Early on in his highly personal documentary, filmmaker Ken August Meyer presents an intense close-up of his face staring directly into the camera. “I’m happy to be here to share this story. I’m Ken,” he says by way of introduction. “It’s nice to meet you. And don’t worry, it’s not contagious.”

What he’s referring to is the condition afflicting him, systemic scleroderma. It’s a life-threatening autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s connective tissues and internal organs, and there is no cure. His chronicling of the disease’s progression, and his finding comfort in the later artworks of Paul Klee, who suffered from the same condition — although it wasn’t diagnosed until after his death — forms the heart of the moving Angel Applicant, receiving its world premiere at SXSW (where it snagged the top doc prize).

Angel Applicant

The Bottom Line

Deeply affecting.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Ken August Meyer

1 hour 14 minutes

Meyer worked for more than a decade as a senior art director for a major ad agency, which explains the imaginative visual style infusing his film, including colorful graphics and animation depicting the manifestations of his condition. What also makes Angel Applicant different from so many other personal documentaries about serious illness is his essay-like examination of Klee’s life and career, accompanied by numerous examples of his artworks which became more abstract as his illness progressed.

The film delivers a brief biographical portrait of the Swiss-born artist, nicknamed the “Bauhaus Buddha” after he began teaching at the art school located in Weimar, Germany. He returned to Switzerland in 1933 after the Nazis rose to power and declared him to be, like so many of his contemporaries, a “degenerate artist.” Due to their attacks, he had trouble relaunching his career in Europe and, even worse, he began suffering symptoms of scleroderma not long afterward. The disease, which can severely limit mobility, affected his paintings, which became increasingly geometric and began employing heavier lines and larger blocks of color.

Meyer saw Klee’s physical deterioration as signified by his artworks as mirroring his own, although he at least had the benefit of knowing his actual medical diagnosis. He describes his personal connection to Klee’s paintings as akin to “consolation from an empathetic ghost,” which gives you an example of the poeticism with which he tells his story.

He also displays a refreshing sense of humor about his dire state of affairs, as evidenced by whimsical dramatic recreations of actual incidents, including an encounter with a woman in a deli who, upon seeing Meyer in a frozen position and mistaking him for a mannequin, said to her friend, “I thought he was real!” Needless to say, she was both startled and embarrassed when Meyer suddenly began moving and speaking to her. Footage from his 40th birthday party shows him blowing out 143 candles, the number signifying what his doctors had determined to be the biological age of his deteriorating lungs.

The filmmaker recounts the progression of his disease in exacting detail, including audio recordings and video footage of consultations with various medical experts. His illness didn’t prevent him from attempting to live life to the fullest, including achieving professional success, getting happily married and having a daughter. But it continued to worsen, causing him to experience constant pain and a growing loss of mobility. “My birthday suit feels way too tight on me,” he says at one point, referring to his skin. “Like it shrunk in the dryer.”

He underwent surgery on his hands, and eventually, after his pulmonary function decreased dramatically, received a life-saving double lung transplant. He also made a pilgrimage to Switzerland, visiting Klee’s final residence in Bern — where he had been visited by the likes of Picasso and Kandinsky — and finally seeing the artist’s later works, many of them depicting angels, in person.

Meeting the artist’s grandson, Alexander Klee, Meyer is shown a written inscription at the top of Klee’s final, unfinished painting, the rough translation being “Not all of the unexplained is in need of explanation.” The line serves as both a poignant epitaph for Klee and a beautiful grace note for this affecting film.

Frank Scheck

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