30/07/2010

The nanosecond of happiness

Christoph Schlingensief died on 21 August, aged just 49. In this interview from July he talked to Thomas David about his obsession with Africa, the importance of disturbing the peace and why he hasn't become the man he wanted to be.

The obituaries have come flooding in. For Elfriede Jelinek he was the greatest artist who ever lived. Katarina Wagner said that everything in Bayreuth was more open and flexible because of him. For Hans Ulrich Obrist, Schlingensief, like string theory, had at least 11 dimensions.

Your project to build an opera village in Burkina Faso got going in January this year. But Africa has been calling you for 15 years. Why?

It all started with "United Trash" a film I made in 1996. The father of my girlfriend at the time was a missionary in South Africa until he was thrown out. At some point my girlfriend said to me "You have to go out there". And so we went to Zimbabwe and I made that film. The levels of chaos we encountered were pretty formidable and things got extremely scary at times, because our story happened to collide head on with the start of Mugabe's land reform. All whites were suddenly racist. We were actually arrested and put in prison.

"United Trash" and "Via Intolleranza II", the first production to come out of your opera village utopia, are worlds apart.

My search for a location for the opera house in Africa was also a response to an ezxistential question. All my doctors had basically advised me against it – they told me not to fly, not to breathe, and to avoid the heat at all costs. So it was partly down to my own urge to prove to myself, it was a role to play: it was the idea, which came out of my cancer, that I had to make this opera house right now and not in ten years' time. As soon as I talked about it, it just started happening – it's always like that with me, then there's no going back. But I soon noticed that I had no desire to bond with Africa the whole time, I had no ambition to become African, I didn't want to live there and I wasn't interested in learning to play the drums. In "Via Intolleranza II" I basically go there and say: "Sorry, that really didn't work at all," but in the very moment when my critics claim to have known so all along, that it was never going to work with those Africans, I turn round and say: "I'm going to do this opera village anyway."

Has the question that resounds throughout "Via Intolleranza" about why the western industrial countries want to help Africa, not being flogged to death by the politicians already?


It's crazy, but I believe there is a sort of primal feeling which makes many people feel very connected to Africa. Perhaps because Africa is the cradle of humanity. We all long for our origins and in this context I find it very interesting that it was always in Africa that I experienced fear most intensely. Here at home we've made nests for ourselves and we're too scared to even go and buy a loaf of bread without life insurance, laptop insurance and dog insurance. At best we might throw caution to the wind by investing in one of those carefree holiday insurance packs for three weeks every year. But of course the inhabitants of our industrial world are suffering terribly because they are barely alive. I mean, how can you feel any sign of life when you are insured up to the teeth? And when someone is damaged enough to travel to Africa just to tell everyone how the world works, then it all becomes pretty grotesque.

You play a role in "Via Intolleranza II" yourself.

I am on stage briefly when an African presents a hut that he has built himself, and which he worked on for a whole month, and I offer him my congratulations as a European. We want to see the monkey jump through the hoop. That was basically what it was with the colonialists. First they exhibited the Africans in grass skirts only to show them wearing trousers, five years later, as the beneficiaries of colonialism.

Is there a connection between the political intervention you just described and the intervention which has been at the heart of your theatre since 1993, when you stormed onto the stage during a performance of "100 Years CDU" at the Berlin Volksbühne to throw a spanner into the works?

This was partly a reaction to the death of Alfred Edel, and I refused to replace him with another actor. Edel was a person, not a role, and the theatre cannot replace a person. The other reason for my intervention at that moment was that I could no longer stand the way we were all behaving. This sort of intervention can lead to truthfulness. This is a huge word I know but it is important to me that an actor knows that things can turn against him at any time, and that all of suddenly he won't be standing there so triumphantly. This risk has to be a part of theatre. I can't take it any more that so many actors in Germany only want to know what they are supposed to do next and yet they always expect plenty of applause.

Do you see the theatre as a place for disturbing the peace?


Ideally I think it should be a research laboratory, where the most diverse thoughts can collide with one another and explode. This allows peculiar things to happen, metaphysical things that may even be resolved quite conventionally. Nobody talks with audiences any more, there are seminars instead. I am extremely conservative as far as this is concerned. The best years were in the Volksbühne in the '90s, when Frank Castorf forced us to come back the next morning and argue it out with some critic or other. We would be in a filthy mood because the piece had not gone down well, but we had to show up. I think it is extremely important that we get real characters back into the theatre. People today are mostly pretty competent and well-read but they lack the courage to be radical, to say: "I'm going to throw this issue in here and I'll defend it to the death." Most heads of theatre today are delicate flowers who to give something to everyone – one play for grandma, one for grandpa, a bit of punk or hip-hop for the teenagers and some singing and dancing for the kids. This might boost sales but is is not taking the theatre seriously. It essentially robbing the theatre of its raison d'etre and sucking all the life out of it.

Is there a way to bring back meaning to what you would call consensus theatre?


All I can say to that is that my time at the Volksbühne in 1993 was a stroke of luck. I was in Mühlheim an der Ruhr when I got the call. I had made a few minor films, but I was basically just hanging around. Then I was asked if I wanted to come to the Volksbühne. I didn't know anything about it, I didn't know anything about theatre and I was certainly not a great theatregoer, and then when I went in and saw Herbert Fritsch in "Clockwork Orange" being lifted up on a three-metre long plank the whole thing looked so awful that I wanted to leave immediately. Then the dramaturge Matthias Lilienthal approached me on the stairs and persuaded me to chang my mind. The disruption of the peace which takes place in a theatre like this cannot be repeated everyday because you get immune at some point. But the wonderful thing about it was all the people with their different ideas about things – in terms of music as well. Castorf has always had this rock thing going on and I didn't want anything to do with that, but Christoph Gurk who went on to become editor-in-chief of Spexmagazine, or Diedrich Diederichsen's lectures – they were fantastic. Disturbing the peace today seems to be more about scandal and that's not interesting.

The sheer pace of "Via Intolleranza II", the endless numbers of people, all those layers of image and sound which you weave together in all your productions, it's completely overwhelming for the audience but very stimulating at the same time. How do you manage this transfer of energy?

Six weeks beforehand I was still extremely fragile and I was in the middle of a second course of chemotherapy, then the ash from volcano in Iceland made a complete mess of our rehearsals leaving us with just 14 days to get the show on the road. Of course this put everyone involved under tremendous pressure and then when the set designer and the dramaturge pulled out, we were on the verge of having call it all off. But in front of all these people from Burkina Faso who would turn up at the drop of a hat in spite of it all, we felt we couldn't just succumb to German tearfulness, especially as they had all lived through catastrophes that would probably killed us off. If they lose their home in a flood, they build a new one, but if it happens here, all the politicians start parading round Brandeburg in rubber boots as if the whole country was going under. So we made an effort not to behave like wimps and this attitude was probably what gave the production its power. We were also pretty much out of our depth and this form of energy probably carried over to the audience – not as gratification or educational questioning but as something atonal, which also has something very real about it because we are all constructed very atonally.

What are your plans for the German pavilion at the Venice Biennial?


I gained experience in national representation when I did "Parsifal" in Bayreuth and of course I have a weakness for this sort of mythical situation. My best films are set in a bunker, a concentration camp or the sinister mishmash of warring heads of big families and the Third Reich. This has been the raw material of my work since I was a boy brooding over film scripts in my bedroom. If I thought my story was going nowhere, I would relocate it to a concentration camp or a prison, which suddenly reduced everything dramatically and focussed on the key questions: "What am I doing here in my cell? How can I communicate? How do I get out of here?" By now I don't have to stick up signs saying "Third Reich" or "Hitler" all over the place. What interests me in Venice is the positioning of the pavilions. If you look at them from the air, you see how people viewed globalism at the time of their construction: as a map with the crappy East somewhere out the back, the French with a few frilly bits, the chunky Germans and the Nordic countries with a bit more glass.

These are interesting insights into how a society files its art under a specific seal of quality, confident in the knowledge that they know exactly what is truly French or truly German. I am well equipped to deal with this because I have worked abroad a lot and I feel no obligation to make constant references to Germany. My "Parzifal" would have been a disaster if I had put League of German girls on the stage next to piles of swastikas made out of shit. My whole Nazi thing doesn't go running through the streets waving flags. Even in the film "100 Years of Adolf Hitler" I showed something completely different. In this respect I feel very close to Fassbinder. The main German theme is self-flagellation, this dissatisfaction, this need to refer everything back to number one, which is also a Swiss speciality. The Swiss hollowed out their mountains, now they are munching on their chocolate and need to feel unique, even if the world goes to pieces around them.

Your films from the end of the '70s were born of very different impulses than your work today. When did you start understand where your real interests lay?

My first films were basically about making people laugh. "The School Class" was slapstick theatre, which I wrote at the age of nine. Then I made it into a film with a few friends. I did this for a while and then at the end of the 70s I realised it was going nowhere. In the early 80s I met Werner Nekes surrounded me with nothing but mainstream. Of course I immediately started kicking against Nekes. In "Tunguska" my first full-length feature I sent avant-garde researchers to the North Pole to torture the Eskimos with German avant-garde films. This created the sort of friction which I have now grown into, but for a long time I had no feel of genuine autonomy and I am still scared today about falling out with people so badly that everything grinds to a halt. But even back then I had the urge to destroy harmony, and at the short film festival in Oberhausen, where the people were always so confident about the political importance of film, I would always lash out at everything and everyone, and then I'd get in such a state about it later that I always ended up apologising.

Is your awareness of the variety of possibilities out there something that is expressed in the wide range of your activities?

his awareness is the point of liberation, the acknowledgement of all the contradictions, and all I am doing is demanding that people stop pretending they know who they are. Not one of us analyses what it was we originally wanted from life. Of course there are military men who have known since they could walk that they wanted to go to Stalingrad like their grandfathers, and who will take this conviction to the grave. But I have relatives who were brought up with certitude and who went through life and then at the end, they softened completely and started questioning things. I am essentially religious, not in an esoteric sense, but I feel this incredibly quality in the first book of Moses when God says that he will destroy everything he has made. Each of us would do well to really take this sentence to heart just once. Essentially we have created little of any real value but we have spent the whole time distracting ourselves from our own dilemma.

Of the string of questions posed by your publishers in their announcement of your upcoming autobiography, I put this one to you: Have you become the man you wanted to become?

No. I have not become the man I wanted to become, because I never knew what was possible, how to be happy. Happiness is a nanosecond and it sometimes works brilliantly but when you look at the big picture? Fassbinder's "Satan's Brew" has always been a key film for me in this respect: I think that people of all societies who are striving for order are only after a little place to live in peace. But that doesn’t work because the uncertainty of life is also what makes it precious. Of course I laugh a lot, but this is sparked by the fact that life is really a pretty serious thing. I think that irony is not necessarily the best thing that our generation could champion, and that we are only doing ourselves a lot of damage if we have to constantly drag everything down to this Saturday evening comedy level, where everything is just a joke and satire and it's all such a laugh. Being happy means being free - and being free enough to question yourself. But hardly anyone really manages to do this because it is so hard to make a decision just for yourself and no one else, and to say: "I have not become the person that I wanted to become. And why is this?"

*

Read more of our features about Christoph Schlingensief here and here.

This interview was originally published in German in the Neuer Zürcher Zeitung on 17 July, 2010.

Thomas David is a freelance journalist who lives in Hamburg.

Translation:lp

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