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Foto: Wilfried Petzi

Guggenheim Museum - Biography Schlingensief

Summer 1998, Guggenheim Museum

IT,S NOT GOING to win you any friends in Germany if you excitedly teil them about an adventure you had with Christoph Schlingerisief But it will get you attention. In Berlin, you might find yourself at a party in the middle of a dying conversation, and the mention of Schlingensief will jolt everyone back to life. One person has seen his latenight TV show, which was first shown an the largest private network and then rebroadcast by its competitor, a historic first, 1 believe. Someone eise once saw a Schlingensief play and is still outraged ar enthusiastic or bewildered, A third has read an interview in which Schlingensief declared he would carnpaign for the unemployed in the runaff for this year's national elections (art must get involved in life, he believes). And still another has heard that Schlingensief is breaking up with his girlfriend. Following such preliminaries usually comes a bitter argurnent an whether or not Schlingensief is any good.

My friends and acquaintances know by now that I've seen a lot of Schlingensief and his workin the last two years alone there have been eight stage productions, a radio drama, a talk show, and a new movie, none ofwhich 1 skippedso everyone keeps pumping me for Schlingensief stories. Like the woman in my office who recentty barged into my room to teil me about a TV appearance by Schlingensief: He looks really nice, she said. But how is he in real life? And was it really necessary, that incident they wrote about in the papers? Nothing against art, but maybe Schlingensief is nothing but an immature jerk. Did he really have to shout, "Kill Helmut Kohl!" Must he really do such things? My response: There is na art that doesn't da what must not be done.

Outside Europe: Schlingensief is not a popular cause to take up either. In November of last year. I was invited by the Goethe Institute, in Tel Aviv. to participate in a symposium "GermanIsraeli Relations and the Stage." 1 was supposed to give a talk an German theater in the 90s. Given the popular notion that theater and dramatic iiterature go hand in hand, 1 wanted to speak about a different kind of theater, one that uses literature only a5 a field of reference, seelcing its purpose in itself, in the theatrical pracess. in action, in a confrontation with the audience.

Schlingensief !s a good case in point, the best we have in Germany right now. The way his theater works is clear in advance. lt only takes the apprapriate words, signs, and signals to make it happen; or the inappropriate ones. 1 showed a video clip from his play Rocky Dutschke 68 (1996), which is about the late studerit activist Rudi Dutschke. "Red Rudi." who was shot in the head as he was leaving Berlin's Student Sociaf Dernocrat Building an his bike, and never fully recovered from the injury.

The action is chaotic. Actors run through the auditorium. Schlingensief is among thern; he encourages audience members to join an attempt to get away. Over and over he shouts: "Try to escape! Try to escape!" lt is undear what to escape from arid where to escape to. Onstage, an actress grabs a microphone and explains that every year she and her husband and kids travel to BergenBeisen, the fornier Nazi concentration camp, which is now a museum. They cook, the children make wreaths, and her husband reads out the nanies of all six million murdered Jews. From the auditarium, an actor then begins to read out Jewish names. The lights go dim, artificial snow begins to fall, orchestral music fills the room. More and more names are solemnly read out, some of them now recognizable as those of Gerrnan celebrities. A screen onstage suddenly begins to sho. images from Bitte melde dich (Please Get in Touch), a TV show in which ~veeping relatives send out pleas for a sign of life to missing loved ories. At the end of the broadcast, the perky hast says,1 hope you enjoyed our show a bit."

1 had barely started the video when 1 felt like calling the whole thing off. In Germany, it would have felt normal to me to present Schlingensief's depiction of the German inability to g,ieve, the dogged ambition to live u, to an inime~,5e quilt with grandiose gestures, as exemplified in the controvers~ about Berlin's planned Holocaust Memorial, the first and already rejected proposal for which was to list the names of every Jewish Holocaust victim an a huge plaque (others believe it would be better to coristruct a less imposing but more practical structure, for example. a children's playground). But in Israel, even in a private symposium, 1 had committed a grave faux pas. One woman left the room and the director of the institute has never forgiven me. 1 wanted to confront the situation and said, 1 showed you this even though I'm not sure about my own feeiings in the matter. How da you feel about it?" Na one responded. Some Israeli participarits would only say that there were interesting topics other than the Holocaust. 1 had stepped into the Schlingensief trap."

The Schlingensief trap corisists of words, which, when quoted as facts or perceived as political ' tatements outside the theater context, have na relevance. But context is literally everything in Schlingensief's work. His group of collaborators seeks to contextualize: the group is the context, and it actively connects apparently disparate things. That perception is naturally beyond the scope of news itenis. For its part, the world of the news media understands Schlingensief after its own fashion, and so it is reported that he has slandered Helmut Kohl or Princess Diana. For such perceived slanders, the police once took him away in handcuffs. Schlingensief has forced his way into the news through the stage door and leaves through the auditorium. That is confusing for many.

Born in 1961, in one of the prettier corners of the industrial Ruhr Valley, Schlingensief lang concentrated an making movies. His first feature film, made in 198S, is titied Menu Total, and much of the dialogue consists of the exclarnation, "Mama!" A young boy is lying in bed screaming for his mother. But mama is away performing military exercises in a meadow with a sectlike group. People yell, fleeing through dark basements to the thunder of bomber planes and an insistently peppy, upbeat jazz score. Voices echo, tinny and distorted, as in early talkies; there are chases and orgies. It is a nightmare of grainy black and hite, reminiscent of silent niovies. A sirnilar mood prevails in 100 Jahre Adolf Hitier Die letzte Stunde im Fühererbunker(100 Years of Adolf Hitler. The Last Hours in the Fuhrers Bunker), shot in 1989: Hitler, Eva Braun, Goring, Goebbeis, and others are playing "Death in the Fuhrer's Bunker" and celebrating Christmas. Sex and vioience mingie with petty bickering and silly games: the person who catches Hitler's mustache will be charicellor. lt is pure insanity, performed by the actors in a straightforward mann er, as if their behavior was perfectly normal. These early movies already show an interior, a herrnetic logic that is relentlessly followed through. The director is well aware of the inherent contradiction. He finds Menu Total funny. But during the premiere, fights broke out in the audience, and Schlingensief's father was so horrified he cried.

Schlingensief's theater has learned to adapt to such reactions. The turning point came at a performance of his second play in 1994, he told me. He was sitting in the commissary of Berlin's Volksbühne, where most of his plays are produced. Occasionally checking the proceedings on a nionitor, Schlingensief had the sinking feeling that the audience wasn't taking the play seriausly. He began to get drunk. Then, for the first tirne in his life, he stormed onto the stage shouting, "Turn on the lights! This is me! The pharmacist's son from Oberhausen!" And he began to tell the story of his mother's visit to his grandmother on her deathbed, when she asked the dying wornan whether she wanted to listen to some music and the radio coincidentally played "Grosser Gott, wir loben dich" (Dear God, we praise you). At that point. Schlingensief broke into tears and the audience fell silent.

Since then, Schlingensief has always played the MC, or presenter, who quides the audience through the evening's performance. He no lotiger sends his troupe of ten to twenty actors onstage by themselves. Not Mario, who lives in a home for the disabled; not Marios parents, from the beginning a permanent protective onstage presence and now actors, too; not mumbling Adam von Peczenski, one of Schlirigensief's oldest companions, who by virtue of his governrnentissue glasses always plays Heiner Müller, a writer religiously adored by German intellectuals; not Kerstin, the difficult one, who teils and reteils the story of how the East Gerrnans forced her to have an abortion; not Werner Brecht, alias "Bertolt Brecht," the troupe's unemployed character with the unintelligible diction; not the real actors from the Volksbühne, who must struggle to keep up with the others' unforced madriess, All of thern, the steady players and the occasional quests, are patt of the family. Each new production is also a family outing with Schlingensief, who when not yelling "mama"is performing the role of papa.

But these outings are no picnic. The family's social engagement takes precedent. They always have a lot to say, and whether they are a band of religious sectarians or a circus family or a political tribe or a countercultutal cabaret or the Saivation Army is hard to pin down. Everything is constantly in flux with giant steps the Schlingensief family rushes through history and through the small stories at its margins. The audience is the troupe*s starting point and it addresses them directly and asks for their attention but eventually it zeroes in on itself. The performances rambie along roughly predetermined paths: there are lectures, educational slides on the overhead projector, films, sometimes guest appearances by a children's choir or a brass band, then private confessions, small music interludes, and so on. lt is a theater that knows and uses every conceivable didactic tool. Its goal, embarrassing as it may sound, is experience of the self, up on the stage and down in the auditorium.

What happens between the actors is as important (and unpredictable) as what happens between the troupe and the audience. Schlingensief's theater goes after group experierice: it is ensemble theater and social work at the same time. The family's onstage activities seem to concern no one but itself. Though they may be undecipherabie from the outside, they have an interior logic. One of his favorite actors. the late Alfred Edel, was a man of superior intelligence. Schlingensief says. He could explain a lot of things. True, no one could follow Edel's reasoning, but in itself it was totally logica 1. There's a secret l(nowIedge that holds his ensembie together, says Schlingensief: "How absurd it is that we are all still alive."

Schlingensief's troupe is caught up in a systern of nonlogic. We allo. ourselves to establish a philosophical context that we carl understand," he says. His characters are dancing on the abyss, never standing still but simufating a firm stance. They connect clich6d phrases to create statements that .ould never occur to the habitual users of tho 'e clichi5s. They escape from one thought to the next but the thoughts are already lost or in the wrong hands, so that putting thern in a paradoxical order seems the only way out. When Schlingensief irs onstage (or in the audience), he attempts, half desperately, half ecstaticaily, to build a frame around chaos. The frame consists of the coriditions of theater at large, the expectations that his name conjures, and the messages he and his troupe com m unicate. In euphoric transport, Christoph Schlingensief and his friends are trying to make connections that may be lost or may never have existed and never will exist. Faced with a thousand things that are impossible to reconcile, Schlingensief's theater has always struggled mightily: Who am 1? Where do 1 come from? Where am 1 going? With these questions, Schlingensief's theater destroys itself each time. It demolishes itself before it has even started. It demolishes itself so it can begin.

Schlingensief's aesthetic has always postulated a background of shared experience. Against it unfolds a bazaar of phrases. opinions, and quotes, which he arranges, a man who grew up watching too much TV. Schlingensief rummages through the dustbin of quotations. throws characters and story together like lottery balls, and raises chaos. Time and again, someone pops up who refuses to dron in confusion, someone searching for clarity, for an order of things, someone who will feel, time after time. the futility of the effort. That is the point.

There is also a wild desire to be responsible, truly and deeply responsible, hich is another contradiction that drives Schlingensief's theater to paradoxical (and productive) despair. At the bottom of its heart theater is naturally irresponsible. It assails people, offends them. shows ugly things and says nasty things. But if Schlingensief is interested in the scandals his theater provokes, it is solely for the emotional agitation, the feelings of opposition that are set free. In outrage, emotional life reasserts itself. His theater provokes private behavior by providing, for a few hours, a shared experience in an enclosed space. Like neighbors at a communal barbecue, who suddenly notice all the things that separate themand wind up throwing hamburgers at each other.

It has all been done before, people say to me. 1 answer: But he knows that! So what if artists did the same kind of thing in the 60s and 70s and 20s, Schlingensief thinks. How does that affect me? 1 was too young then! 1 want to do it, too! Now! (Of course, Schlingensief's theater is adolescent and rebellious, but it makes you appreciate your own adolescence and rebeiliousness.) in his new movie Die 120 Tage von Bottrop (The 120 Days of von Bottrop, 1997), Schlingensief again tries to catch up on everything he's missed. It might be a destructive impulse, but even more it s an attempt to recapture the past: German movie history of the last thirty years in the space of ninety minutes. He asks all its heroes to join in: those from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's era and the new ones, such as Roland Emmerich, the director of Independence Day (1996). They are invited to participate in a great rebuff to German film by helping him to create chaos.

Yet Schlingensief loves each and every one. The critic Robin Deije cails the movies a great prank by that student of life and film, Christoph Schlingensief, and also a great depiction of a student's prank. Art. In very bad taste. Schlingensief has almost run out of subjects. He is in a permanent hurry, he doesn't allow himself much time. He says being in a rush is a hedge against looking too clever, against the feeling of not coming to grips with a subject. As long as he can avert this. he and his friends will continue doing what they've always done: to go at everything headfirst. Their method stays the sarnerun, run, run. screaming all the way. Late breaking news! Late breaking news! Schlingensief is in the process of founding his own political party! Called "Chance 2000," he will use it to fight against Helmut Kohl in a bid to become chancellor of Germany. Schlingensief is serious, he says. It is not a question of irony but of good and evil, of truth and lies, of telling the world about the five million unemployed in presentday Germany, of giving selfconfidence to those five million (who do not yet demonstrate as do their French counterparts). VIPs are willing to give Schlingensief money for that. His first act will be a socalled Electoral Contest Circus" in Marcha real circus with animals and freaks and a big tent and Christoph Schlingensief, who, of course, is perfect for the roie.

R. Koberg, translated from the German by Jürgen Riehle.

Weiterführende Texte zu Christoph Schlingensief

- Christoph Schlingensief - Eine Kurzbiografie von Jörg van der Horst
- Christoph Schlingensief - Portrait von Till Briegleb, Goethe Institut
- Kunstforum: Lieblingsziel Totalirritation - Portrait von Marion Löhndorf
- Über die Filme, das Theater und die Talkshow - Georg Seeßlen
- Portrait Schlingensief - von Dietrich Kuhlbrodt, erschienen 1989 in EPD-Film
- Christoph Schlingensief - Cinegraph Filmlexikon bis 1989 mit Ergänzungen

Weitere Informationen

- Artforum 05/2006
- Goethe Institut Bio
- Kunstforum Portrait
- Seeßlen Essay
- Kuhlbrodt Essay
- Cinegraph

- Filmographie
- Interviews

Externe Links

- Dietrich Kuhlbrodt
- Volksbühne Berlin
- Royal Produktion