Staging Xenophobia: The Legacy of German Iconoclast Christoph Schlingensief
“It simply was fascinating! You could look right into a normal life!”
So proclaims Rainer Laux, the producer of Big Brother: Germany, in the 2002 documentary Foreigners Out! Schlingensief’s Container (Ausländer raus! Schlingensiefs Container), directed by Paul Poet. In the film, Poet chronicles the reality television play—or perhaps a play on reality television—which Christoph Schlingensief orchestrated for the Wiener Festwochen, an Austrian cultural festival, in 2000. Foreigners Out!, the title of Schlingensief’s art project-cum-reality television parody, was created in response to the formation of a far-right, anti-immigration Austrian coalition government the same year. Inspired by the Y2K affinity for 24/7 reality programming, Schlingensief used the Big Brother format to capture the lives of twelve real asylum seekers. For a week, the contestants lived in three shipping containers in Karajan Square, a tourist hub near Vienna’s famous opera house, and took part in daily activities including German lessons and exercise routines. Each day, members of the public were encouraged to vote on which asylum seekers to harbor or deport. Austrian outrage erupted, and the project quickly became the subject of international news coverage.
Though Foreigners Out! Schlingensief’s Container was not directed by Schlingensief himself, Poet’s documentary deftly frames the iconoclastic credo that runs throughout the late German artist, filmmaker, and activist’s oeuvre. Ever-torn between reflective and confrontational tendencies, Schlingensief’s cinematic interventions and commentaries were recently contextualized in the Goethe-Institut Toronto’s four-part tribute, “Schlingensief: Approach Those You Fear,” which also featured screenings of The 120 Days of Bottrop (1997, co-dir. Schlingensief and Oskar Roehler), German Chainsaw Massacre: The First Hour of Reunification (1990, dir. Schlingensief), and The Holding of Skulls Is Not My Thing! (2001, dir. Alexander Kluge).
Common to the wide-ranging projects in the Goethe-Institut series is Schlingensief’s ruthless excavation of his political present relative to German and European history. As the de facto host of Foreigner’s Out!, Schlingensief initially presents himself as a non-partisan everyman: he successfully goads Austrian onlookers towards admitting their historical guilt and contemporary prejudice. In this reality television host persona, Schlingensief concomitantly reveals the misguided strategies of the Austrian Widerstand, or Nazi-Resistance, and their simplistic efforts to “free” the asylum seekers. (Schlingensief suspects the Widerstand have missed his artistic point entirely by not interpreting Foreigner’s Out! as a public indictment of xenophobic federal policies.) In the other Goethe-Institut selections, Schlingensief plays a similar, if less explicit, instigating role. Whether directing, performing, or speaking candidly in interviews, Schlingensief seems to relish fomenting civic and artistic dissent. The question of whether Schlingensief is performing in these moments—or just being himself, a wickedly smart schoolboy winking at authority and beckoning his audience along for the ride—is left for his viewers to decide.
Schlingensief’s rhetorical vacillation between puckish and sincere agitator in his role as the host of Foreigners Out! is mirrored in the genre films featured in the Goethe series. In both The 120 Days of Bottrop, a gonzo homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and German Chainsaw Massacre, a splatter re-visioning of Germany’s post-1989 reunification, Schlingensief satirizes both the notion of socio-cultural legacy and—perhaps more significantly—the project of artistically portraying that legacy. In Bottrop, for example, a motley film crew comes together, supposedly to remake Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Bottrop, which features cameos by multiple German arthouse darlings, enacts a series of fails and flails by the ill-prepared director and crew, and shares absurdist overtones with German Chainsaw Massacre, in which West Germans butchers slaughter East Germans and make them into sausages, a pantomimic re-telling of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Both Bottrop and German Chainsaw Massacre serve as bleak, yet affirming, memento mori—reminders of mortality. Likewise, with its themes of death and murder, The Holding of Skulls Is Not My Thing! offers a cunningly programmed counterpoint to the forward-looking Schlingensief of Foreigners Out! Schlingensief’s Container. Directed by the filmmaker, cultural theorist, and Fassbinder contemporary Alexander Kluge, Holding of Skulls comprises a mixture of documented conversation between Kluge and Schlingensief and clips of their Regietheatre staging of Hamlet. Watching Holding of Skulls, the viewer inevitably contemplates Yorick, the court fool whose skull Hamlet recovers in a latter act. Already a looming symbol within the Western canon, in Schlingensief’s staging of Hamlet, Yorick’s skull becomes a Brechtian device that reminds the audience of their impermanence. By infusing such memento mori throughout his projects, Schlingensief pushes his audiences beyond a bleak or cathartic acceptance of death and towards more sobering encounters of death portrayed in media. And this attention to public conceptions of murder and mourning feels especially prescient in 2018, as we gain increasing digital access to instances of violence and accompanying accusations of “fake news.”
Regardless of the medium or genre he’s working in, Schlingensief provides openings—often via aggressive rhetorical instigation, or even literal incision, as in German Chainsaw Massacre—for his audiences to scrutinize their presents and pasts. The capacity for critical looking takes on heightened implications in Schlingensief’s late 20th-century and early 21st-century context of globalization and image-heavy communication. Looking, or “peeping” as Schlingensief describes the Austrian public’s eager glances at the contained asylum seekers, is inextricably bound to spectacle. Schlingensief’s hyperbolic genre work—his experiments, respectively, with reality television and low-budget horror in Foreigners Out! and German Chainsaw Massacre—reveals his skepticism about whether images can lead to freedom.
In 2018, some of Schlingensief’s performative naiveté comes off as somewhat troublingly masculinist, and ethical critiques of his projects often underscore his powerful position as a male artist. For example, though Schlingensief seems only to use racist sentiment to inspire the far-right to reveal their true colors in Foreigners Out!, he does so with the protean privilege of a European artist whose identification with the asylum-seekers remains frustratingly opaque. Nevertheless, Schlingensief leaves space to indict himself within his manifold art and film projects, and the strength of his oblique methods were highlighted in the Goethe-Institut’s program.
For Schlingensief, appropriating spectacle as a vehicle for political change necessarily involves the risk of getting lost in the crowd. At one point in Foreigners Out! Schlingensief’s Container, Schlingensief calls out to the public gathered by the containers: “This is ‘Foreigners Out!’ This is Vienna! This is Nazi! This is you and I!” He entreats tourists to photograph the containers and “Show all your relatives and friends what is going on in Austria! Show them the future of Europe!” Schlingensief’s trust in his audience’s ability to make up their own minds, or to indict themselves comparably, ultimately provides space wherein contemporary facism may be unmasked by art. Schlingensief’s hilarity, his golden touch of the absurd, is pitched somewhere between a riddle and howl. Whether he’s laughing at, or in spite of, the world is irrelevant; he’s waiting to see if his audience will join him and where they’ll go next.