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