This article is taken from Koschke #2, the publication of Berlin Critic's Week 2019. The issue brings together writings inspired by the film and debate program running alongside the Berlinale with reflections on the late German director and notorious public provocateur Christoph Schlingensief, whose legacy is also one of the topics of the opening conference at Volksbühne. Authors and interviewees include Erika Balsom, Dietrich Kuhlbrodt, Lili Hinstin, Eva Sangiorgi, Tricia Tuttle, Kong Rithdee and many others.
Christoph Schlingensief. Courtesy of Filmgalerie 451.
Christoph Schlingensief was the nightmare of the German middle class. He would target those elusive yet powerful elements of society that can only be defined negatively—neither right nor left, neither poor nor rich, neither gushing nor aloof—and drag them onto every stage, before every camera, into every spotlight. The Mittelklasse, the bourgeois median, was his origin, his métier, his life’s work. He raised hell wherever normality became normative. That’s why his confrontational practice, which was always also a confrontation with his own biography, is representative of the middle class’ dormant radicalization potential, its hidden powers of destruction. In other words, it represents the "extremism of the middle," a topic once again at the centre of discussion in Germany.
Schlingensief was born in 1960 in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, "the engine room of the German economic miracle." Specifically, in Oberhausen, a town that entered the German film history books two years later, when a group led by Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz signed a manifesto that became associated with the famous phrase, “Daddy’s cinema is dead.” The son of a pharmacist and a nurse, Schlingensief often described himself as a good bourgeois child, a perfectly ordinary German boy. That was his strategy: whenever his artistic exploits roused the ire of the moderate bourgeoisie, he would insist that he was one of them—just a normal madman born of a maddening normality.
Because normality had to be called into question. Let’s consider an episode that Schlingensief describes as his “primal scene” in Ich weiß, ich war’s, his posthumously published memoirs: it’s 1968, the family is gathered in the dimly lit living room, the father’s 8mm projector is whirring away, and eight-year-old Christoph watches in astonishment as an accidental double-exposure causes shadows to dance across his mother’s belly. “That’s when the questions started: what’s going on? What’s wrong with this picture? Where’s the error? And later: what if there is no error? What if we’re actually all exposed two, three or four times? And we spend all our time trying to ignore or suppress these multiple exposures and superimpositions, rather than putting them to productive use?” A personal revolution within the realm of the private: in the same year that students conquered the streets of cities across Germany, seeking a radical dissociation from their parents’ Nazi guilt, Schlingensief describes the radical insecurity within the heart of the bourgeoisie itself, the duplicity of normality.
Throughout his artistic career, Schlingensief sought to drag society’s fascistic elements into the light of day through merciless introspection and, later on, self-exposure. This practice was founded on a special kind of arrogance, one available only to a relatively prosperous white European man: the notion that one’s own biography might be representative of an entire society, perhaps even of the human condition itself. But Schlingensief was so gifted at artistically deconstructing his own identity, at positioning himself within an open net of historical, political and media references, that, more often than not, this presumptuous gamble paid off.
, whose 1986 premiere in the Berlinale Forum occasioned the first of a long series of public uproars, serves as a good example. The film’s maelstrom of somnambulist vignettes, shot in grainy black-and-white 16mm, offers a wholly unvarnished treatment of wholly masculine neuroses. There are demonic, screeching parents, an adult man who cries for his mummy and gets lost in a dark forest, delusional visions of gluttony and mysterious sexual excess. So far, so Lynchian. Except that the characters happen to wear Wehrmacht uniforms, the man-child mimics Hitler whenever he’s overcome with megalomaniac urges, and bomber planes are repeatedly heard screaming on the soundtrack. Personal psychological motifs are freely mixed in with national traumas, the private and the social subconscious are superimposed. To find the Nazis in our midst we must first find the Nazi within us. Schlingensief would later call this the strategy of self-provocation: “Being the son of a pharmacist” he explains in Frieder Schlaich’s documentary Christoph Schlingensief und seine Filme
, “I have often said that my father cured people with small doses of poison. He would give them poison and their bodies reacted by reconfiguring themselves. That could be described as self-provocation.”
Schlingensief increased the dose significantly with the films that came to be known as his Germany Trilogy: 100 Years of Adolf Hitler: The Last Hour in the Führer’s Bunker (1989), The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990), and Terror 2000 – Intensive Care Unit Germany (1992). The vehemence with which German convictions are attacked and all kinds of political and cultural taboos are broken, as well as the undisguised relish for gore, trash and pulp, are pretty exceptional within the scope of post-Fassbinder German cinema.
Let’s take the chainsaw massacre film from 1990. With all of Germany still reeling from the fall of the Berlin Wall, Schlingensief opens his film with a prologue composed of news footage of the Day of German Unity celebrations. The images are accompanied by a soundtrack of death bells, signalling to the viewer that the so-called reunification was but a subjugation—or, rather, assimilation—of the GDR at the hands of the FRG. What follows is a story about Coca-Cola-swigging, “pluralism”-chanting Wessis (West Germans) who throw wild orgies, butcher Trabant-driving Ossis (East Germans), make sausages out of their remains, and eat them. At what incredible speed was Schlingensief able to craft cinematic reactions to current events! This was in no small part due to the fact that he often brought his ideas to life before they could be critically called into question and maybe discarded: “That’s what gave him a constant advantage. Since he barely allowed anyone to dissect him, he was always a step ahead of those who thought they could finally get a closer look,” recalls the punk musician and writer Schorsch Kamerun in an obituary well worth reading.1
(It’s precisely such filmmaking—fast, reactive, concerned with immediate reality and not with cultural longevity—that is undermined by the current German film funding system with its many deadlines, masses of materials to submit and protracted processing times. Schlingensief accounted for his eventual withdrawal from filmmaking by saying that he refused to work with such forms of film funding. “If I have to make another German film, that will be suicide,” groans Helmut Berger in what is arguably Schlingensief’s last real film, The 120 Days of Bottrop .)
But let’s turn back to the chainsaw massacre. What has seldom worked elsewhere is fully successful here: an artistic implementation of trash that doesn’t use it merely for effect but as the genuine expression of a reality impossible to represent in any other way. Reality is exaggerated so that it may be more easily recognized—a strategy that Schlingensief learned from his declared role models Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luis Buñuel and Werner Schroeter: “Whenever they exaggerated, only then did you learn more about reality.”
With the Germany Trilogy, Schlingensief started provoking new and more radical forms of backlash from his viewers, like the time someone threw acid on a print of Terror 2000 (a twenty-six-year-old film that is almost creepily topical at time of writing, with its depiction of a fictional German town whose inhabitants hunt down asylum seekers). Although viewers had already been outraged following the premiere ofMenu Total, the contention then had been primarily aesthetic. The Germany Trilogy, on the other hand, was perceived as a personal attack. Homosexuals accused Terror 2000 of homophobia; the film was considered fascist and immoral. The flipside to Schlingensief’s self-provocation strategy was revealed: which and whose ‘self’ serves as the provocation’s starting point? The less masculine, white and heteronormative one’s composition, the stronger the impression that universal taboos are attacked from a position of particular privilege.
This is almost catastrophically evident in United Trash (1996), a film that was shot in Zimbabwe but takes place in an unnamed African country, offering a critique of vaguely defined neo-colonial power relations and of the impotence of UN peacekeeping missions. Udo Kier wears blackface and jumps around wielding a banana while a cast of mostly white characters gets to indulge in some pretty contemptible behavior. African characters are far less central, though they are at times allowed to play some music. Here’s an example of exaggeration that doesn’t render reality more recognizable but invisible, wherein stereotypes are thrown around without being picked apart. It’s a provocation lacking a clearly discernible self, a lark at the expense of others.
Nevertheless, this instance does illustrate Schlingensief’s capacity for getting out of artistic dead ends. If his interviews and writings are to be believed, he also didn’t think much of United Trash. In fact, one could read the film’s failure as playing a decisive role in catalyzing a concerted confrontation with his own—and, by extension, Germany’s and the West’s—relationship with Africa. This is a question that would preoccupy Schlingensief for the rest of his life, culminating in the foundation of the Operndorf Afrika (Opera Village Africa) in Burkina Faso in 2010, a testing ground at the crossroads of cultural exchange, development aid and postcolonial chaos.
It was also around the time of United Trash’s release that Schlingensief began to expose himself to an ever greater degree. He gradually became the ubiquitous pop-political artist, his televised persona a fixture in every German household: clamoring through his megaphone, blabbering away on every talk show. Starting in the mid-1990s, he became very active as a theatre director, increasingly pushing himself onstage as director-cum-performer, and from there onto the streets. The fourth wall was ruthlessly attacked, the boundary between actual reality and media reality disintegrated. At the theatre, Schlingensief wanted to have “the audience on stage”; in his political stunts, he wanted to let the public “step into the picture” and “scrape away at the divide between art and life”.
The most infamous episode from this creative phase is probably “Please Love Austria – First Austrian Coalition Week,” a stunt Schlingensief orchestrated in 2000. Shortly after a new government was formed in Austria that included the far-right nationalist party FPÖ, Schlingensief set up a Big Brother-style house inside shipping containers next to the Vienna State Opera, with a group of asylum seekers locked inside. The public could watch live and via webcam, and every day vote for two of the foreigners to be deported. In the tourist heart of Vienna—for everyone to see, locals and visitors alike—one of the containers bore a giant sign that read, “Foreigners Out!” And standing on the roof, broadcast on every TV channel, running his mouth off without pause: Christoph Schlingensief, appropriating the slogans of the radical right and spitting them back as an ugly, noisy reality.
What ensued was an unprecedented storm of protest and indignation – lawsuits, attempted bans, antifa demonstrations—whose reverberations are still felt today. It’s not all that surprising, given the thematics: right-wing governments in Europe, the nexus between the media and xenophobia, a culture of public debate whose language constantly degenerates and art’s (in)ability to react—these were the topics of debate then, these are the topics of debate now. A farce repeating itself.
Schlingensief’s success with “Please Love Austria” was crucial and twofold. First, his hitherto relatively self-centred frame of reference was burst open. As a filmmaker, he had drawn primarily from films that would have been unfamiliar to the majority of the population: the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series (1974-), Opfergang (1944) by Veit Harlan, Salò (1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Moreover, his idiosyncratic style bears the traces of his creative upbringing in avant-garde/experimental film circles: hyperkinetic camerawork and non-sequitur editing, a multitude of references and sheer audiovisual overload. With every frame crammed with a nigh unbearable excess of sensory stimuli, this is filmmaking that is meant to be felt rather than analyzed, understood viscerally rather than intellectually, and definitely not an aesthetic that would have had much resonance outside of artistic circles. But Schlingensief later embraced television and its sensationalist formats, which at the time were still capable of generating discourse. Big Brother provided a universally recognized narrative framework wherein xenophobia could be staged unequivocally, in a language everyone would understand.
The second significant success of “Please Love Austria” was that Schlingensief managed to maintain the stunt’s ambiguity, and therefore its coherence. Are those actors or actual asylum seekers locked inside the containers? Was the whole thing really sponsored by the FPÖ? What about Schlingensief, is he right-wing, left-wing, or what? It’s all part of an experiment, with ordinary citizens as the guinea pigs and public space as the laboratory. As described by the author Mark Simeons in his essay “Der Augenblick, in dem sich das Reale zeigt. Über Selbstprovokation und die Leere” (The moment when the real shows itself. On self-provocation and the void),
The experimental set-up consists of a third reality, equipped with elements taken from the second reality (the media) and implanted into the first reality (the streets) in such a way that the person doing the implanting is also put on the spot – but without the possibility of knowing ahead of time, before the situation is created, how he will react. That’s the self-provocation. What’s crucial is for the line between the first and second reality, between life and art, sincerity and irony, to be straddled at all times.
Theatre, TV and reality were superimposed and rendered indistinguishable in an instance of "social sculpture," to borrow a term from Joseph Beuys, probably Schlingensief’s greatest idol and most important point of artistic reference.
This strategy proved extremely fruitful over a period of several years. In 2001, Schlingensief staged a production of Hamlet in Zurich with a cast of (real or fake?) neo-Nazis, sparking discussion about the xenophobic Swiss People’s Party. The next year, he ran and hosted Freakstars 3000 on German TV, a talent show for disabled people modeled after American Idol, which fueled heated debates about exploitation, exclusion, concealment and normative body standards. The year after that, he created his own version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and travelled with it to various theatres across Germany. Called Quiz 3000, the show offered a familiar and deceptively cosy context wherein contestants were subjected to very uncomfortable questions (one example: “Order these German concentration camps from northernmost to southernmost.”). This rather subtle (by Schlingensief’s standards) displacement proved surprisingly effective, simultaneously casting a shadow of discomfort over television’s distraction routines and hijacking a well-known show format to hammer home a moral lesson about which kind of knowledge is propagated and which kind is repressed in post-WWII Germany.
These are just a few examples from an exceptionally prolific and varied career that encompassed films, political activism, plays, operas and—especially in its final years—installations and exhibitions. Throughout, Schlingensief purposefully injected discomfiting doses of reality into hyperreal scenarios. This aesthetic, which Schlingensief scholar Tara Forest has called “realism as protest”—realism that doesn’t aim for an ‘authentic’ reproduction of reality (and thus risk making it disappear), but forces reality to reveal itself through provocation—is an important part of the legacy Schlingensief left behind following his death from lung cancer in 2010. By confronting the perfectly ordinary citizens of Germany (and Switzerland and Austria) with a garish caricature of their world, he shook bourgeois culture more effectively and fundamentally than it was willing to accept. And, paradoxically, pretty much everyone misses him for it.
Translated from the German