Death in Venice Resurrecting Schlingensief at the Biennale

German filmmaker, theater director and artist Christoph Schlingensief died before finishing his upcoming exhibition at the Venice Biennale, but preparations went on without him. But should a dead man represent the country? A preview reveals that his death created a unique opportunity to re-examine his legacy.

By and Nora Reinhardt


Aino Laberenz is wearing pink nail polish. She is waiting in the shade of trees in the giardini in Venice, the city's municipal gardens, in front of the entrance to the German Pavilion. It is a stone neoclassical tomb of history, built in 1909 and redesigned by the Nazis. The word "Germania" is normally printed above the entrance -- a dark threat. During the Biennale, it will be replaced with the word "Egomania" -- a dark promise. Laberenz is wearing a children's temporary tattoo of a butterfly on her forearm.

She is the German widow. Laberenz was married to Christoph Schlingensief, splatter filmmaker, Bayreuth director and national artist, a modern-day Joseph Beuys. She wears her wedding ring on her finger and her husband's large, gold ring on a heavy chain around her neck. "Now I'm really beginning to feel the true extent of Christoph's absence," says Laberenz, her eyes welling up with tears. "I would certainly be happy if he could just be sitting here and smiling."

These are stressful days for Laberenz. Schlingensief's last stage production, "Via Intolleranza II," was just performed at the 2011 Theatertreffen theater festival in Berlin. Before that, she flew to West Africa to tour Schlingensief's last project, an opera village in Burkina Faso. And now Venice, where the power is finally on again, and the videos are running. It's a good day.

She walks up the massive stone steps into the Pavilion. Inside it looks like a cool, solemn church, complete with an altar, a stained-glass window, pews and a panel with a list of hymns. All that's missing is the smell of incense. It's the set from a 2008 production called "A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within," and a replica of the church in the western German city of Oberhausen where Schlingensief was an altar boy for 12 years.

At first glance, the scene is reminiscent of Joseph Beuys. A stuffed rabbit sits on the altar, the word "Flux" is printed on a banner, and a grimacing deity with an erect penis hangs on the wall. At second glance, however, it's classic Christoph Schlingensief, the curious blending with the obvious. Behind the altar is a tall stool that looks like a tennis referee's chair, next to it is a hospital bed, and Schlingensief's X-rays are attached to a light box.

Resurrecting His Curious Career

Schlingensief created "Requiem für einen Untoten," or "Requiem for an Undead Person," in 2008. He appeared in the production himself, convinced that he would survive his lung cancer for a few more years. But now no one will appear.

Schlingensief died in August 2010, shortly before his 50th birthday, in the midst of work on the Pavilion. Since then, heated debate has erupted over whether something so unprecedented should even be done -- devoting the entire German Pavilion in Venice to the work of a dead man. Two women have waged a joint battle over his legacy: Schlingensief's widow Laberenz, a 30-year-old costume designer, and 44-year-old Susanne Gaensheimer, a museum curator in Frankfurt and the commissioner of the German Pavilion.

The exhibition resurrects Schlingensief's curious career, from urchin to Jesus of the educated classes. It shows how he migrated from film to theater to art, constantly searching for good energy. It presents Schlingensief as a link between the trashy fantasies of doom in the 1990s and the spiritual desires for salvation of the present -- in the most Catholic of forms, the triptych.

The room installation "A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within," which is dedicated to Schlingensief's illness, occupies the central section of the pavilion. "We chose it because it clearly demonstrates how Christoph interacted with other artists," says Gaensheimer. In it, Schlingensief built his own version of Beuys' "Fettecke," as well as a version of Austrian artist Valie Export's "Tap and Touch" box, Viennese Actionism, Fluxus and Nam June Paik.

In the wing to the left of this installation is an exhibit showing Schlingensief's Africa project, devoid of Albert Schweitzer-like pathos, but with a model and photos showing the current state of the opera village near Ouagadougou. Six of Schlingensief's films are shown in the right wing, including the 1986 film "Egomania," with his former girlfriend Tilda Swinton, and the so-called Germany Trilogy with the legendary "Das deutsche Kettensägenmassaker," or "The German Chainsaw Massacre."

Two Kinds of Suffering: Germany and Cancer

"The films were very important to us because they show how Christoph's work began," Laberenz says. It was not intended as a complete retrospective, but as an introduction to the Schlingensief universe on the basis of two lines of suffering, Germany and cancer, and on the basis of an optimistic outlook for Africa. Suffering and salvation.

Nothing could be more consistent. These are Schlingensief's two central themes, from the first films to his last theater productions. The films are full of murdering, slaughtering and dying. Death is omnipresent. This man was a pathologist.

He used death like a tool to dissect his era. He used disease with the full pathos and rage of a man who did not believe in the general concept of health. He opened himself up to his cancer and his dying in a way that was not exhibitionist, as many believed, but authentic. Schlingensief lived in opposition to the present.

He was a wound, and that was the way he wanted it. Show your wound and you will be healed, Schlingensief said, echoing Joseph Beuys. In his fascination with death, he was a German artist, and yet in this respect he was just as close to Richard Wagner as to Jean-Luc Godard.

On the whole, there are strange overlaps, now that his body of work is being presented in this fashion, as nakedly and simultaneously as that of a classic artist. He was as German as Dürer and as funny as Lubitsch. He was as in tune with Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's expressionistic horror films as he was with Rainer Werner Fassbinder's excessive historical melodrama. He loved pathos and slapstick. He was a man who whisked together images and thoughts and yet remained an enlightener in the end, which, at first glance, is an odd thing to say about someone who stirred up so much delirium and confusion.

High-Minded Nonsense

This is the surprising takeaway from this show at the German Pavilion in Venice: Only Schlingensief without Schlingensief reveals the true Schlingensief. His death and his absence clear the way and create a view of a body of work characterized by defiant energy and cheerful despair. A clear view of the Mediterranean!

This is a saying from the depths of the 1980s, and Schlingensief's creative work is informed by the spirit of this anarcho-Dadaism. It was the post-Punk and post-New Wave era, a time when a dislike of this country became mixed with a mercilessly good mood, which came to a sudden end when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, things got serious again for Germany.

Schlingensief reacted like an unruly child. He found his salvation in a style of high-minded nonsense, which said a lot about the fears, lies and contradictions of those years. His 1990 film "The German Chainsaw Massacre" left no cliché or corny joke untouched, was desolate and wild, and portrayed reunification as a horrible scrawl of blood, under the motto: "They came as friends and turned into sausage."

In this deliberately lowbrow horror film, sex drive, an obsession with cleanliness, a butcher's lasciviousness and nationalism came together in a way that cannot be attributed solely to an anti-authoritarian reaction to Schlingensief's childhood as an altar boy. His dislike of this country was more deep-seated than that, a mixture of disgust and fascination. Schlingensief became a political artist as an act of self-defense.

The first part of his German Trilogy, the 1989 film "100 Years of Adolf Hitler" shows how dependent on and trapped in history Schlingensief was himself. The work is an anti-"Downfall," made long before Bernd Eichinger and Oliver Hirschbiegel shot their film. Udo Kier, as Hitler, portrays life in the bunker as a cocaine-induced delirium. As is always the case with Schlingensief, the film is a great massacre of references.

But there is a deeper meaning to this carnage of images. His grandmother, Schlingensief said in an interview, was a distant relative of Joseph Goebbels. "I carry fear inside of me," he said, referring to the fear of his inner concentration camp guard. This fear, he explained, was the reason he wanted to "wear out Hitler" by offering audiences the image of Hitler "for their use." This is the Schlingensief principle: images against images, thoughts against thoughts and Hitler against Hitler. In the end, the debris Schlingensief dredges up serve a thoroughly German purpose -- self-purification.

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BTraven 06/07/2011
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It smells like “Personenkult”. A cynic would mean that he could have inherited the ability to present himself in public from Goebbels, a distant relative of his grandmother.
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