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.