Ken August Meyer is a remarkable filmmaker whose new documentary “Angel Applicant” is moving and illuminating.
It’s his first film, and he knows that it may be his last. So he wants to make the most of his film’s debut at the South by Southwest Film and TV Festival. He doesn’t know what’s ahead for “Angel Applicant,” since it doesn’t have a distributor yet. But the outlook got better this week, when his film won the documentary feature competition at SXSW.
In awarding the prize, the jury said that the documentary “lives dual lives: a gripping, autobiographical story about illness and an incisive work of art history.”
In 2000, Meyer was working for an advertising agency as an art director when he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called scleroderma. His version of scleroderma turned out to be systemic, meaning that it not only hardened his skin and inflamed his joints but also was bound to spread to his organs — and in his case, the lungs.
This has led to 23 years of health battles, multiple surgeries, difficulties in getting food down his tightened throat and breathing abnormalities. At one point in the film, doctors say that his lungs look like they are 143 years old, using a scale developed to show smokers what they are doing to their body.
When Meyer turns 40, he blows out 143 candles on a wide cake — very slowly — to celebrate his remarkable endurance.
But “Angel Applicant” is much more than a medical tale, as the jurors at SXSW noted. Meyer gained sustenance and inspiration from his wife and the eventual birth of a daughter, but he found an muse of sorts in the art of Paul Klee, the Bauhaus expressionist who fled Nazi Germany to Switzerland because of Hitler’s attacks on modern art and artists. (Hitler fancied himself as an artist and was clueless about anything non-traditional.)
Why the connection with Klee you might ask? As it turns out, Klee developed scleroderma while in exile. And it prevented him from doing most regular tasks, but he still managed to continue painting, because unlike in Meyer’s case, the disease did not immobilize his hands.
And when Meyer looks at the later art of the renowned painter, he sees things that illuminated the effects of scleroderma, like the growing presence of abstract angels, often with plus or minus signs on the bodies.
The film tracks the early cubist works of Klee but focuses mostly on his later works, which were expressionistic. At the time, Klee was at his most prolific, working daily on drawings or paintings that featured contorted bodies, odd juxtapositions — a reflection of the disease that was killing him. And in those works, Meyer sees Klee as an angel of inspiration — a source of creativity that led to the filming of “Angel Applicant” and a way for Meyer to frame the story of his own life.
Klee died in Switzerland in 1940. Only in recent years have scientists diagnosed his disease as scleroderma — and the mystery surrounding Klee’s medical troubles clearly influenced the way he approached his art, as the documentary shows. In fact, it’s a great example of art history — putting the art in context and helping you understand it.
Near the end of “Angel Applicant,” Meyer is emboldened to take a trip to visit Klee’s grandson and see the Zentrum Paul Klee, the Swiss museum that holds much of Klee’s later works. (Meyer’s health has stabilized after receiving a lung transplant during the height of the COVID pandemic.)
While at the museum, the grandson points out one of the pieces that Klee was working on when he died. It’s an incomplete painting, but has a penciled inscription that says in translation, “You think that everything should be known? Oh no, I don’t think so.”
Meyer will never know what caused his scleroderma. He can make guesses, but some of those guesses sound far-fetched, like wondering whether a glare from a man at a lunch counter might have put a hex on him.
In the end, Meyer will never know. And by delving into Klee’s art, Meyer realizes that not knowing is something we all have to accept.