(USA, 74 min.)
Dir. Ken August Meyer
Programme: International Spectrum (International Premiere)
Ken August Meyer’s documentary Angel Applicant begins with the filmmaker admitting that he is nervous to meet the audience. Similar to a seasoned tour guide, who is about to take the next batch of out of towners around the museum of his life, he already knows the questions that will be asked. Most will be about his appearance. Diagnosed with the rare autoimmune disease systemic scleroderma, an incurable illness that is causing his skin to harden, Meyer has spent years dealing with odd looks and questions from strangers.
The piercing inquisitive eyes of onlookers cannot match the uncomfortable pain that is occurring within his own body. Frequently using a mannequin in re-enactments to emphasize the plastic doll he fears he is becoming, Meyer’s film not only captures what his life is like living with the disease, but also the existential crisis that each new symptom causes. While some look to religion or medicinal drugs to help to make sense of their circumstances, Meyer, who worked as commercial art director, found enlightenment in the works of Swiss-German artist and Bauhaus teacher Paul Klee.
Nicknamed the “Bauhaus Buddha” while working as an art teacher in Germany, Klee went from being celebrated to finding himself denounced as a “degenerate artist” when the Nazis came to power. As if wearing a scarlet letter made of rotten meat around his neck, the stench associated with such a label followed Klee as he relocated back to Switzerland. Not only did he struggle to restart his career, but he began suffering from symptoms that would officially get diagnosed as scleroderma after his death. The changes his body was going through sparked a new style of art from Klee. Whether it was through his daily drawings or the emphasis on thicker lines in his paintings, he used the medium to document the increasingly physical limitations he was experiencing.
Creating a visual diary of sorts through his work, each piece serving as a new page of insight into how the artist navigated the evolving disease, Klee’s would become a guiding North Star for Meyer decades later. Throughout Angel Applicant, which takes its name from Klee’s 1939 painting, the filmmaker refers to the famed artist as both his therapist and angel. While there have been several studies touching on the therapeutic nature of art, Meyer’s connection with Klee’s works reaches a spiritual level of intimacy. It’s one that even led him to take a pilgrimage to Europe to retrace some of the iconic locations featured in Klee’s work.
As if baptized in the metaphorical waters of Klee’s art, Meyer found a new path towards a better understanding of the changes in his own body and his overall outlook on life. A deeply uplifting film that reminds viewers that they are not defined by their aliments, Angel Applicant finds solace in the acceptance that not every mystery of life needs to be solved. Simply appreciating the things and people we often take for granted can make life that much richer.
Meyer’s intimate journey towards self-acceptance and enlightenment is captured with the same creative energy that radiates from Klee’s art. Whether using images of frozen popsicles or crab legs to reflect the changing textures of his hardening hands or revealing a special cake to mark a significant birthday, the documentary pulls the audience in with its charms and keeps them captive with its honest intimacy. Rather than simply documenting his own plight, Meyer uses Klee’s art to not only provide context to the physical and mental challenges that comes with systemic scleroderma, but give context to the dangerous way fascism discredits the importance of art to cultivate compassion and understanding.
In highlighting the power of art by connecting Klee’s works with Meyer’s personal growth, Angel Applicant finds strength in a medium that thrives on being open to interpretation.