The Slovenian avant-garde music group Laibach has always kept a prickly catch-all defiance close to its heart. Even their name, the German exonym for Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, earned them ire under the über-nationalistic government of the former Yugoslavia. The band is perhaps most famous for its quasi-fascist covers of pop songs; its version of “Live Is Life” by Opus injects a sinister militarism into a lightweight tune about self-empowerment, turning it into a call to arms. Laibach’s aesthetic is industrial, abrasive yet catchy, and aggressively opposed to both totalitarian communist societies and capitalist liberal ones, and it’s angered representatives of both ideologies.
Whether the surprisingly left-leaning group’s appropriation of Nazi imagery is a sophisticated attempt at raising people’s consciousness or simply a late-20th-century incarnation of Dadaist nihilism isn’t always clear, but it’s kept Laibach a perplexing and fascinating topic of discussion. Indeed, this ambiguity is the starting point of Morten Traavik and Uģis Olte’s Liberation Day, a self-described “documentary musical” detailing the band’s trip to play songs from The Sound of Music in North Korea, the first time a Western rock band has been invited to perform inside the world’s most isolated nation.
The film begins with an introduction to Laibach through a montage of Anglo-American pop culture and celebrity worship juxtaposed against the development of the North Korean state; world-historical in scope but music video-like in presentation, it’s agitprop from the editor’s table at MTV. Predictably, Liberation Day shows the Western media’s reaction to the lunacy of Laibach’s trip to perform in North Korea (something John Oliver and Breitbart agree on). The documentary, itself rapt with the oddball nature of the group’s encounters within the hermit kingdom, often feels like it’s equally incredulous, wavering between a sincere investigation of the band and self-satire, an ambiguity that admittedly feels on brand for Laibach.
Despite the film’s jeering humor about Laibach’s trip, there’s nothing unexpected about the group’s encounters inside North Korea. The band’s members are harassed by censor boards, navigate antiquated technology, and find themselves constantly beset by gaps in cultural understanding, difficulties only amplified by the band’s own interest in the regime and unorthodox relation to censorship. Somehow, the endeavor never collapses, largely thanks to Traavik, who becomes the film’s distracting center of gravity. Having worked with the North Korean government on many projects before, he manages the logistics of Laibach’s concert. Indeed, it was Traavik who convinced North Korea to invite the group in the first place and assuaged the government’s many doubts about their fascist iconography. Traavik comes across as a narcissist and nothing short of a creep, but with his leadership the band manages to stage a semi-successful, if truncated, performance.
The concert is barely shown in Liberation Day but is supplemented by the documentary’s reflective incursions into Laibach’s artistic philosophy. “All art is subject to political manipulation, except that which speaks the language of the same manipulation” reads a pre-credits quote from the group. In the absence of mass worship, the group claims, people seek purely collective experiences, be they rock concerts, sports, or mass military demonstrations. Totalitarianism, Laibach argues, is this desire taken to its extreme, best confronted by jacking the desire up to 11 and exposing it for what it is. It would be irresponsible, especially in this time, to aestheticize fascism or totalitarianism to the point of enjoyment, but Liberation Day suggests that Laibach simply lacks any illusions about the nature of the beast: Humans really do desire the sort of mass transcendence that totalitarianism offers. Liberation, they would argue, only comes when people embrace this truth.
Call Liberation Day a test of the group’s theory. It’s unlikely that Laibach’s brief concert in North Korea will bring peace to the peninsula, though the film is so bold as to suggest a link between the show and a contemporary de-escalation of tensions between North and South Korea. The anodyne reactions to their concert make it seem even less likely that a Laibach-inspired coup is in the works, but the provocateurs remain hopeful. As they are wont to repeat, “There’s a crack in every wall, that’s where the spirit gets in.”