Christoph Schlingensief, who died last August at the age of forty-nine, repeatedly challenged the German-speaking world with his films, plays, operas, TV shows, political projects, and other interventions into public life. His freewheeling energy and readiness to break the rules of both high and low culture were matched by an appetite for politically fraught subjects that made him a frequent subject of controversy. Artforum invited critic Diedrich Diederichsen to reflect on Schlingensief’s oeuvre, in advance of the artist’s retrospective this summer in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Christoph Schlingensief, Chance 2000—Wahlkampfzirkus ’98 (Chance 2000—Election Campaign Circus ’98), 1998. Performance view, Prater, Berlin, March 13, 1998. Christoph Schlingensief (with graph). Photo: David Baltzer.

FOR THE GENERATION OF GERMANS who came of age after reunification, the circumstances of the time brought about a unique kind of celebrity. Whereas other decades and epochs have had many figureheads, this period was too fractured and too nostalgic to agree on them, both in the arts and in public life in general. Only Christoph Schlingensief could get away with functioning as the unelected representative of his generation: Just like them, he was different. At the same time, he was the sole constant in his extremely diverse practice. So they had to pay attention to everything he did, from TV talk shows to productions of Wagner to a book about having cancer to social and educational projects in Africa. And there wasn’t any other way to make his role official than to choose him to represent Germany at this year’s Venice Biennale. But the similarities or connections he had to his people—the indexical or iconic origins of his symbolic status, if you will—cannot, as in so many other cases, be easily gleaned from either his appearance or his biography. Throughout, he stood above the institutions, the specialized milieus, and the ideologies that set the tone in the German-speaking world during this era.

How did this come about? It was largely thanks to Schlingensief’s special relationship to the media, in two senses of the word: First, Schlingensief took for granted that artistic activity no longer had to be rooted in the expert use of a particular medium. He was probably the first artist for whom what Adorno called the “fraying of the arts” wasn’t just something to thematize, but something always completely internalized. Second, Schlingensief was an expert at using the media in another sense: as a means to engage the public sphere. His matter-of-fact approach to publicity—which he brought to bear even on artistic decisions that would traditionally have followed an antipublic, avant-gardist logic—was due to an early awareness that the idea of the avant-garde was losing its power, for reasons both good and bad, from democratic anti-elitism to populism and the culture industry. But Schlingensief also fundamentally belonged to the theater long before he found a home there, in his enjoyment of the particular confusion, stage fright, and energy rush that only a large audience can provide.

The self-promotion central to Schlingensief’s public identity was always constructed from and embellished with specific details that pertained to him alone. He obsessively stuck with his own subject matter, which also informed his seemingly personal and autobiographical projects. (Although he felt strongly related to the usual suspects on the Olympus of German mythomania—Fassbinder, Beuys, Wagner, the Viennese Actionists—he did not make his similarities with them the core of his project, as Jonathan Meese has.) Schlingensief’s pharmacist father, the Super 8 camera he precociously began using as a child, the heterogeneous subjects he was obsessed with (ranging from trash cinema to high art to religion), his fascination with Namibia, which later extended to all of Africa—all these things were highly idiosyncratic and at first found only an audience interested in idiosyncratic matters. But the specificity and even eccentricity of all these private concerns was secondary to what they collectively offered: a high level of immediate, undisguised individuality, far-fetched forms, unbelievable mixtures of material, narcissistic incomprehensibility—all of which proved entirely compatible with the wish to speak to large audiences. Indeed, Schlingensief quickly transgressed the borders of the subcultures that showed an interest in his first movies of the early 1980s, which were then read as excessive and even satiric, though now they often come across as underground goth. Around the same time, Schlingensief was chasing after great older character actors, such as Alfred Edel, who would later be rediscovered by cult followers but were then little known. He also succeeded in winning over the surviving members of Fassbinder’s troupe and would go on to do spectacular work with Udo Kier, Irm Hermann, Volker Spengler, the sentimentally mournful Peter Kern, and the fantastic, erratic Margit Carstensen.

The 1980s was the postwar decade in Germany perhaps least defined by politics. The peace movement, powerful as it was, wanted only to preserve the status quo, i.e., no war in Central Europe. And the ascendant environmental movement likewise lacked appeal for a restless urban artist. This was also the moment when youth cultures first began en masse to develop an enthusiasm for whatever was weird, ugly, obscure, violent, and cheap—enthusiasms that would not fully flower until the arrival of the Internet. At the same time, the do-it-yourself ethos of punk and post-punk took over large swaths of the subculture: Anyone with any self-respect was no longer interested in learning to play an instrument properly or mastering an artistic technique. It was the idea alone that counted, regardless of whether it took the form of a punk band, a style of painting, or a Super 8 projection. All that mattered was nurturing one’s own impatience. And this of course affected one’s decision about medium. Most punk conceptualists went for traditional formats such as songs and paintings, because they regarded them as a kind of degree zero of mediality—but Schlingensief took a different path. By proving that one could disrespect more technically complex and less tried-and-tested forms, such as cinema, in the same way, he not only proved the punk ethos to be more than adequate for such reroutings but also arrived at more interesting results.

Christoph Schlingensief, ATTA ATTA—die Kunst ist ausgebrochen! (ATTA ATTA—Art Has Broken Out!), 2003. Performance view, Volksbühne, Berlin, January 23, 2003. Uncle Willi (Michael Gempart, left) and Father (Josef Bierbichler, center). Photo: David Baltzer.

SCHLINGENSIEF’S FIRST STEPS to shoot a few Super 8 films and make strange noises on a cheap synthesizer—were neither unique nor special. He did not abandon the aesthetic values of the period when he attempted to reach a larger audience: In fact, he did the opposite, and decided to make his approach even more drastic. So, after a brief stint in the early ’80s with an eccentric, quasi-punk electronic band called Vier Kaiserlein (Four Little Kaisers) and some involvement with the Super 8 and “Off Cinema” undergrounds then flourishing in Munich, Schlingensief began to mobilize against the world of German art-house film, which had become positively sappy in its social-democratic sensibilities. His first full-length production, Tunguska—die Kisten sind da (Tunguska—the Crates Are Here, 1983–84), shot when he was twenty-three, is mainly a playground for filmic and antifilmic ideas, though it has a pseudoplot that investigates the history of its own making, with a group of crazy “film scientists” searching for the original movie, apparently already shown in the 1960s. The work poses as a gesture directed against the medium of film and its German history, not to investigate it seriously, but to be able to get away with otherwise incomprehensible ideas. Moreover, Schlingensief always insisted that Tunguska should be considered together with two short films, Phantasus muss anders werdenPhantasus Go Home (Phantasus Must Be Different—Phantasus Go Home) and Die Ungenierten kom-men—What Happened to Magdalena Jung? (The Nonchalant Ones Are Coming—What Happened to Magdalena Jung?; both 1983), as his “Trilogie zur Filmkritik—Film als Neurose” (Film-Criticism Trilogy—Film as Neurosis). His plan was to question the medium itself in basic terms. It is unclear even today whether the incontestable beauty of Tunguska lies in the combination of wild Kenneth Anger–esque color and light effects with such grandiose intentions, or whether these visuals could, as I think likely, also succeed on their own.

A specific interpretive framework informed the making of Tunguska: that of “trash.” This English word took on special resonance in the German subcultural debates of the ’80s and ’90s. Inspired by musical role models (from bands like Half Japanese and even the Cramps in the US to the activities of Wild Billy Childish in the UK to the so-called Geniale Dilletanten [Ingenious Dilettantes] movement in West Berlin), a broad spectrum of underground artists who didn’t have much in common did share this: putting a positive, even methodical spin on their own lack of technical ability and, more generally, on cheap production values. The traces of a work’s making were always recognizable and obvious and could either be enjoyed fetishistically, as artistic indices of deskilling, or seen as a laying bare of the device to induce an experience of Brechtian alienation. People spoke of “trash aesthetics,” a term that referred not only to cheaply produced youth culture but to a brutal, rapid, aggressively direct art that always put its own status as a made thing on display, without restricting itself stylistically.

While all of Schlingensief’s early productions could be considered classic trash in the sense of being cobbled together, handmade, and provisional, the term should be used carefully. To my mind, the closest Schlingensief ever got to a true trash aesthetic of the kind being discussed in the Germany of the late ’80s and early ’90s was in his collaboration with the musician and comedian Helge Schneider, who performed in Menu Total (1986) and Mutters Maske (Mother’s Mask, 1987–88). At his best, Schneider, who like Schlingensief was discovered by German film experimentalist Werner Nekes, was a jiving Beckett, spinning absurdist comedy from his obsessions with jazz and ’50s culture.

The problem with trash was its unspoken premise that, when in trouble, you could choose the easy escape route of irony. Schlingensief blocked off this exit, and he paid the price with passages that come across as quasi-religious kitsch. Yet the absence of trash’s humorous distancing is turned to advantage in the oppressively gloomy and gothic but very seductive film Egomania (1986), which features one of the first appearances of a young Tilda Swinton. Another classic element of ’80s trash cinema (even in the sense of New York’s No Wave film) remains, however: the awkward acts of violence, the mannerist play that at any moment might lead as easily to a laughing fit as an epileptic fit. And throughout, Schlingensief cherished at least one more of trash’s central principles: You only arrive at seriousness in art in relation to the most overused and ridiculous objects of commodified culture, and these always have to be present on the same stage.

Schlingensief became better known in the mainstream media with the spectacular “Germany trilogy” he made around the time of reunification: 100 Jahre Adolf Hitler: Die letzte Stunde im Führerbunker (100 Years of Adolf Hitler: The Last Hour in the Führer’s Bunker, 1988–89), Das deutsche Kettensägen-massaker (The German Chainsaw Massacre, 1990) and Terror 2000—Intensivstation Deutschland (Terror 2000—Intensive Care Unit Germany, 1992). These works fed episodes from twentieth-century German history through a kind of blender, creating a concoction of parody and gore. At the time, overtaxed critics took refuge in the concept of trash, but Schlingensief’s real accomplishment was to build on that category and eventually overcome it. (He did title his penultimate film United Trash [1995–96], so he was apparently not completely opposed to the term.) Take, for example, his approach to lighting, where one sees how intentional incompetence could become routine and transform itself into a clearly defined style, and from there it doesn’t take long until you find yourself in the middle of a psychedelic light orgy. Earnest tributes to the untethered camera of F. W. Murnau, and other stylistic and dramaturgical techniques borrowed from the Romantic/artificial tradition of German silent film, alternate with sheer cockiness: At one point in Tunguska, Schlingensief simply films a passage from Oskar Fischinger’s 1935 Komposition in Blau (Composition in Blue), including its credit sequence.

Christoph Schlingensief, Tunguska—die Kisten sind da (Tunguska—the Crates Are Here), 1983–84, color film in 16 mm, 71 minutes. Publicity montage. Photo: Filmgalerie 451.

Unlike his contemporaries and colleagues, who kept presenting work at all the same festivals, to be reviewed in all the same zines, Schlingensief did not target a small circle of specialists and fans already predisposed toward a certain style. From the beginning, he sought larger audiences and emphasized current topics—and there was no audience or topic too stupid for serious treatment. He was determined to make a splash, which he often did with interruptions or by means of surprising if not actually violent acts. Such moments were used to create a point from which viewers could look at the whole, then follow him or be disgusted by him when he appeared as the conductor, the captain, the officer persona who seemed to be in charge of the unfolding events. In his early works he added a touch of irony to this tactic by showing up in the guise of grotesque patriarchal personae with crazy names like Major Pater Hilf (the name sounds like a prayer: “Father, help”) or by delegating this function to one of his celebrity actors—Kier in the person of Hitler, for instance.

Such performances—whether by Schlingensief himself or by other actors, such as Edel, whose air of authority cast a different light on the proceedings—already belong to the genre of the regular interruptions in his later theatrical productions, when in the middle of role-playing he would have something to say to the audience or to his actors about the play in question, as himself: Christoph Schlingensief. It wasn’t so much a reversal of Brecht’s alienation effect as an acknowledgment of its total success in postmodernity, as a dilemma. Instead of disillusioning the audience by shouting, “All these performers are actually paid actors and everything happening onstage stands in a particular relationship to bourgeois ideology,” Schlingensief proclaimed, “Even we, the ones acting and directing here, have no answer to the question of whether this is serious or a game. We’re just as confused as you are about which ontological plane we’re operating on.” This points to an underlying principle of Schlingensief’s work: On the one hand, he pushed the device of ironic distancing, the eternally possible postmodern joke, into an infinite regress of jokes about jokes about jokes, which of course was also a distancing of a distancing of a distancing. On the other hand, amid the increasingly empty laughter that ensued, he was perfectly serious about pursuing perfectly serious topics such as racism and social exclusion, disease and (his own) death. This was not a contradiction, however: Rather, it was a Romantic state of mind. After all the relativizing, what remained was the positing “I” that alone is capable of keeping track of the relativizing acts.

THE REFLEXIVE “I” of Fichte and Novalis’s German Romanticism that Schlingensief embodied reached a new level with his turn to productions for the stage in 1993. Schlingensief seemed quickly to realize that theater, in contrast to film, places severe limits on individual artistic control, but that in exchange it offers a longed-for opportunity to leap between different ontologies, and it can always threaten to become real. For Schlingensief, the endless relativizing, the limitless acting-out of taboo-breaking ideas, could now intersect with strong stage personalities that spoke directly to the audience. In the theater, you can have an immediate, visible effect on persons both on and in front of the stage.

Schlingensief’s entry into the world of the Volksbühne, the theater that became the experimental center of the new Berlin and its subcultures in the ’90s, took the form of three drastic political revues: 100 Jahre CDU: Spiel ohne Grenzen (100 Years of the CDU: Game Without Limits, 1993), Kühnen ’94: Bring mir den Kopf von Adolf Hitler (Kühnen ’94: Bring Me the Head of Adolf Hitler, 1993), and Rocky Dutschke ’68 (1996), in which he gave equal dramatic treatment to, respectively, the conservative political party that was in power at the time; the neo-Nazi leader Michael Kühnen, who had recently died of aids; and the student leader Rudi Dutschke, who was shot in 1968. For the first two plays—as he noted in a press release—he was still struggling with the notion of the fourth wall, but in the third play, he had his choruses and actors descend from the stage to mix with the audience and, eventually, with the crowds on the city streets. Many of Schlingensief’s subsequent productions from this point on began on the street in front of the theater, and one might see, in a live broadcast during a show, a handful of actors running around in relatively distant parts of Berlin before making it back to the theater in time for the grand finale. And here we must recognize that Schlingensief’s project was not directed toward one particular medium but toward all media. The ontological shifts had become still more layered: Leaving the reality of speech acts (and the assumption of their veracity) and entering a theater; leaving the theater and entering a dark room that contains two-dimensional projections of dramatized real-world speech acts, aka cinema; leaving the cinema and performing on the street—all these avant-garde acts were put onstage, where their complex status was from time to time commented on by Schlingensief himself.

Christoph Schlingensief, Mutters Maske (Mother’s Mask), 1987–88, still from a color film in 16 mm, 85 minutes. Martin von Mühlenbeck (Helge Schneider). Photo: Filmgalerie 451.

It was clear from the beginning that one could never expect from Schlingensief the sorts of contributions to political debates that Germany’s floundering Left urgently needed—especially in the early 1990s. Rather, his approach to mainstream topics in these early theater pieces earned him the dubious, almost trivial reputation of a provocateur (a nearly futile position in the post-Oedipal psychoeconomy of post-Fordism). He himself was partly to blame, with his spectacular TV appearances, which included a talk show of his own. He also organized the 1997 “riot” known as Tötet Helmut Kohl! (Kill Helmut Kohl!), in connection with which he hoped to gather as many unemployed people as possible to swim with him in the Austrian Wolfgangsee—German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s favorite holiday destination—while the politician was there. In theory, all of Germany’s unemployed would have displaced the water and left the lake dry. He also undertook a systematic, satiric persecution of the unsavory neoliberal politician Jürgen Möllemann (who later died in a possible suicide while parachuting), including visiting tours of his neighborhood with theater-festival audiences. Schlingensief’s political declarations, though, never went particularly far. As with all his public appearances, he was quite skillful at avoiding stable meaning of any sort, even when issuing political statements and participating in public discussions.

He managed to avoid taking a clear position even when he set up a political party, Chance 2000. Although the group actually participated in the 1998 federal election, winning more than 1 percent of the vote in some districts of Berlin, it was simultaneously a theater ensemble that put on bizarre shows in a circus tent. This slippery platform was the furthest Schlingensief ever ventured from the focused, plot- and event-driven medium of theater. It became increasingly unclear who was portraying, playing, or politically representing whom or what, and how strongly and irreversibly the production had been dragged down into the real world. He loved the unrest of people constantly talking, producing, communicating; he loved the theatricality of democracy, but parliamentary politics just seemed a very conventional production. A new stage had to be invented, though he left unresolved whether it would operate in the name of democratic or of aesthetic progress. In the end, the party split into the Partei der Letzten Chance (Last Chance Party), around Schlingensief and his ensemble, and a quasi-anarchist political group that continued to use the name Chance 2000.

AROUND THE TURN OF THE MILLENNIUM, Schlingensief increasingly looked beyond film and theater productions and became more and more active in the public sphere itself. For the action Bitte liebt Österreich: erste österreichische Koalitionswoche (Please Love Austria: First Austrian Coalition Week, 2000), for example, he had twelve (ostensibly) illegal foreigners inhabit a shipping container in the center of Vienna, their lives documented on TV and the Internet à la Big Brother, which was then at the height of its popularity. The audience were asked to vote on whom they liked the least, and this person was then (ostensibly) deported. At the time, there were weekly demonstrations against the new Austrian government, which had formed a coalition with Jörg Haider’s racist, right-wing party, and many protesters embraced Schlingensief’s action, making him their ally and taking advantage of the prominent placement of the container in front of Vienna’s opera house for their own publicity campaigns. Others, of course, criticized the project as exploitative and sensationalist. And so a fiction that originated as a response to a tabloid sensation, using a tabloid approach and clumsy analogies, soon acquired its own dynamic and remained front and center in the Austrian media for weeks. Schlingensief managed not only to stage a grotesque satire of xenophobia in the Austrian government but also demonstrated to the activists fighting against it on what terms the media would pay attention, even as he bathed in his notoriety and the banality of the tabloid-press reactions. It was simultaneously the worst and ugliest of his pieces and one of the best and funniest. A comparable conundrum was posed when, in 2001, he hired real neo-Nazis to play a part in his Zurich production of Hamlet.

Just when Schlingensief seemed most removed from conventional formats, however, questions of aesthetics and art theory began to take precedence once more. Schlingensief had been talking a great deal about Allan Kaprow and seemed to have found a predecessor in him. The increasing importance of the visual arts in general was apparent long before he was chosen to represent Germany in Venice. In ATTA ATTA—die Kunst ist ausgebrochen! (ATTA ATTA—Art Has Broken Out!, 2003), he reconstructed elements from the ignominious history of Friedrichshof Commune, a sect founded by Austrian artist Otto Muehl in 1972, magically inflated to involve his own family drama.

Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, 1882, in a production directed by Christoph Schlingensief, 2005. Performance view, Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Germany. Photo: Jochen Quast/Bayreuther Festspiele.

In fact, it was in Bayreuth, of all places, where he directed Parsifal from 2004 to 2007 at that German city’s annual Wagner festival, that he finally found a suitable form for his associative, meandering, constantly self-refuting mode of theater, a form that had much to do with the musical aspects of any organization of masses. Constantly revolving stages allowed for a never-ending metamorphosis of the set. Buildings, veils, and curtains edged one another out, while the activities of the actors were diffused in all directions, gently held together by the backdrop. The continuously revolving stage forced the notoriously static singers of traditional opera to keep moving. Experimental Schlingensief films, some of which also existed in their own right—including a famous one featuring a dead hare decomposing in time-lapse video—were projected onto all available surfaces, which were themselves in constant motion, so that the already overflowing profusion of activity on the stage no longer appeared wild but rather pointed to an underlying logic. Schlingensief used Wagner’s music to buttress this effect—as he would later use Schönberg for the collaboration Kunst und Gemüse, A. Hipler, Theater ALS Krankheit (Art and Vege-tables, A. Hipler, Theater AS Illness, 2004) and Luigi Nono and dubstep for his last theatrical production, Via Intolleranza II (2010).

During his last ten years, in which the public actions grew rarer while the theatrical actions became ever more artful and precise, richer in detail and formally more sophisticated, a Gesamtkunstwerk Romanticism seemed to triumph in Schlingensief’s work, leaving behind both the disruptive neo-neo-avant-garde tactics and the competing attraction of mass-media effectiveness. But although he did not distance himself from the line connecting the early Romantics’ absolute “I” and the consolidation of all arts in the ideology of the Gesamtkunstwerk, and although he was never afraid of his productions being associated or confused with problematic (to say the least) artistic projects from the past, his works were not closed reconstructions of esoteric wholeness but rather radicalizations of the specific beauty of chaotic and unorganized masses. He loved to try to organize them, fail at doing so, and still produce an image of that very process. In Bayreuth he made the discovery that such an image was possible only if it was constantly moving, even escaping. The culmination of this idea could be seen in Mea Culpa: ein ReadyMadeOper (Mea Culpa: A ReadyMade Opera, 2009) at the Vienna Burgtheater, where he used technological devices similar to those in Bayreuth. This work was one of his best, notwithstanding that, in a manner typical of Schlingensief’s greatest moments, much of the dialogue was suffused with bizarre mysticism.

Even in his final years, with his (partially realized) dream of building an opera village in Burkina Faso—an enterprise that was at first announced as a vague form of European reparations to Africa but turned out to be some kind of social project or adventure—he was toying with the idea of healing the world through art, though his notion of this was closer to Albert Ayler’s than to Wagner’s. At the same time, he could not stick to any one solution to the problem of how to produce art that would speak to an environment of commodified mass culture. The disavowal of his own projects was not only a constant in his practice but also precisely the characteristic that allowed him to become the voice of his generation: inordinately boasting, deploying all the aplomb that might be mustered by a boy whose parents always listened reverently when he spoke—only, in the very next moment, to despair over this primal scene of individual subjectivity. This might well be the biographical core that he acted out with more virtuosity, energy, insistence, and sheer effrontery than any of his artistic contemporaries.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic and a professor of theory, practice, and communication of contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.