New York

Per-Oskar Leu, Crisis and Critique (detail), 2012, still from the twenty-seven-minute black-and-white video component of a mixed- media installation.

Per-Oskar Leu, Crisis and Critique (detail), 2012, still from the twenty-seven-minute black-and-white video component of a mixed- media installation.

Per-Oskar Leu

Triple Canopy

Per-Oskar Leu, Crisis and Critique (detail), 2012, still from the twenty-seven-minute black-and-white video component of a mixed- media installation.

If the history of the twentieth-century could be distilled to just a few key episodes, one of them might be Bertolt Brecht’s appearance before a US House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) panel in 1947. Speaking with great deliberation in his thick German accent, Brecht point by point dismantled his interrogators’ claims about the danger of his works and of “political” poetry more generally. Employing Brechtian-inspired Verfremdungseffekte, or distancing effects, Norwegian artist Per-Oskar Leu weaves a fabric of real voices and fictional characters to stage an innovative reimagining of this historic event. The twenty-seven-minute video at the core of the installation Crisis and Critique, 2012, includes audio from the HUAC testimony dubbed over appropriated footage from German-language films of the 1930s and ’40s—Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), and G. W. Pabst’s 1931 version of Brecht’s own The Threepenny Opera, among others—with the voice of theater critic and Brecht scholar Eric Bentley (lifted from a 1963 recording) providing narration and commentary. Thus, the famous kangaroo-court sequence in M, in which Peter Lorre’s serial-killer character is tried by the Berlin criminal underworld, becomes the HUAC proceeding, with a leather-jacketed tough standing in for House Committee chairman John Parnell Thomas of New Jersey. Brecht is portrayed as Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind writing of his evil deeds while silhouetted against a backlit cloth scrim in his mental-asylum cell. At the center of Leu’s montage is a hilarious World War II propaganda cartoon starring Donald Duck, trapped in a nightmare Third Reich, where he is forced to fabricate ever more absurdly sized missiles on a frantically sped-up assembly line.

Leu draws the viewer into his narrative using a film-within-a-film framing device: A man hunted by Nazi police hides out in a cinema (the footage is from Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! [1943]) as the film we see unfolds. In a fascinating mise en abyme, the indelible hurdy-gurdy music of the Brecht and Kurt Weill composition “Mack the Knife” fills the movie hall. Bentley’s voice explains that in October 1947 HUAC undertook “hearings regarding Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” calling numerous Hollywood notables, including notorious red-baiters Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, and eleven so-called unfriendly witnesses, of whom only Brecht gave testimony. The others took the Fifth Amendment and were later jailed for contempt of Congress. Brecht, though a Marxist, had never joined the Communist Party, while others of the Hollywood Ten had; yet his polite but firm declarations condemned the entire HUAC undertaking as injudicious. As Brecht points out, his own ostensibly revolutionary activities were in fact directed against fascist Germany, presumably a common enemy of the US government. Brecht boarded a plane for Europe the day after his congressional appearance, and never again returned to the States.

The masterfully collaged and captivating video is a tour de force, as is Otto Freundlich’s 1931 essay “The Artist and the Economic Crisis,” which was translated into English for the first time, printed on a poster, and distributed to visitors free. Elements accompanying the installation seemed somewhat labored in comparison. Five leather IKEA armchair slipcovers draped over speakers hung from the ceiling—referencing, among other things, Brecht’s own leather-jacket-as-working-class gear—and four twin mattresses on the floor provided seating, their sheets printed with the German words and phrases for “close,” “not,” “your ear,” and “to misfortune” (the words come from placards brandished by beggars in The Threepenny Opera). A red curtain—a former East German Communist flag—separated the gallery entrance from the video. Take all these props away: The video’s expert montage confers new urgency upon Brecht’s already stirring moment of political conscience. Combined with the Freundlich text, it points to the dialogic relationship between artists and economic hardship, and the necessity of speaking frankly about those conditions.

Eva Díaz