Wacken is a sleepy farm town in the far north of Germany, near the Danish border. It has a population comfortably under 2000 and nobody south of Itzehoe would ever have heard of it if it hadn’t been for a group of friends who, in 1990, decided to organise a heavy metal concert to fight the neverending boredom they had faced their entire life. As most of you will know, their one-off concert turned into THE heavy metal event in the world and now attracts 75.000 headbangers every summer from all corners of the globe.
In 2005, Korean film director Sung Hyung Cho decided to make a movie about the phenomenon that is Wacken Open Air and how it influences local life.
The movie starts with expansive views of grass land, rustling acres of grain and corn and patches of grazing cows. A tractor makes its way up the side of a distant hill. From there, we are introduced to a cross section of the town’s population, consisting mainly of quiet, hardworking farm folk, who have lived in Wacken their entire lives. The main character is a good humoured farmer who, by the look of it, divides his time between smoking, drinking, and running his farm, in roughly equal measures. Throughout the movie, we see him wandering around his farm, the town and the local pub, moving between them on his quad bike. His wife is mostly quiet, apart from her attempts to convince him to give up chain smoking which, without exception, fall on deaf ears. Besides a selection of farmers, we also meet 2 elderly ladies, who voice their concern about their town being swamped by drunk Satanists donning black clothes and inverted cross jewelry. They hesitantly talk to the movie crew, and are later filmed during church choir practice. Apart from the god fearing older generation, the town’s population also includes some younger people. One of them is a mullet wearing, chainsmoking mechanic, who is filmed while doing maintenance on his motorcycle. As it turns out, he was part of the organising committee of the inaugural Wacken Open Air in 1990. The festival turned out to be a success, and his fellow organisers suggested setting up a proper company to focus full time on organising the festival and taking it to the next level. Our mechanic politely declined as he could not see a future in gig organising and thought it would be smarter to focus on his daytime job and advancing his career, rather than fooling around and wasting time on something as periferal as heavy metal. As you would have guessed, the factory he worked in closed a couple of years later and the frustration in his voice is palpable as he looks on from the side lines while his high school buddies rake in 8 figure sums each year on ticket fees alone, while he is struggling to make ends meet in the regular market place. The essence of the documentary, however, is provided by a portrait of two local girls, who pop up throughout the movie. We first meet them while they’re exercising. The walls of their exercise room are full of cut-outs from glossy magazines, with fashion tips from exotic places like Milan, Paris and Miami. It soon becomes clear that the girls, and with them the majority of local youth, are so bored out of their mind in Wacken, that they will jump at any chance of getting out of there.
The festival provides a nice diversion for 4 days every year and they’re always roaring to go (the entire population of the town gets a free ticket to the festival) but still, as they’re locals, there’s always the risk that a neighbour, aunt or schoolmate sees them, so going completely loco is out of the question, as one of the girls laments. The girls openly dream about leaving Wacken and moving to Berlin, Munich or any other place that does not so closely resemble hell.
At this point in the documentary, the festival slowly starts to encroach on the town. The first portaloos are rolled into town, and while we still get regular updates from our friend, the chainsmoking, lager swilling farmer, it is clear that the atmosphere in town is changing. One of the church ladies is packing her bags, going for a visit to her sister elsewhere in Germany to avoid the 4 day festival of noise and debauchery. The rest of the town prepare for the influx of black clad drunks who are ready to throw their money at the local economy which, I would guess, gets 90% of its annual turnover out of the festival. Having been to the festival 4 times myself, I can tell that the festival is what keeps the town running. The local supermarket, which is at the bottom of a slip road, has a parking lot that, in the days leading up to the festival, is completely filled with pallets full of cases of lager, stacked about 9 foot high. There are cargo containers full of vodka, whisky and wine. It is quite a sight as you approach the supermarket from the festival ground and see the ant hill of people walking in and out of the store, inadvertently carrying cases of beer, whisky and whatever other alcohol they can get their hands on.
When the festival proper gets underway, the footage inevitably changes to the usual “WACKEN RUUULES!! \M/” montage of drunks wandering the streets, clutching cans of beer and half empty bourbon bottles. People can be found passed out on the sidewalk by noon. Every local is selling beer from their drive way and breakfast, for those who can be bothered to have solid food.I can tell from experience that it is one of the best feelings you will ever experience. Going to Wacken discharges you from normal society for four days, and you can behave like an idiot for the duration. It’s bliss.
The film continues with another long time Wacken tradition; the performance of the Wacken fire brigade umpa band, which plays in the massive biergarten each year. The church lady who didn’t skip town has decided to attend the show with her husband, who is happily watching the performance with a beer in his hand. Meanwhile, his wife looks extraordinarily anxious as she is surrounded by jumping metalheads who, most likely, have each consumed more alcohol since breakfast than she has in her entire life. As the party continues, footage moves between the festival, where bands play and people are having the time of their lives and the locals who try to make a buck out of the festival and look on from the outside, now foreigners in their own town.
As the festival draws to a close, people start to pack their vans and stumble to the exit of the festival ground. The movie closes out with shots of the Wacken country side, quiet again, like at the start of the movie, but the views now polluted by abandoned tents, sleeping bags and piles of empty cans and bottles. The locals have their town back for the next 361 days, much to the delight of the older generation who have their cherished peace and quiet back, and to the despair of the local youth who, once again, see the town’s only entertainment disappear over the horizon for another year.
If you are expecting a movie about heavy metal, let me warn you. This is not strictly a movie about heavy metal, or even the festival itself, but rather a documentary that explores the feelings of the locals and tries to show how they feel about the infringement caused on their day-to-day lives by the annual 4day invasion of 75.000 long haired, black clad drunks that flood their town. You will not hear a guitar in the first 52 minutes of the movie. At a more subliminal level, it shows the problems that appear in most farm communities in this day and age: the older generation trying to protect their smalltown agricultural interests against ever increasing competition from large scale farming conglomerates in countries like Russia, the USA or Ukraine, while the younger generation only has one point on the agenda, which is getting the hell out of there as soon as they can.
The thing that stuck with me most were the two young girls we met early on. The movie was released in 2006, which means it was filmed in 2005, the last time I attended the festival myself. They were in their late teens or early twenties when the movie was filmed, which means they must be in their mid to late twenties now. I wonder if they realised their dreams by moving to Berlin or Paris or some other cosmopolitan place that is a thousand miles away from Wacken in every sense of the word, or that they succumbed to the only other outcome available, marrying a local boy and spending the rest of their lives watching the corn grow. I’d really like to know.