Power and theater: putting anders breivik on stage

The scientific-artistic conference "Power and Dissent" examined mechanisms of staging and aesthetic representation of state power.

Actress Sascha o. Soydan with director Mio Rau during rehearsals for "Breivik’s Declaration." Image: dapd

After the many lectures and discussions at the "Power and Dissent" congress, which took place from October 19 to 21 in summery Weimar, one is still a little confused.

The "scientific-artistic conference" organized by Swiss theater-maker Milo Rau ("Hate Radio") and his International Institute of Political Murder was intended to "examine the functioning and aesthetic representability of state power on the basis of current and historical power-political dispositifs as well as artistic intervention strategies."

Russian, German, and American scholars and artists – stars such as Bazon Brock and former CIA agent Glenn L. Carle, who resigned from the service because of prevailing torture practices in the war on terror and wrote a book about it, were also present – discussed historical and current topologies of state power – and the connections between art and dissidence in today’s Russia and Europe – in various panels and a series of workshops.

It was about mechanisms of interrogation, about the theatrical staging of state power from the Moscow Trials of 1937/38 to the Russian art, economic and terrorism trials of the present, about the worrying alliance of state and church in Russia, time and again also about the trial against Pussy Riot and other proceedings that have been brought since 1998 against unpopular artists, exhibition makers and institutions on the charge of insulting religious feelings.

A scenic congress

All the individual events could also have taken place at a scientific congress, but they changed their character because they were, as it were, in quotation marks, since they were a "scenic congress", which covered fundamental theater themes: the staging (of the Moscow Trials), repetition and difference (in the reenactment of the speech of the mass murderer Breivik), the sacred, the icon, in which sign and signified coincide, which eludes discourse, and therefore may not be used in a modified form in the field of modern art.

(Whereby the popular anger, the protest of Russian Orthodox people, who protest against alleged blasphemies in a way that hurts their religious feelings, is in turn also organized and instrumentalized by fundamentalist Orthodox splinter groups, the Putin Youth and other organizations that pursue their own purposes, as has been reported).

At the same time, as is probably the case with many congresses, one had the impression of a certain placelessness and spaceship-ness: 25 competent participants, 20 Leipzig theater science students who were doing a project week with Milo Rau, many journalists and other professional visitors from all kinds of places meeting for three days in and at the e-werk, the industrial-omantic side stage of the Weimar National Theater.

The "normal" audience was generally less than that of the participants and professional visitors. Most of the events were recorded for a documentary film. Parts of the event will then move elsewhere.

And everything was drowned out by the expected scandal surrounding the performance, the reenactment of the hour-long defense speech that right-wing extremist mass murderer Anders Breivik delivered in the Oslo court on April 17, 2012. "Breivik’s statement is not a play, not a production, not art – but the opposite.

[…] We are not interested in the person, the murderer, we are interested in the text that speaks through him […], which is scandalous only because it is not at all suitable for scandal," because the "banal (un)logic of the arguments it contains" would be shared by large parts of the Western European population, according to Milo Rau. The many denials already indicate that it is clear to the theater maker that this is a staging.

Two days before the performance and one week after a lengthy article in Die Zeit criticizing not only Rau’s production but also Christian Lollike’s, which has been running since October 11 in a basement theater in Copenhagen, on grounds of principle, the Weimar National Theater had distanced itself from this part of the scenic congress.

They wanted to "set a limit to what can be shown in the theater," said Thomas Schmidt, the managing director of the Weimar National Theater. In addition, the reading of a text, "even more so of a mass murderer and right-wing extremist," was not art. That the distancing came only now is somewhat strange, after all, the theater had known about the performance since August.

So the "lecture-performance breivik’s declaration" was moved from the side stage e-werk to a cinema just a few meters away. The German-Turkish actress Sascha o. Soydan was supposed to read out the statement. Sascha Soydan is known from "Tatort" and from the beautiful children’s series "Die Pfefferkorner".

Breivik had delivered the speech – a kind of updated best-of of his more than thousand-page compendium "2083" – in the Oslo court on 17 2012. The text had been blocked for the public, but then found its way onto the Internet. In the speech, Breivik was still concerned with demonstrating that he was not crazy.

It was strange to wait with the other perhaps hundred interested people in front of and in the cinema for the scandalized performance. The young man behind the counter said "I can spread optimism. There are still people going in," then went in. There was hardly any space between the minimally equipped "stage", on which Sascha Soydan stood chewing gum in front of a lectern under an absurdly large reading lamp, and the audience. She wore an Obama T-shirt under her red hoodie and looked at the sheets she was about to read.

From the very first sentences, it was clear that Rau was wrong in what he said about his production. It may be that Rau is not interested in the mass murderer, but only in the text "that speaks through him" and that corresponds to the thought mainstream of the citizens of Western Europe, he lets this text speak through another body, through the body of an attractive, super cool, streetwise and unattainable daughter of Turkish migrants, who corresponds to the mass murderer’s spoken and unspoken enemy.

The text hurts

Sascha Soydan reads the text very slowly, very clearly, with many pauses in an emotionless way that avoids everything that could seem affected in an emotionlessly delivered speech. The minimal, almost hidden gestures, when she chews gum and at some point sticks her gum under the desk, are distancing gestures that simultaneously evoke the person of Breivik.

The text hurts, not so much in detail, in the passages that may actually be connectable, not only to a right-wing discourse, Sarrazin, Islamophobes and Islamists, but also to left-wing quotes. When Breivik says that this is not democracy, "I was born in prison," one evokes a well-known song by Ton, Steine, Scherben, which says, "We have to get out of here, this is hell, we live in a penitentiary."

The lecture hurts because it reopens a wound. The criticism of the Spiegel, for example, that in the matter of Breivik "one cannot seriously speak of a greater need to catch up", since in the months after the murders so many good texts in the media have examined everything in detail, makes sense above all to authors and journalists who had dealt with it for a few months. And actually only if one is of the opinion that "Breivik" has nothing to do with us.

After the performance or exhibition of the mass murderer’s speech, it took a minute or two before there was isolated clapping. One had the feeling of having been not only at, but also part of an obscene event, from which one felt obliged to distance oneself in requests to speak, for example when it was said that this was not a good text, or that it was rhetorically a good text, "but not first league".

In a similar way, perhaps, as one registered the tattooed, burly man on the train home, wearing a T-shirt that read "Glory to the German Wehrmacht" and glad to be seated where he no longer had to be seen. "Breivik’s Declaration" will be shown again on Oct. 27 at Berlin’s Theaterdiscounter.

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