Text:Barbara Steiner

The film Rela­tion Ship is osten­si­bly about the protagonist’s pas­sion­ate attach­ment to the large pas­sen­ger ships that once crossed the Atlantic. The SS Unit­ed States, an ocean lin­er built in 1952, serves as the main focus. Fast and light, the ship was a tech­ni­cal engi­neer­ing mar­vel, and on its maid­en voy­age it cap­tured the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic cross­ing. A paragon of per­fec­tion both tech­ni­cal­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly, in its day the ship embod­ied progress and a spir­it of opti­mism par excel­lence. But as air trav­el became more afford­able and pop­u­lar, transat­lantic ocean lin­ers proved increas­ing­ly unprof­itable. The Unit­ed States was retired in 1969. Not long after that, the decom­mis­sioned ship became for many Amer­i­cans a sym­bol of the decline of the US glob­al­ly or it was almost com­plete­ly for­got­ten.

When the film’s pro­tag­o­nist, played by Elmar Hess, finds out that the ship is to be scrapped, he trav­els from South­hamp­ton to New York and then on to Vir­ginia in order to see the SS Unit­ed States for the first and last time. He trav­els aboard the Queen Elis­a­beth 2, a pas­sen­ger ship built in 1969 in a more eco­nom­i­cal way than ear­li­er ocean lin­ers. But “even then it was already too late” for this form of trav­el, remarks the pro­tag­o­nist in the film – this impres­sion would have been even more glar­ing in 1992, the year in which Hess voy­aged to the US dur­ing the shoot­ing of his film on the only remain­ing transat­lantic ocean lin­er in ser­vice. [1]

The film takes into account this eco­nom­ic change, which is ulti­mate­ly also essen­tial­ly a cul­tur­al one. His­tor­i­cal scenes repeat­ed­ly inter­cut shots of the cross­ing aboard the Queen Eliz­a­beth 2 and of the moth­balled Unit­ed States. In rel­a­tive­ly short sequences, as if the past could return for a brief instant, flar­ing up in the present, Hess sum­mons the suc­cess­ful era of lux­u­ry ocean lin­ers: from the glam­orous life on board, a proud crew, and illus­tri­ous guests, to the ship’s cel­e­brat­ing mass­es. Ele­giac sound­ing obser­va­tions of the pro­tag­o­nist, who sees his visions con­front­ed with real­i­ty, speak ulti­mate­ly not only of a van­ished era but also of a per­son­al loss: scenes of the Unit­ed States’ maid­en voy­age shown at the begin­ning of the film are accom­pa­nied by Ella Fitzgerald’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Night and Day; here, the song func­tions less as a sen­ti­men­tal ele­ment than as evi­dence of Hess’ obses­sion with the ship as aes­thet­ic enti­ty – ‘day and night‘ are notion­al­ly present as a kind of emo­tion­al instance.

As the film pro­gress­es, Hess focus­es the­atri­cal­ly on cre­at­ing con­trasts between dynam­i­cal­ly edit­ed film pas­sages and long cam­era shots, in which black and white found footage alter­nates with staged col­or scenes, height­en­ing the con­trast between then and now. The sound­track ini­tial­ly fol­lows this prin­ci­ple. In addi­tion to swing tracks and the images, which along with the maid­en voy­age also reflect the social opti­mism of the 1950s, one also hears melan­cholic tones, screech­ing seabirds, or under­wa­ter nois­es when the decay­ing ship appears. In the sec­ond half of the film, Hess turns this prin­ci­ple around: the opti-mist­ic sounds of the news­reel footage are tak­en away, and instead the calls of seabirds are heard. Con­verse­ly, one sees the decay­ing ship and hears a cheer­ing crowd. The blar­ing of a ship’s horn dur­ing depar­ture hangs deri­sive­ly over the decay­ing ship anchored in place.

Ulti­mate­ly, these shifts in imagery and sound­track strength­en the sen­sa­tion of the loss of an era and the con­comi­tant melan­choly of the pro­tag­o­nist, who even­tu­al­ly asks him­self in the film: “What should I do about my fan­ta­sy of van­ish­ing lux­u­ry ocean lin­ers” that have become too “large and cum­ber­some?” This appears to be the per­spec­tive of some­one in love with the ship’s aes­thet­ic per­fec­tion who – even if aware of how anachro­nis­tic his tastes are – is gov­erned by the ele­gance of a ship. What­ev­er val­ues the ship once stood for, what­ev­er role it may have also played polit­i­cal­ly, are of no inter­est to him, only the form counts, the pro­por­tions and the design of the details. Just like the ship is for him a sym­bol of obsti­na­cy and per­sis­tence, the pro­tag­o­nist pur­sues his obses­sion in the same way – an obses­sion that becomes even more brit­tle over the course of the film.

The increas­ing alter­nat­ing between assur­ance and doubt is also artic­u­lat­ed in a scene recall­ing Cas­par David Friedrich’s paint­ing Monk by the Sea: the trav­eller is stand­ing on the upper deck look­ing out at the sea. While the captain’s announce­ment of the ship’s posi­tion over the loud­speak­er com­mu­ni­cates assur­ance, the protagonist’s inse­cu­ri­ty is grow­ing. As the film pro­gress­es, he is made to real­ize that “only the ori­gin vision remains. Where I was once devot­ed to my child­hood fas­ci­na­tion, today I am gasp­ing for air.” He seeks refuge in the realm of pro­jec­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, char­ac­ter­is­tic of his child­hood fas­ci­na­tion with ships. Hence, in the film this turns into: “A 300-meter-long toy would sim­ply be a fas­ci­nat­ing notion. And already it had set sail for a long voy­age on the car­pet of my room.”

In the film, whose ini­tial sec­tions are main­ly shot in doc­u­men­tary style, a mod­el of the Unit­ed States is seen slid­ing – at first only in the form of a snap­shot-like image – across the soft shag car­pet of a liv­ing room. It is the pre­lude to addi­tion­al mod­els of ships, children’s draw­ings, and blue­prints show­ing the begin­nings of the protagonist’s child­hood fas­ci­na­tion and which, over time, increas­ing­ly become the focus of the film. The thus­ly-staged fan­ta­sy cul­mi­nates in a fic­tion­al doc­u­men­tary sequence describ-ing the con­struc­tion of an ocean lin­er in reces­sion­ary eco­nom­ic times. Final­ly, Hess floats an over­sized mod­el of the Queen Eliz­a­beth 2 through a (his) flood­ed apart­ment – accom­pa­nied acousti­cal­ly by the hymn God Save the Queen. By show­ing both the mod­el as well as the orig­i­nal, Hess alter­nates between fic­tion and real­i­ty, although this, in turn, destroys the protagonist’s fan­ta­sy.

As the film pro­gress­es, he begins to iden­ti­fy more and more with the ship. Accord­ing­ly, he also takes notice of who his friends are: pre­sent­ed as por­traits, they become part of the filmic struc­ture. Here, the descrip­tions of the peo­ple essen­tial­ly mim­ic ship des­ig­na­tions. In addi­tion to birth and phys­i­cal loca­tion, width and height dimen­sions are also pro­vid­ed. Con­verse­ly, the film is ded­i­cat­ed to the protagonist’s per­son­i­fy­ing of the Unit­ed States and ulti­mate­ly oth­er ships as well. These trans­for­ma­tions come to a final head toward the end of the film when the pro­tag­o­nist, on board the Queen Eliz­a­beth 2 enter­ing New York har­bor, says: “I feel insignif­i­cant, and above all, small; my exten­sion, behind the scenery of the sky­scrap­ers, shrunk to a rather small ship mod­el.”

Fur­ther­more, view­ing Rela­tion Ship sole­ly as the melan­cholic account of a ship enthu­si­ast, that is to say of the film­mak­er him­self, fails to under­stand the work’s filmic attrib­ut­es, specif­i­cal­ly the use of var­i­ous film gen­res (doc­u­men­tary film, fic­tion film) and nar­ra­tive modes. The film is con­stant­ly shift­ing per­spec­tives: from past to present, from doc­u­men­tary mode to sub­jec­tive nar­ra­tion, from soci­etal devel­op­ments to per­son­al obses­sion, from ships to peo­ple and from peo­ple to ships. Ulti­mate­ly, Rela­tion Ship is not only about the protagonist’s func­tion­al and dys­func­tion­al attach­ment to ships, he also sit­u­ates var­i­ous eras, dis­tanced-ana­lyt­i­cal and sub­jec­tive-emo­tion­al nar­ra­tive modes, soci­ety and indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, real­i­ty and fic­tion, peo­ple and ships in func­tion­al and dys­func­tion­al rela­tion­ship to one anoth­er.


[1] Elmar Hess: Rela­tion Ship – Texte zum Film, aus Lost Par­adise, ed. Bar­bara Stein­er, Okta­gon-Ver­lag, Stuttgart 1995, Pages 42 – 57.