Friday, August 27, 2010

Christoph Schlingensief is Dead

It's so difficult to believe that Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010) is dead. Barely a few weeks ago his name was on my lips as I was putting the finishing touches on my podcast about the new Hans Neuensfels production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth. In 2004 Schlingensief directed an extremely controversial production of Parsifal at The Green Hill, and the current Lohengrin is drawing the kind of loud boos that greeted Schlingensief's work six years ago.

You would not be reading this article had there not been a 2004 Schlingensief production of Parsifal at Bayreuth. The critical outrage, and the overall sheer chutzpa of that production fueled my imagination, and was largely the inspiration for and its companion: this, oftentimes, irregular blog.

Of the many hats that he wore in his brief life, Schlingensief excelled at being a provocateur. To fully understand his art, oftentimes complicated by the politics from which it arose, you have to be German, or at the very least you must have your finger on the pulse of current German politics and history. He often ridiculed Helmut Kohl, leader of the Christian Democratic Union, and often his work was filled with references to Germany's Nazi legacy. His play, Kühnen 94, Bring Me the Head of Adolf Hitler, its title referring to the neo-Nazi leader Michael Kühnen, as well as Sam Peckinpah's 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, was a controversial examination of German history that drew inspiration from popular history and Hollywood pulp films.

The iconography of his Parsifal at Bayreuth (see above) drew from many themes, inspirations, and styles. Setting the work in what appeared to be the African continent drew angry responses from the crowd year after year that the production was presented. It even drew one angry Spaniard to yell "To Jail!" at the conclusion of one of the acts. Anger overflowed backstage to the cast. Tenor Endrik Wottrich refused to sing in the production after the first year, and did not honor his contract after he and Schlingensief fought bitterly and called each other names that ranged from "Racist" to "Fascist."

Often, critics who understood his penchant for provoking masses accused him of not having a true visual style. His "Voodoo Parsifal," as the Bayreuth production was nicknamed, drew inspiration from the controversial film Our Hitler by director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, one of the most radical filmmakers from the New German Cinema of the 1970s. The truth of the matter is that Schlingensief was influenced by everything that touched him, and he wanted to put everything in the pot and stir it up, always curious to see what came out.

It is this sense of exploration and curiosity, coupled with a need to shock and disturb that Christoph Schlingensief brought to Bayreuth when he was invited to come up with a new Parsifal. Now that he is gone, his creativity and determination will be greatly missed.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

David Fincher at the New York Film Festival

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced that it will kick off its 48th annual New York Film Festival with The Social Network, the new film by director David Fincher. The new film, written by Aaron Sorkin, stars Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake.

David Fincher broke on the scene with the dark, apocalyptic Alien 3, perhaps the darkest and most personal of the first "Alien" films. In 1995 he released the mega-hit thriller Se7en, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. He followed this film with a score of triumphs, all bearing the stamp of a genuine American auteur. Fight Club, Zodiac, and the recent The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have become instant classics, and have transformed Mr. Fincher into one of the genuine visionaries in American cinema today.

Currently, Mr. Fincher is in pre-production on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the Stieg Larsson novel. This film is slated for Christmas 2011 release.

The Social Network opens at the New York Film Festival on Friday, September 24th 2010. It is due for release by Sony Picture Classics on October 1st.

Monday, August 02, 2010


I recently found out that one of my favorite productions of Parsifal, Nikolaus Lehnnhoff's post-apocalyptic setting of Wagner's last work at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus was advertised with the above poster. The conductor for this production was the American Kent Nagano, who is of Japanese extraction. I was really shocked that the management of the Festspielhaus would stoop down to this kind of opportunistic attention-grabber tactic.

The ad bears the logo of the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, and reads "Kent Nagano conducts Wagner." Although I don't believe their intention was to offend, but rather to produce amusement, the image is still disturbing, and the fact that it was developed to cause amusement in the first place betrays much of its problematic nature. It shows a photo-shopped image of the composer manually slanting his eyes in order to make himself look "more Asian." This obviously alludes to a racist European custom of trying to mimic Asian facial characteristics by doing this. The ad comments on Kent Nagano's Japanese-American ethnicity while at the same time it indirectly reminds us of Richard Wagner's own prejudicial view of the world.

Under the surface of the visual "joke" the ad touches a deeper vein. It recalls the fact that when Parsifal premiered at Bayreuth in 1882 Wagner asked conductor Hermann Levi to submit to Christian baptism in order to be purified of his "Jewishness" so he could be worthy to conduct this Christian work. The ad touches upon German (Christian) supremacy, perhaps announcing that someone of Japanese extraction conducting Wagner's most holy work is not only somehow preposterously humorous, but that it soils the true "German-ness" of the work (these were Wagner's own fears of having a Jewish conductor lead the opera's premiere). As a result the composer's most famous portrait has now metamorphosed into a grotesque mask, itself already having been "soiled."

Needless to say this is the kind of ad that clearly nobody would dare to show in the United States, England or in many other European countries. The fact that it won advertising awards in Berlin, and that nobody protested or even batted an eye when it came out speaks volumes about questions of sensitivity in Baden-Baden and the rest of Germany. On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves if our society has become way too tender to questions of race that we are in danger of completely losing our sense of humor, which I believe was the point of departure for this ad. Of course, humor directed at minorities is no humor at all.

The only question that remains in my mind is what did Kent Nagano himself think of the ad?