to wear the mantle of the artist prince. The structure of the paranoia allows the film to construct an unknown richness of detail, all the way to the bitter end. The ego gradually loses any sense of scale. More and more speakers fill up the brain. More and more random pictures are needed to push back the demands of reality. In the switching of eras and locations, the viewer only notices from afar the impulses of the female counterpart whose utterances are perceived as “disturbance frequencies.” In the end, the obsession of the legions borrowed from film archives is directed against the accursed reality principle.

Against the backdrop of passionate tumultuousness and psychological over-activity arises a systemized, coherent delirium, devoid of hallucinations, which, in a pseudo-logical context, focuses attention on themes of scale, persecution, and entitlement. In Birth of the Clinic, Michel Foucault defined paranoia in this way, unaware he had described an image of the modern manic.

Text:Veit Goerner

In Kriegsjahre Elmar Hess takes personal drama and historical events and brings them into line. The Nationalsocialists, the Allies, battle strategies, allusions to both leaders, Hitler and Churchill, shape the fictional historicalfunds. Showcasing scenes out of his own relationship clinch and his partiality for ocean liners lends the subjectives a backdrop. Egomania, delusions of grandeur, individuality and conformity are confronted in both interwoven plots. (…)

Text:Nikolaus v. Wolff

In 1996, Elmar Hess’ film and exhibition War Years broke a taboo: for the first time, totalitarianism manifested itself as a mere image and war as a brutish, real symbol. Whereas militaristic landscapes only served decorative purposes in popular shooting games, in War Years their significance was fought over vehemently – as metaphors of a new context.

The protagonists in War Years are ensnared in the voracious machinery of a war that has shifted inward, one that rages in the vacuum between social, historical, and material relationships. Either they are figures who move about like caricatures of historical personalities (like Churchill on a nearly capsizing pedal boat) or they are simply bodies caught up in the war machinery like rotating mechanisms. The few individuals who get a chance to speak do so rhetorically; they regurgitate preformed doctrines and ways of seeing.

In War Years, it is possible to trace the ambivalence of metaphors, the tactical transformation of signs, and thus also the paralysis of historically defined meanings. The destruction of proportions and physical constraints in virtual space allows the objects to float about freely, dissolving the boundaries of their legibility.

Elmar Hess expands this gravitational loss to multiple layers in an open-ended, narrative construct. The film is a battle tableau at the boundaries of classifying private, social, and narrative realms. Hess’ work also reflects the drama of object alien-ation, and, in a poetic, allegorical manner, it parodies the relational vacuum that spreads out among things. A slice of Sachertorte is transformed into an object for transport, made colossal by the com-mentary’s earnestness, shunted through the realm of the miniature, the model railroad, positioned between slices of toast, spotted from the turret of a bomber; lackluster objects like forks or cups are inserted into montages of historical war footage. Precisely because the attention is focused on things, their loss of meaning is closely noticed: when eating and drinking together, the oldest ritual in the book, is detached from the objects it requires. When things are obstructed from the vibrant ritual they are connected with: camo-colored cups next to thermoses that have solidified into architecture and become an oil refinery. Or when inverted salad bowls are transformed into halls of fame or rustic candlesticks into monumental avenues; these are forays, flyovers, and snapshots of a lifeless, material world.

Hess does not attempt to reanimate the presence of the historical and its objects. Instead, the protagonists and things are carried away by a staccato of traditional narrative formats (war reporting, adventure story, flashback), where people are pressed into the mental traverses of professional commentators.

War Years presents a relationship drama as tableau of a social landscape in which human-physical relationships are replaced by the autonomous progression of a (war) machinery. Even if three performers and the protagonist meet in the kitchen of a shared apartment for the “Conference of the Allies” to pose for an adaptation of the famous Yalta photo, the speaker’s dominating commentary refuses to allow them to escape the system for even a second.

In a provocative, grotesque analogy, the gender conflict in the film reveals a constellation whose clashes are the result of systemic, tensile forces. Conventions and ornamental demands take the place of self-determined action. A woman (portrayed in the film by Jeanette Schulz) and a man (played by Elmar Hess) mutate into Hitler and Churchill, but ultimately simply remain puppet-like manifestations of a higher-level course of events. When the ’dictator’ in War Years strides through the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, or rides a swing in semi-darkness over a monumental ghost town, she acts not as an individual but oscillates between the newly forming voids of historical catastrophe and fashionable presentation.

It is not the genders that wage war in War Years; it is war itself that pits genders against one another. Madonna’s Justify My Love, which can be heard near the end of the film, comes across like a parody of an ideal image. In the overall context, the song also seems like an ironic display, similar to Churchill’s slogan “…Our faith will rise again”.[1]  With Hess, the beleaguered individual is given grotesque, tragicomic forms: the original recording of a speech by Churchill lies over the evocative gestures of the protagonist who disappears into the horizon aboard his boat: “We are sure that in the end all will be well.”

The film War Years is a complex web of displaced, partially nuanced signs with deeply rooted mythologies – the ocean liner arriving for repairs on an alpine lake, accompanied by the sounds of a Strauss waltz. Akin to a pattern of sounds, elements add up into confusing, dissonant chords.  The consequence of these chords, the back and forth between formal, thematic, and aesthetic shifts, forms the dramaturgy of the film to a far greater extent than the story intimated in the foreground. Here, the montages incorporate quotations in which the totalitarian productions of the twentieth century appear like ciphers. With this method, Elmar Hess consciously make use of the inevitable mobility of historical signs in the age of digital availability. But with War Years he has drawn a sharp line between this and arbitrariness.


[1] Winston Churchill: The Fall of France; radio speech, June 17, 1940