The director Christoph Schlingensief died just over 10 years ago at the age of 49. He was a big thing in certain German social circles. I must admit that I’ve never seriously engaged with him, which might not make me the best reviewer of this film biography. Having said that, the best documentaries also manage to engage the not-yet-convinced, so maybe my views are of some worth.
From the clips that we see, it’s clear that Schlingensief was prolific. Here is some Super 8 film that he made when he was nine. There’s some of his films, reminiscent of early John Waters in that they’re cheaply made and deliberately badly acted, but lacking any of Waters’s humour and charm. And here are the plays that he directed, usually with him taking the leading role, speaking very quickly and shouting a lot.
As he got older, he diversified even more – directing Parsifal and directing and starring in a Nazi-themed Hamlet. At one stage in the latter, he goes completely off piste and starts lecturing the exasperated audience who shout back that they’re here to see some Shakespeare. He also had a tv career which seemed to contain a lot of placing inarticulate people in front of the camera or chat shows where he constantly interrupted the guests.
Then there were the political interventions. There was the time he invited 6 million unemployed people to swim in the lake outside Helmut Kohl’s holiday home to try and flood it. Or when he was arrested when he called for the murder of Kohl from the stage. Or when he burned an Israel flag to protest antisemitic statements by fdp (liberal) politicians. Or the happening in a square in Vienna where people were invited to select which refugees they would like to deport.
At the end of the report of the Kohl mass swim, we are told in passing “sadly 6 million people did not turn up”. Which is the problem I have with most of the political stunts. What are they actually for? The Vienna deportation action led to passers by abusing and assaulting Schlingensief for his racism, but did it actually raise any consciousness? Did Schlingensief care?
You get the feeling that he didn’t, and that the main point of his art was to draw attention to himself. There is a lot of Nazi imagery in his work – especially uniforms, but it all seems to be just a stunt. Now I’m sure that Schilingensief was worried about the growth of Nazism in Germany and Austria, but it seems that he felt that this could be challenged by marching around in jackboots.
In several interviews shown throughout the film, Schlingensief is accused of being a provocateur, something he vehemently denies. This begs 2 questions: (1) isn’t art supposed to provoke? (2) if that’s not what you’re doing then exactly what’s the point of all this Nazi imagery? The problem is not with provocation in itself, it just that it often feels like Schlingensief finds that offending people is an end in itself rather than being done for any productive reason.
I am not at all convinced by the format which director Bettina Böhler has chosen. There are no talking heads – which is not of itself a bad thing, as this can lead to bland hagiography. But what we get instead is film of Schilingensief talking – and he talks a lot. And such is his self-regard that the film is still hagiographic. Only here it’s the director who is telling us how great he is.
Having said all this, what do I know? The German critics were almost unanimous in the praise which they lavished on the film. And I am sure that I’m missing all sorts of context that would be clear to anyone who’s halfway followed Schlingensief’s career. But this idea of making a film just for those in the know contains the very problem that I think is concerned in his work.
Much is made of how political Schlingensief was as an artist. But it seems to be a specific form of politics – one that is less concerned about changing the world than in virtue signalling that you are one of the good guys who is terribly concerned about everything that is wrong in the world. Schlingensief even formed his own party, but it’s key message seems to have been to mock political engagement, rather than encouraging it.
Maybe I’m just grumpy because I was reluctantly here in the first place. The film trailer has been running since German open air cinema reopened in June, and I’d grown so bored of it that I’d already convinced myself that I’d find the film boring. I went anyway because I thought I might learn something. Maybe I did – to trust my instincts more.