English Deutsch Argentina
Brasil Chinese Latvijas
Image: David Baltzer

Christoph Schlingensief - Biography

Excerpts from: Kunstforum, vol. 142, 10/98, p. 94-101

Christoph Schlingensief (*1960 in Oberhausen, lives in Berlin), the so-called "enfant terrible" of German stage and cinema, is in person a rather inconspicuous figure that does not really fit the image provided by the media, for whom he is a subject of regular abuse. Bild-Zeitung wrote: "Herr S. should finally be quiet himself as well!" The almost unanimous disapproval may betray a reluctance to confront the uncomfortable. His project called "Passion Impossible - 7 Tage Notruf für Deutschland" and the election campaign circus Chance 2000 illustrated Schlingensief's attempts to link his work to social issues and as such seek the conflict between political and artistic systems and lifestyles. There is a constant factor throughout Schlingensief's productions, which makes talk of a "Lebenskunstwerk" ("work of life art"), in the sense of art intervening in life, not that outlandish at all. He was arrested at the Documenta X after publicly calling for the murder of Helmut Kohl.

By the time that Christoph Schlingensief came to prominence in his early twenties with his first major film works, he had a bad-boy reputation: hysterical and adolescent. There has been no change in this respect since he started working in theatre as well - on the contrary. The media still attack him with the same abusive vocabulary, and even stronger opposition, which therefore also means: more advertising.

He is now utterly sick of the enfant terrible label, sensing in it a hidden excuse to avoid confronting that which is not immediately comprehensible. He is nonetheless happy to provide information on his work, his relaxed approach emitting a comfortable presence afflicted by neither pride nor shyness. Schlingensief is an excellent ambassador for himself - even just half an hour before appearing at Berlin's Volksbühne, in the cloakroom in between announcements over the loudspeakers and colleagues who come and see and ask questions.

The man who showed critics the meaning of fear fits the common description of him: inconspicuous. 37 years of age, pharmacist's son from the small Ruhr region town of Oberhausen, catholic, with an extremely petit bourgeois upbringing, as he puts it. He has put a German chainsaw-massacre on the big screen, staged orgies of bad taste and dedicated one theatre evening to prominent neo-Nazi Michael Kühnen. Schlingensief is contemptuous of the astonished reactions that his amicable manner continually triggers: "My films are made for people by a crazy little wanna-be pervert. And when I make my appearance, they think something's fishy. When they also see that I can communicate and even argue with reason, it leaves them completely confused."

The aesthetic of loss

He appears to put his cards on the table in interviews. In fact, he always has a few extra up his sleeve. This is the same approach he takes to stage and film productions, i.e. leaving gaps in an apparently chronological context. Schlingensief always tackles the themes that he deals with head-on.

As he casts a spotlight on these moments, he manages to create a truly astonishing immediacy, which, however, subsequently slips away again. Interruptions and a loss of definition, like texts that have crucial sentences crossed out. What remains is fragments. He is happy to use parts of reality that others call tasteless or cheap. Schlingensief creates an aesthetic of loss. There is always something missing because the decisive element has been lost.

Perhaps this is why a visit to the factory of his fiction makes us feel so bad - despite the brightly coloured or nonchalantly dreadful selection of items continually flying before our faces or being projected onto screens: the peas in the overhead projector, the innocent obscenities, the dolls, the wheelchairs, the operation videos, the cute elephant mask. In Schlingensief's world, the children's bedroom and hospital are always closely associated: places of dependence and helplessness, places of faded or unrealised autonomy. "Children's theatre", say some, mockingly. Hospitals and children's bedrooms are, however, perhaps not what everybody likes to think about.

Authentic Life

The noise and violence elements are omnipresent in every production, a non-stop series of mutually neutralizing climaxes; the constant tendency to the extreme ultimately leads to nothing more happening. Inertia brought about by chaos overkill. This is approaching the territory of Christoph Marthaler, Frank Castorf's fellow-director at the Volksbühne, who incessantly (although in quieter fashion than Schlingensief) enacts the hell of stagnation. It is as if Schlingensief's films and stage plays always contained the consciousness of failure beneath all the noise.

He furiously forces open doors, although he knows that he is preaching to the converted. Perhaps this troubles him. He produces shocks, stops and starts on an industrial scale. There is always, even in his provocative activities, which he himself - and rightly so - does not wish to see considered as such, an evident longing for resistance, movement, pain that he knows cannot be fulfilled: a yearning for authentic life in a world of pain-killers and pension schemes - i.e. something demanded by artists for the last century.

He uses gestures both blunt and futile to oppose a tolerance that now amounts to indifference. "In an era where everything is possible, it is unimportant whether something is god or bad", bellows Alfred Edel while chopping up a corpse in Schlingensief's "German Chainsaw Massacre" (Das deutsche Kettensägenmassaker).

Against Form and Function

Schlingensief tells of young people who come into the Volksbühne canteen after a performance and ask him: "What are you trying to say with this?" Wrong question, in his eyes: "People are brought up needing to see something functioning in order to know that it exists." He produces a vaudeville-type bill of speeches and performances of individual acts, always giving the impression that something crucial is about to happen, that whatever is currently being proclaimed is the essential, all-resolving message. The fact that little is clear and nothing is important is the hidden tragedy within it. The worst thing is, however: that nothing happens.

The acknowledgement of the redundant and deficient is not merely a structural one in Christoph Schlingensief's works, whose contradictory theatre has a self-paralysing effect, its flaws and weaknesses comprising its constituent component: an expedition against form and fiction. He also employs the characters of his films and plays for this purpose; he is interested in disabled people "because they are not really accounted for in our society."

It is for a similar reason that unemployed people, too, join him on stage.

Even in the world of art, he complains, it is expected even before work begins "that it is clear what will emerge at the end." Schlingensief's solutions, opinions and excuses appear devoid of solutions, opinions or excuses. He says: "There is no clear message. Whoever claims that, is lying." He replaces the need for function with a tendency to experiment. Improvisation is an element of his work. No Schlingensief theatre evening is like another; the outcome of the experiment is not certain.

Life imitates the media

His film Tunguska (1984) was an early declaration of war on narrative cinema, using a barrage of visual and acoustic elements while at the same time juggling ironically - as he still does - with the term 'avant-garde'. A number of other preferences and obsessions were evident at an early stage, e.g. the mind-numbing habit of having his people stumbling and screaming around: life as a race track. His films likewise feature a lot of theatrical and cryptic outpourings. No wonder that they failed at the box office. No wonder either, however, that Schlingensief was attracted to theatre.

One of Schlingensief's favourite objectives goes by the name of "Totalirritation"; one of the production methods is the denial of illusions, which was first employed in Tunguska. At several points, a film is seen burning, which is being shown within the film by a team of strange scientists: an extremely realistic effect. When Tunguska really did burn at a festival performance back then, nobody noticed at first. With Schlingensief, life and art always form odd alliances. He often shows life that imitates art or the media. During one performance, he went on stage, stopped the show and talked about the death of his grandmother. The truth, a lie or both? Is privacy possible in front of eight hundred people? When an actor in a Schlingensief play leaves his character and claims it's his birthday; we are never sure. Mysteries and contradictions are integral elements of the show.

Schlingensief shot a series of films after Tunguska, some of them eccentrically good, e.g. the darkly romantic tale Egomania (1986), the dysfunctional melodrama Mutters Maske (1987) and the leaden Menu Total (1985/86), in which the protagonists devour a series of unsavoury items: starting with an unbearable childhood. The tragic lead role in Menu Total is played by alternative comedian/singer Helge Schneider, who also wrote the music: Schneider, too, being also well-versed in the combination of cut-up pieces of reality.

The start and highlight of Schlingensief's Deutschlandtrilogie was the expressionistically barren film 100 Jahre Adolf Hitler (1988/89). His German Chainsaw Massacre (1990) really raised hell by staging a mass slaughter on the border between East and West Germany - but, as is always the case with him, the staged character of events was sufficiently obvious to prevent faint-hearted viewers panicking. Then came Terror 2000 (1992), taking in everything from the 1988 Gladbeck hostage drama to neo-Nazis and the petit bourgeois element of evil. Schlingensief managed to surpass himself with the amount of screaming and shouting, chaos and banal irritation on display.

"Filth for intellectuals"

His films have such an advance reputation for being revolting that many are put off from the outset from watching them, although this did not prevent some of them passing judgment. The slight but not really shy Herbert Achternbusch, for example: "The horror stories that accompany his films have so far failed to lure me into seeing any of them. What we are told smells of sausages, of minced meat, something that's been through the grinder; I like things straightforward. He's too clear to me in interviews. I'm not a fan of filth for intellectuals."

A harsh verdict on something based on hearsay. It is an indication, nevertheless, of the spread of the "horror stories" and the role of the media in conjunction with the name Schlingensief. He is at the same time himself tied up in a kind of deliberate love-hate relationship with the media world; he has from the outset reflected, criticised, attacked and mocked the media while at the same time keeping a fascinated eye on them. The media have likewise treated him with attacks, mockery although also with fascination. For the public, meanwhile, the reviews raised the inhibition threshold for actually watching something by Schlingensief (see Achternbusch.) Perhaps everything again will turn out completely different. After film and theatre, he has now reached a realm that he has been circumnavigating manically for years: television. He hosted his own talk show in the fall of 1997. It might not be hard to imagine how it turned out. Project Total Irritation was still in progress.

The potency of art

He has appeared in none of this films but does so in his stage productions, mingling with his team, which now includes many established members and disabled lay-actors. His theatre shows now have the pivotal point that remained invisible in his films, for all their expressive stunts: the artist himself. He appears as compère, host and presenter of the evening's events, e.g. in Hurra Jesus (Graz, 1995), Rocky Dutschke 68 (Berlin, 1996) and Begnadete Nazis (Vienna, 1996), as well as in his most recent work, Schlacht um Europa. Space patrol Schlingensief at the Berlin Volksbühne. We see him in an insipid blond hippy-wig and a shiny suit that make him look equally like a master of ceremonies or a starship commander.

The tension he radiates on stage is that of somebody who, underneath their cheerful appearance, always remains unpredictable and knows few boundaries. He does not at any point, however, rebel against the audience, which is a rarity among the up-and-coming breed of German directors; being totally at one with himself allows him the total absence of arrogance and ivory-tower-high vanities.

Schlingensief plays with Schlingensief are fundamentally different to his films. Chaos and contradictions in his performances are condensed into his (on-stage) character, thereby losing their arbitrariness. They now have a face, a figure, the aura of somebody who claims "full accountability" for what he does on stage. The question is not really about whether and in which way Schlingensief actually believes in full accountability. The decisive factor is that he holds himself up, at all times prone to attack and constantly communicating with the audience, to the vulnerability that each of his productions possesses alone through the incompleteness of their form.

In addition to appearing from behind his work, he also himself becomes its essential component. This is what gives his theatre its appeal, this is Schlingensief's actual achievement. It is an exposed step forward. A breakthrough. "A work of art's potency is strongest when it is closely related to the artist's persona", he says, admitting that it took time for him to realize this.

By Marion Löhndorf. Kunstforum.

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