Monday, February 21, 2011

for christoph schlingensief

"This is for Christoph," the woman said as she offered me a pair of free tickets on the stipulation that I would remember whom her act of charity honored. Her kindness served as a poignant reminder that the death of the German director Christoph Schlingensief last summer is still deeply felt in his adopted city. Buying tickets from the Hebbel Theater's box office to hand out for free to young theatergoers is an apt tribute to Schlingensief, a director who constantly subverted theatrical conventions even as his work gained larger audiences and stages.

Last Wednesday, as part of the massive Berlinale film festival running amok through the city, the Hebbel presented a Schlingensief forum, with friends and colleagues discussing the late director's life and work. The panel, moderated by Berlinale curator Dorothee Wenner, included dramaturge Carl Hegemann, director Matthias Lilienthal, curator Anselm Franke, film critic Georg Seeßlen and architect Francis Kéré. Each presented an aspect of Schlingensief's varied artistic output as well as discussed his relationship with the director.

Seeßlen spoke first, outlining Schlingensief's early film career, in which he connected the "short circuit of trash and art," displaying a joy for combining a seemingly impossible wide variety of influences from Joseph Beuys to Dawn of the Dead. We saw brief excerpts from several films, most notably Talk 2000, a manic, improvised send-up of talk show which actually aired on television (in this particularly clip Schlingensief, dressed as a priest, simultaneously interviewed a porn star and an old German crooner, while the show melted down around them).

Lilienthal discussed his work on the wildly irreverent, hotly political Ausländer Raus! (Foreigners Out!), a spectacle which Schlingensief staged in the heart of Vienna, directly across the street from the Staatsoper. Following the election of the borderline-fascist Freedom Party of Austria in 2000, Schlingensief constructed a brutal parody of reality TV, taking Big Brother as his example: twelve foreign refugees seeking asylum would live in a container for a week, and each day the Austrian public would vote one out of the country. The winner would be granted asylum. It became a huge controversy in Austria, mindboggling tourists and opera-goers along with blurring the lines between art and reality--protesters and counter-protesters had no idea that any of it was parody.

This gives some idea of the chaos

Hegemann talked briefly about Schlingensief and Bayreuth, where he staged his hyper-offensive, legendary Parsifal, which concluded with dead rabbits instead of radiant doves. More interesting was Hegemann's description of Schlingensief's "ready made opera" Mea Culpa, a broad theater piece created after the director learned of his illness. He literally staged his cancer, casting an actor to play himself, and the disease summons him to his death in a manner recalling Don Giovanni's Stone Guest.

Kéré, an architect from Burkina Fasso, concluded with a discussion of the Opera Village Africa, a project conceived by Schlingensief in 2008 as a kind of cultural counterpart to Bayreuth. Schlingensief and Kéré planned a village in Burkina Fasso to be centered around an opera house, which is still under construction today. It is, in the best way, a spiritual opposite of the Bayreuth Festival---its name, Remdoogo, is a literal dialect translation of Festspielhaus. Where Wagner essentially hijacked the town of Bayreuth for his festival (tension between the festival and the town exists very much today), Schlingensief conceived of an opera village in which the theater is the culmination of the project of living, an organic center of community. You can still donate here.

Schlingensief's loss resonates in Berlin. Metanoia, an opera I vehemently disliked in October, was to be staged by him but he died a few days before rehearsals began, taking his theatrical conception to the grave (the collaborators, in an effort to honor his memory, left it partially unfinished). Perhaps an anecdote offered by Hegemann illustrates best the personality of the director. The day after Michael Jackson passed away, Schlingensief, quite ill and only a year away from his own death, made an unannounced guest appearance in his Mea culpa. The result, a bold and irreverent feat of artistry, is below.


  1. Since when is Schligensief Austrian? Last I heard he was decidedly German.

  2. Since I mistakenly identified him as such. Corrected it, thanks!