All Together Now: Disaster 501: What Happened to Man?
By Jonathan Robbins on 11.5.2012
This past summer, Lars von Trier announced a crowdsourced project entitled Gesamt that would use digital video submitted from amateur filmmakers around the globe. The ground rules were simple: the submissions should interpret or respond to at least one of six works of art provided on the project’s website gesamt.org, and should run no longer than five minutes; no copyrighted material allowed.
The artworks were a mischievously varied lot: an unidentified painting of topless Tahitian women by Gauguin; the final, orgasmic chapter of Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses; an excerpt from Strindberg’s 1887 play The Father, in which a scheming women drives her husband mad; a spectacular song-and-dance performance of “Ol’ Man River” by Sammy Davis Jr.; Belgian composer Cesar Franck’s 1886 Sonata in A Major; and finally—von Trier, even after Cannes 2011, unable to pass up an opportunity for Nazi-related hilarity—Albert Speer’s Zeppelinfeld Cathedral of Light, a stunning display of anti-aircraft searchlight beams used to brighten the nighttime festivities at the Nuremberg rallies.
The word “gesamt” can mean (among other things) total, overall, or together. Von Trier cherry-picked gesamt’s utopian connotations for his project, whose final product he calls a Gesamtkunstwerk. The term is most often associated with composer Richard Wagner and with fascist aesthetics, and in particular the attempted fusion of the latter with ethics and politics. Von Trier, however, uses it to refer to an artwork that is profoundly representative and inclusive—gesamt as “together” and “cumulative,” not as “total,” or totalitarian.
With over 500 submissions from 50 countries, Gesamt proved a resounding success in engaging amateur filmmakers from Belarus to Paraguay to Uzbekistan. Submissions ran the gamut from gripping dramatic scenes surging with messianic energy to an (unintentionally) silly study of a spinning Coke bottle. One extraordinary entry (from Brazil) brought Gauguin’s tableau to life in the form of a reenactment, complete with intricate masks and outfits; another showed people covering themselves in thick, bloodlike mud. From the Ukraine came Tarkovsky-tinged tales of innocence, sin, punishment, and redemption writ in a spiritual register with arresting cinematography. Wandering babies, masked children, mushroom clouds, and a cross-dresser dressed as a donkey with a strap-on dildo all vied for inclusion.
In the end, 142 submissions were selected and edited into a final 45-minute movie entitled Disaster 501: What Happened to Man? Per von Trier’s instructions, it is composed of four unique sub-films to be shown simultaneously on four screens. Disaster 501 had its world premiere on October 12 at the Copenhagen Art Festival, and plans are in the works to loan the work to museums worldwide, and eventually to stream it over the Internet.
Although he designed the project, von Trier left the actual review of submissions and creation of the Gesamtkunstwerk to fellow Danish filmmaker Jenle Hallund. The fortysomething director had served as a script consultant on Melancholia and is also collaborating with von Trier on his latest feature.
Hallund, interviewed in September, said that her task had been to locate the submissions’ overall feeling, and then turn the best and most compatible ones into a single Gesamtkunstwerk film. Not normally a fan of video art, Hallund was particularly enthusiastic about the possibilities of how the material would work across multiple screens, going so far as to predict that a three-screen format may soon be cinema’s new normal.
She interpreted von Trier’s artworks in terms of his artistic preoccupations.
“We can all be recognized or understood by the art that we like or are inspired by,” she said. “For Lars, it is very much about what it means to be a man. He asks that question in all of his films, even though most people think it’s about what it means to be a woman . . . We talk a lot about gender.”
Reviewing the submitted material, as one might guess, was not easy. Hallund confessed to feeling emotionally drained by their mood and content.
“People seem so isolated and frightened,” she said. “There is a clear global sense of desperation among people over who they are and the values they carry with them in their everyday lives . . . Everything is isolated, introverted, and selfish . . . The only real participation is arguments, violence.”
That the submissions were almost entirely devoid of explicitly political content surprised Hallund, whose work has engaged with the conflict in Northern Ireland and the ripple effects of Middle Eastern politics in Europe. (Her 2011 film Limboland dealt with the conflicted national identities of Muslim immigrants to Europe.) The prospect of the Arab world participating in von Trier’s crowd-sourced project was tantalizing, but it never came to fruition. In fact, of the 501 submissions Hallund received, there was only one from the Middle East. If she were to repeat the Gesamt experiment, Hallund said, she would devote considerable time and money to publicizing it in that region.
After the film was completed, Hallund spoke again about the project. She had developed a fondness for the material, recognizing within its dark bulk familiar, sympathetic contours.
“It is a very strange little piece, but it’s a great testimony to how fragile, how easy it is for a human being to be inclined to evil or violence if we do not get our basic human needs satisfied,” she said.
Hallund saw a kind of displacement at work in the preponderance of submissions featuring natural disasters, violence and aliens, noting they may reflect current political and economic conditions. Indeed, judging from the trailer and Hallund’s characterization of the submissions, they clearly tap a certain political mood, at least among the world’s budding filmmakers.
But within the material, which is on view at Charlottenborg through December 30, there is light amidst the darkness: “There are some very beautiful reflections on art, on our persistence in this world . . . I get very emotional, touched by it.”