“No historic period passes without leaving a trace, and its aftermath does not disappear naturally, especially such a dramatic, extensive, radical and overwhelming tide as Soviet rule.” The words are Deimantas Narkevicius’s, and the traces of Communism—ideological, esthetic and emotional—are the subject and the very material of the Lithuanian artist’s affecting films and videos, most of which are shot in Lithuania or are concerned with its political history. Found footage, autobiographical narratives, experimental documentary and historical re-enactments all find space in Narkevicius’s works, which he began making in the late ’90s. “The Unanimous Life,” a small, penetrating survey of seven films recently at Kunsthalle Bern (after appearances at the Reina Sofía in Madrid and Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven), opened with his first work, the 16mm Europa 54°54’-25°19’ (1997). With its single tracking shot of the artist setting out from his house in Lithuania to find the geographical center of Europe—which is, not coincidentally, in Lithuania—Europa subtly delineates the artist’s primary concerns: how autobiography, geography and ideology blur, and how one tells a story through film while avoiding that medium’s susceptibility to didacticism, propaganda and the illusion of truth.
If Europa’s flickering 16mm film, a nostalgia-provoking medium if ever there was one, and deviously straightforward first-person travelogue, with its allusions to European history, seem almost Sebaldian, Narkevicius’s later works get a bit wilder: more thematically explicit and formally ambitious. The Head (2007) interweaves archival footage of postwar couples sunning on a riverbank and children informing an off-camera interviewer what they would like to become—a pilot, a driver and, chillingly, an “interrogatress”—with a ’50s-era state-made documentary about a sculptor of Soviet monuments. Energy Lithuania (2000), meanwhile, tells the story of a Soviet-era power plant through an interview with one of its proud workers (who offers the unsettling admission that “Every year from hard work people were killed”), paired with imagery from a Socialist Realist painting of workers.
As these films reveal, Narkevicius is a master of pacing, effortlessly knitting together disparate footage to create not vignettes but compositionally whole films of uncommon power. His most compelling works by far are The Role of a Lifetime (2003) and The Dud Effect (2008). The former features an interview with British filmmaker Peter Watkins, who talks candidly about himself, politics and the documentary process. We hear Watkins’s voice as pencil drawings and flickering footage of a touch football game on England’s Brighton Beach roll surreally before us. While Watkins speaks about challenging the authoritarian constructs of documentary film, delineating a decidedly anti-establishment artistic position, one realizes that he serves as an alter ego for Narkevicius himself. After this, The Dud Effect—which captures a shuttered Soviet nuclear missile facility and the detritus-laden forest landscape around it—seems like a direct response to Watkins’s concerns. As the ominous documentary morphs into a re-enactment and then apocalyptic speculation, the film gains an urgent clarity and terrible beauty; it is a warning, as clear as can be.
Photo: Deimantas Narkevicius: The Role of a Lifetime, 2003, Super 8 film transferred to DVD, 17 minutes; at Kunsthalle Bern.