Blurring Boundaries/Changing Perspectives

A conversation with Christoph Schlingensief
by Florian Malzacher

In: Christoph Schlingensief. Art Without Borders. Eds. Tara Forrest & Anna Teresa Scheer. Intellect, 2010. 187-200.

Your work always builds on itself and develops further certain themes, motifs, and also aesthetic approaches. Mea Culpa has now become the third part of a trilogy about your illness with cancer.

I have certainly produced work that was deliberately and purposefully developed to attract attention and nothing more. But sometimes that was a mistake because doing that turned out to be completely uninteresting. The best things were those that developed unintentionally, where the work, for example, came into being as a result of an invitation out of the blue. That is even more clearly the case with the three pieces about cancer. They came out of nowhere – out of the shock that came with this illness. And, of course, it turned everything upside down. Suddenly all of my 350 kilometre-per-hour plans – my life at the time was super fast – were brought to a halt. But at the same time I didn’t see any reason to brake because cancer has to do with death and with the limitations of time that one has, but that wasn’t really clear to me at the time. It was actually a massive disruption. Like something that wants to prevent you from doing the work that is pulling at you. When I looked at the X-ray, I suddenly became very hot, as if I had made a huge mistake. The first thing I felt was a certain sense of guilt. In that moment, I probably already sensed: This is really such an insane rupture it is almost impossible to imagine. And then a flood of questions followed: What happens now? Operation? Radiotherapy? Chemotherapy? Will I still exist after the operation? And will I still have a voice afterwards? Because the doctor thought that he might have to remove my vocal nerves. And then you wake up and you can speak – that was really such a relief. Then my appetite returned and I came to terms with the whole situation, so I was optimistic. That is something that has remained with me. That is to say: I always have moments when I think: This is great, things go on. And then I fall to pieces again, you know: A complete nervous wreck, with absolutely no idea about how to cope with it, and I just think: It’s all over. And there is no way of driving a wedge between myself and it, or of flinging open a window.

It was thus pure expediency to say: good, if you have fear, then talk about fear. So the old automatism returned: If you have a problem, don’t think it away, deal with it. Then use it, grab it, and channel your sorrow into a comrade-in-arms. So I had to give form to it, create images, in order to cope with it and at first I thought: We will make a film as soon as I get out of hospital. A comedy about someone who has cancer and who only meets crazy people. Then I thought: That would just be the old sales and suppression strategy, ie. how do I give form to it in a way that people notice that I’m in control – and of course I’m not in control of it at all! It’s the complete opposite. It is probably the hardest experience of my life. In this case, I can stand neither above nor below it. This time I have definitely landed somewhere else. I am in it.

You made notes with the help of a dictaphone…

Yes, even in the first weeks, I recorded nearly every day what I experienced there and what happened when the doctor or the palliative nurse came etc. And in the evenings, I didn’t listen to it again. I did, however, cry and talk into the device, when nobody was there. It wasn’t a speech, or material, at that stage, for a book. It was simply a collection of everything that was racing through my head at the time. And then I had the idea of making a piece out of it – which I began to rehearse in the flat…from an automated bed with a remote control from the hospital. That was immediately a flop because, as a result of the Chemo, I wasn’t able to continue. Aino, my girlfriend at the time and now my wife, tried to reconstruct the material that I had worked on laboriously in the flat, on the rehearsal stage of the Maxim Gorki Theater. That resulted in the first performance of Zwischenstand der Dinge [The Current State of Things] which took place in a very intimate atmosphere with no press allowed. I made it while still in shock. Guests were invited solely via a text message – no other announcement was made. We had sixty or seventy seats for people including neighbours and friends, but also Bob Wilson and Volker Spengler, Werner Schroeter, who has cancer himself, Martin Wuttke…And because it was an evening without pressure and without a discussion afterwards, it was an incredible source of power for me: We pulled it off. Somehow it worked.

At that point I thought: Stick with this theme. And Zwischenstand was further developed into Kirche der Angst [A Church of Fear for the Stranger in Me] for the Ruhr-Triennale, as a sort of requiem or ‘cancer mass’. It was a huge success yet a different kind of success than previously. Something really happened between the audience and us – it was sincere and, to a certain extent, tragic. I also appeared in a short scene at the end of the performance that utilised the liturgy of a Catholic mass. But on the fifth or sixth evening, I thought: That’s enough. I don’t want to make touring theatre, or something, for people with cancer. That can’t be the case and it has no future. And then came the third part in the Burgtheater Vienna and, with it, the risk that people would perhaps think: Yeah, yeah, here he goes again about his illness…But then the situation changed again. The metastasen suddenly disappeared as a result of a tablet, something which, according to the doctors, wasn’t really possible in that period of time. After four or five weeks, I had a CT scan in which none could be found! How does that come about? The third part of the trilogy is concerned with life going on. What do you do, when you step back into reality, but you can’t perceive it as real because you previously thought you were already dead?

When someone dies, it is the loneliest path there is. It is not about hand-holding or whatever: My father smiled at the end. That was, however, a smile that I couldn’t understand. Was it, perhaps, the smile of someone face to face with a secret society that had taken him in? To see that was a heavy burden for me because he also told us that, in two weeks, he would be dead. And in two weeks he was dead. They are exceptional circumstances and we lack the criteria for working through them.

Can one actually grasp something like that in a production?

It can only function via music, and perhaps also via beliefs, ie. individual beliefs. One couldn’t go further with some sort of objective realism. Only through that which is ritualistic, almost sacred can one produce something that is befitting and moving. And the third part Mea Culpa was perhaps the most difficult: an uncertain resurrection, a celebration of life in the face of the inevitability of death.

In the middle of the stage, almost invisibly, I presided over the church, that is, the Kirche der Angst. Within it the ritual continues and someone there celebrates a requiem while outside are the treatment rooms and life follows its normal course… It is once again an argument [Auseinandersetzung] with the realisation that redemption is actually a concept that is completely misunderstood, and which one connects with something great and sublime. But redemption is the most individualistic, small, and awful step that there is. Because he who is done for, who seeks only to be redeemed gives himself over to total loneliness and surrenders everything that makes him who he is. That he is then told that everything will be fine and that he can cope – this is not really what is on his mind…If one has been through such a situation and come through it, one has more interest in people than before. One sees them differently. I look at them as if I were already standing a step outside of them. One looks at them perhaps not more exactly, not analytically, but longer. Humans and human life gain a different value. Everything is no longer taken for granted.

Sometimes of course, I slip into old mechanisms in my work, but they don’t really come through. It doesn’t become a show, because I don’t want that anymore. The distance is greater.

Previously you were always on stage and committed to being involved. It was precisely this lack of distance that defined your work. From the earliest theatre productions on, you had to be able to join in, because otherwise you couldn’t respond to the reactions of the public and the actors’ routines. And now suddenly this composure?

Yes. I already had that with Kirche der Angst, when I simply pull back and my team reconstructs the work. And then I say, let’s put that in for now, and I lean back and look at it. Previously I didn’t permit such a situation. I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want anything finished which is why I hesitated until the premiere. I was downright afraid that it would be finished. Now I mould the ‘sculpture’ more in my mind, and no longer believe that I have to work on it with an axe, hammer and a chisel. Now I can turn off more quickly. I am more interested in the total composition, which means that I need to be able to observe everything. And I also don’t fiddle around with the actors’ bodies as I used to and flip out in front of their faces, so that they no longer know how they should act. In the past, I always had muscular pain in the evening, because I actually wanted to play all of the roles. And now I just write the texts and concentrate more on looking. That is my job.

Your previous work was, in part, shaped by a notable paradox: you are, on the one hand, a complete control freak – you can’t leave the actors alone on the stage – and, on the other hand, you produce permanent chaos in order to limit or thwart your own control.  Has control become less important for you?

It could well be. It pleases me when things evolve more from themselves. I have less strength, but I think more. The whole time, I occupy myself with the texts, images and particularly the music. And at night I search for pieces of music, which is something I didn’t previously do. I try to respond when someone doesn’t understand something, whereas in the past, my immediate reaction was: Out! These days, someone will leave rather than me having to say he should no longer be there. But the control is greater, because I see it as an image, as a composition. I have to feel it first. Previously I almost had to catapult myself into a trance at each rehearsal.

The musicality that I have with opera is now more and more important. With theatre, one thinks a lot, und that is something that one can make great use of, but the structure is easily lost. The opera has more stability and provides a framework which is organic and not compulsive. A singer has to accept that he sings, he can’t just jump around. And for that reason, we don’t do a lot of theatrics with them, they should simply sing. I don’t believe them anyway when they start to introduce their pretence of naturalism.

So more the image of the whole – there is still control, but less getting tangled up in the details, in order to see the larger arc…

… and to also accept that this is simply how it is now. And not, as in the past, change something in the last few weeks and cut the text, so that the whole production dies in the process. I don’t do that anymore, because I really fight hard for the subject matter. And even if the text is, at first, a jumble of words, the music clarifies what is happening.  I now think in a very musical way. When you are lying in bed, there are not a lot of alternatives…I thought a lot while I was in bed, spoke a lot, read a lot but also listened to a lot of music. In terms of your question about rhythm, it is also interesting when you are simply lying there with an embolism. You simply do not have any chance of producing rhythm.

Is the work then more disembodied? Less physical?

Yes, I believe so. … In the past we pulled viewers onto the stage, bound them, and then smeared them with Nivea cream; a latent form of rape or something. It was, in any case, so corporeal that people went out and cried, because they couldn’t handle the violence that had befallen them during their visit to the theatre. We found that pretty great and exciting. Although at times we also had a bad conscience. That I hurt people because I pulled them onto the stage was, perhaps, justifiable at the time, but, at the moment, I have no connection to it, even a certain sense of disgust. Because that type of act makes the arrogant claim that: We are the ones who see through everything and will show you that we are breaking the rules and acknowledge no taboos. This attitude has become rather alien to me now. One can also employ theatre as a place where one can think. Back then, however, I couldn’t do that, because I felt virtually compelled to get into fights on the stage. We only enjoyed it when there was a ruckus. I don’t want to say that that was completely wrong – there were indeed great nights. Often, there were metaphysical moments as well. But people change.

The explicitly and concretely political work that emerged in this period – Kühnen 94, the party Chance 2000, the Vienna Container-Project Please love Austria, the Hamlet production with the Neo-Nazis in Zürich: How did these projects develop? Your work in film had often sought to draw mythical, historical connections…

At the age of eight – 1968 – I made a super-8 film with my father’s camera, where a farmer had to wave flags and three children in go-carts knocked him down and ran away. There was also a shootout or something similar. I don’t want to say that that was political, but something is captured in that image. During my school years, I would always have rows with the teachers because, for me they were too political, one-sidedly political. I once started a row with a teacher and had to leave the classroom, because I said that she only approached things from a left perspective, and that was too boring for me. The Oberhausen Short Film Festival also didn’t give me much pleasure because to my mind it was only pseudo political. People were invited from the eastern block to show their boring films. And then our worst filmmakers would show their films in Leipzig or somewhere else.

My father always received telegrams from the CDU [Christian Democratic Union] camp. I partly learned their contents by heart so that I – as a sixteen year old at the SPD [Social Democratic Party] voting stands – could use it in an argument against them. Simply as verbal fireworks. I did, however, always read those telegrams. And in Oberhausen, where very little information circulated, I also played around with statistics that they couldn’t rebut. Or I worked together with the KPD-ML [The Communist Party of Germany/Marxists-Leninists] because they claimed that an egg should only cost two or three pfennigs. At first I thought it was a great idea until I realised: the chicken doesn’t get anything out of it. So it was quite clear that I hadn’t really become political at all – it was rather something like an overarching need for recognition.

Later as a student in Munich, I began to develop a sense of antipathy toward the Film Academy. At that time I became interested in the films of Werner Herzog, because they were so detached. They were so strange. Even Dwarfs Started Small was the kind of film I liked. I found it political. In contrast, I found these explicitly political films by Reinhard Hauff, Margarethe von Trotta and others to be no good at all. I also felt, in part, extremely aggressive towards Wenders: reproducing stupid crap from America, but so badly. But I liked The American Friend, and I thought Alice in the Cities and The State of Things were great. I liked, in a sense, their avowal that someone had failed. That one can’t leave the city. Or that one has cancer and wants to rescue the family.

I actually felt at home with Werner Nekes for whom I worked as an assistant, and I gathered ammunition from experimental films that could be used against mainstream cinema. ie. Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol. For me, that was political enough. My work only became politically explicit with Menu Total – that was in 1986. In this film, Helge Schneider – who was unknown back then – ran around playing a young boy who wanted to become Hitler, and who wiped out his family. And later they all rise again and are redeemed….