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Christoph Schlingensief - Biography

A portrait on Christoph Schlingensief. By Till Briegleb.

Christoph Schlingensief's most loyal friend was the suspicion of cynicism. Even his first wild phase as a film director was accompanied by heated reactions. Feature films like "100 Jahre Adolf Hitler" (i.e. "100 Years of Adolf Hitler") in 1988, "Das deutsche Kettensägenmassaker" (i.e. "The German Chainsaw Massacre") in 1990 and "Terror 2000" in 1992 took elements such as the Gladbeck hostage crisis, asylum seeker murders, neo-Nazi activities, or German reunification and combined them with splatter and trash aesthetics, obscenities and hysteria. This was criticized by overly serious intellectuals and sensationalist media, often in equal measure, as being over-the-top, disgraceful and cynical. In 1993, Berlin anarchists went as far as using butyric acid to destroy copies of his film "Terror 2000" in the Sputnik cinema in the city's Kreuzberg district because they felt that this grotesque German political tale with its ridiculously exaggerated scenes of sex and violence was "mindless, racist and sexist propaganda".

The "Passion Impossible" Hamburg railway mission which he staged at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in 1997 and for which he invited junkies, homeless people, prostitutes and other marginalized inhabitants of the city's railway station district to spend a week in his mission in an abandoned police station, was also rejected by a number of the theatre's actors who claimed that he was merely exploiting the underprivileged for the sake of his own vanity. Similar accusations were directed at Schlingensief's work with disabled people at the Berliner Volksbühne, where he has staged plays, projects and actions since 1993, at his production of "Hamlet" with neo-Nazis who had allegedly opted out of their extremist groups in Zurich, and at his production of "Parsifal" at the Bayreuth Festival in 2004. Even his last project, Remdoogo, the "Festspielhaus for Africa", an opera village that has been realized in Burkina Faso since January 2010 by the architect Francis Kéré according to Schlingensief's vision, is regarded by many observers as being a whim of cultural imperialism and an egomaniacal misunderstanding, despite (or perhaps precisely because of) the broad support it enjoys from politicians and the media.

These opinions are no doubt the inevitable side effects of the style of irritation – full of conviction and often provocative – that Christoph Schlingensief consistently relied on like precious few other artists and directors. His angry actions were targeted first and foremost at displays of self-sufficiency, and combined experimental art with opera, video and performances, spoken theatre and subculture, lectures and talk shows in opulent and very frequent tours de force. The phony triumphal messages of everyday life, the numerous masks of contentment and the exhibitionism displayed by the mass media incited him to search for the pain and hurt they conceal. He objected with equal impertinence to political machinations and private instances of double standards: no matter whether it was Kohl, Schröder, Merkel or his own audience, any conscience easing and the all too simple logic of problem and solution were in Schlingensief's eyes an indication of mummified thinking and thus, time and time again, prompted him to employ outrageous means to shock his audiences into greater self-awareness.

Family picture: Christoph, Anni and Hermann Josef, 1968 at Drachenfels.

With an amazing lack of trepidation, Schlingensief consistently overstepped the boundaries of decency, good taste and the safe terrain of the comprehensible. Actions such as his Big Brother camp for asylum seekers in Vienna, his arrest at the Documenta 1997 for bearing a banner emblazoned with the words "Kill Helmut Kohl", his abuse of the Wagner family after his work in Bayreuth in his following productions, and his founding of the "Chance 2000" party for the German federal elections, which celebrated democracy as a circus of failure, were fearless breaks with taboos whose impact was all the greater not least as a result of the negative reactions they provoked. Nonetheless, the question of whether he was driven by cynicism or morals – one which can be answered fairly easily upon somewhat more thorough study of his political and human causes – always generated sufficient media attention to ensure that Christoph Schlingensief ultimately became a national cultural icon.

Although he always placed himself and his subjective aggressiveness at the forefront of his works, his focus became a more specifically personal one when he was diagnosed with cancer in early 2008. Ever since, he has with great openness and belligerence made death, his fear and the relative power of dying the central theme of his productions. Extravagant theatre performances like his "Church of Fear" (2008), "Mea Culpa" (2009) and "Via Intolleranza II" (2010) were complex compositions that combined his despair at having to die, mockery of the inevitable, grief and absurd festivity, questions about the transitory nature of life and a search for possible spiritual answers with his will to carry on living nonetheless – in the case of "Via Intolleranza II" with the participation of numerous artists from Africa, the place he yearned to be, or more accurately from Burkina Faso, the country of his opera village vision.

Schlingensief's seemingly blasé confidence that he would always be able to tackle new genres was ultimately remarkably free from dilettantism and an overestimation of his own abilities. After all, Christoph Schlingensief was the only German director to develop a universal language of art for himself that he was able to apply not only to theatre and opera, literature, film, installation and performance, but also to his own portrayal in the media. His website (www.schlingensief.com) is without doubt the most comprehensive and professional platform of any individual artist in Germany, his television appearances, which he mastered with cheekiness, poetry and warmth, were extremely popular – yet Schlingensief, as a public figure, still managed to avoid being pigeon-holed by the media.

The great integrity with which he remained attentive, political, contradictory and yet so likeable, despite being one of the greatest popular stars of German culture, meant that he truly deserved his fame, and the many honours that were bestowed on him towards the end corrupted his beliefs in no way whatsoever. The only thing that was cynical about the entire business was the illness that cost him his life on 21 August 2010. Yet that too was part of his lifelong struggle for honesty and sincerity through art.

By Till Briegleb, Goethe Institut, August 2010

Additional english texts on Christoph Schlingensief

- "Totally confusing supposed unambiguities" - by Marion Löhndorf, Kunstforum
- It's not going - biography by the Guggenheim Museum New York (1998)
- Christoph Schlingensief - A biography by Till Briegleb, Goethe Institut
- Schlingensief.com German - Further information is available in german only

Additional information

- Kunstforum profile
- Guggenheim profile
- Schlingensief profile

Information in german

- Seeßlen Essay (GER)
- Kuhlbrodt Essay (GER)
- Cinegraph (GER)
- Filmography (GER)
- Theater als Baustelle

External web pages

- Dietrich Kuhlbrodt
- Volksbühne Berlin
- Royal Produktion
- Schliengensief-ALS
"Der kleine Prinz", 1972

At Rafflenbeul, 1972

Amateur movie club, Oberhausen, 1978