Director Christoph Schlingensief Faces Mortality 'I Have No Desire to Go to Heaven'

Leading German stage director and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief talks about his lung cancer, how he copes with the prospect of death, criticism of his art and the curse of always wanting to put people in a good mood.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Schlingensief, in your most recent dramatic works, "A Church of Fear of the Stranger in Me" and "The Interim State of Things," you transformed the fight against your cancer into extravagant, extremely well-received celebrations of art. What is your current health status?

Schlingensief: My status is that I have about 10 new, pea-sized metastases in one of my lungs, which are still there after my operation. It doesn't look good. These metastases appeared very quickly, and no one expected them. The doctors are also baffled. In the other lung, the cancer took three or four years. I was just in the process of getting back into life. The hospital had already given me the all clear, but then they took a closer look at the X-rays and asked me to come back.

SPIEGEL: You seemed almost euphoric when, in September, you appeared in "Church of Fear" at the Ruhr Triennale in Duisburg after your surgery and chemotherapy. How hard did you take the latest news?

Schlingensief: This disease is really depressing! In the weeks before I got the news, my girlfriend Aino and I had been walking around and were approaching work with new strength. We thought that we could enjoy life again for two or three years, if not more. And now? We refuse to enjoy each day as if it were the last day, according to that idiotic cliché some doctors use. Eating used to be such a celebration for me, but now I've lost my appetite. I'm not even interested in red wine. I did like the schnapps I recently drank in the cafeteria at the Maxim Gorki Theater with the director Armin Petras.

SPIEGEL: Does it provide you with some consolation that this year, after 25 years of controversy, you are suddenly reaping more praise than ever before from audiences and critics?

Schlingensief: I see a lot of things as if I were behind a pane of bulletproof glass, and I'm amazed. The great thing about "Church of Fear" was that I could look at my work without any doubts. This work was completely pure and sad, but it was also absurd and funny. A year ago, shortly before my cancer was discovered, we went to Nepal. We shot a film there and visited a children's hospital, and this is what I wrote in the guest book: "May our circling thoughts finally come to rest." That sentence really hit home three days later, when I saw the first X-ray image. In fact, I do have the feeling that in "Church of Fear," thoughts have finally come to a resting point that everyone understands. Having to die but wanting to live -- that's the subject.

SPIEGEL: Is it really true that you are plagued by doubts about your art?

Schlingensief: Isn't that part of it? Many people are just now discovering that my works have always been melancholy or contemplative. But I am not an agent of suffering, like many in the theater who are convinced that they are ill. Nevertheless, I have struggled with problems that now seem stupid to me. It bothered me when something didn't appeal to people, this struggle over criticism. My defenses went up immediately whenever I had a negative review. In the worst of cases, the critics were dragged onto the stage.

SPIEGEL: It usually looked like fun.

Schlingensief: It was certainly liberating. There is nothing better than hurling big issues at a mesmerized, laughing audience. I always liked that about (Joseph) Beuys, that he never stubbornly presented his theories. In my films, I was always astonished to see why people were no longer laughing. In "Tunguska," for example, I portrayed two avant-garde filmmakers who traveled to the North Pole to torture the Eskimos there with their works. That was my way of getting even with my teacher, Werner Nekes, and the German avant-garde film. At the same time, it was a declaration of love.

SPIEGEL: In retrospect, what would you do differently?

Schlingensief: Perhaps my work was too encoded or too cowardly. My dramatic advisor, Carl Hegemann, once accused me, after my first play at the Volksbühne Theater, "100 Years of the CDU," of not having confessed properly. That was when I realized that accountability is also a necessary part of theater, and that it's something that I often miss. I was recently in my parents' apartment in Oberhausen, and I noticed that it's very dark there. The walls are yellowish and the floors are worn. I had never noticed this before. I always played the white giant there, to make the apartment bright. I played around, and I told stories about how I had been in Vienna or Bayreuth, or that I had an offer from Manaus. Just imagine, that's where I'm going, I would tell them. I brought some life into the place in the process, helping my father, who gradually lost his vision over a 10-year period and never came to terms with it, escape from his depression for a little while and putting my mother in a good mood. But I don't want to do that anymore when I visit my mother these days. My father is dead now. What I encapsulated there was a lack of self-love. In many ways, I didn't like myself.

SPIEGEL: And this also applied to your work?

Schlingensief: We just pretend that rejection motivates us, and that it only makes us stronger. When I was 16, I showed a film to an editor at WDR, and he said something that devastated me: "You will never be able to love anyone. It's very clear in the film. You're not interested in the characters. They're just cardboard figures for you." There I was, in the middle of puberty, and I wept. Of course, I always had a tough time with relationships. Later on, I made the film "Egomania-Island Without Hope" with Tilda Swinton, with whom I was together at the time. When I proudly showed her the film, she was horrified. She thought it was so horribly incomprehensible and full of hate. She just wept.

SPIEGEL: And your self-confidence wasn't immediately restored by the fact that your work was periodically received with enthusiastic praise?

Schlingensief: That didn't work, even though it was always 50-50 with me. I suffered greatly from the fact that I couldn't get my parents to understand that what I do is good. All they got was that it didn't make sense to neighbors and relatives, who were afraid of being criticized just for being associated with me. My father wept at the Berlin Film Festival when he saw "Menu Total." It didn't help that my sister said that she thought the film was, as she said, impressive. My father took it so far that he would only show my mother the landscape scenes in "Egomania." He had made himself notes on exactly where to fast-forward to in the videos, and he allowed my mother to believe that I shoot documentaries about German landscapes.

SPIEGEL: You recently pointed out that the cancer in your lungs probably began growing when you staged "Parsifal" in Bayreuth. Do you seriously believe that there is a connection?

Schlingensief: Everyone who has cancer asks himself questions like that. Some brood over whether they smoked too many cigarettes or drank too much red wine. I ask myself whether I felt too much of an affiliation with death in my art. The level of emotion with which I staged that "Parsifal," Wagner's farewell work, in 2004, and the fact that I broke up with my girlfriend at the time and experienced some of my darker sides, that contradicted my will to live and produced an unbearable feeling of revulsion. I believe that every person has an innate stability that falters as a result of such acts of self-hate.

SPIEGEL: Are you now able to like yourself better?

Schlingensief: Not just myself, but others too. For instance, I've decided to praise people more often. I'm delighted by the warmth I feel coming from so many friends, as well as artists, from Margit Carstensen and René Pollesch, from Matthias Lilienthal and from Peter Zadek, who sent me an enormous, hilarious book of pornographic drawings when I was in the hospital. But it's nonsense to say that people with cancer see the world in a totally different way. We imagine that this is the case, we are weak, and our surroundings react differently to us. Nevertheless, I'm far enough along to be able to say that the most normal things are the nicest things. I enjoy just lying there with my girlfriend, perhaps looking at the gray wall of a high-rise building, without dark clouds and without asking myself the question: How much longer will we be lying here? I've lost one lung already. I can no longer run, I get out of breath, my feet feel like they're made of lead, and yet I'm doing really well. I'm taken better care of than any child in Nepal, who wouldn't stand a chance in my situation. I've had some wonderful moments and a lot of joy.

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