The Mission of a Contemporary Parsifal?: How Christoph Schlingensief opened up the wounds of a traumatised Germany’

BY WILL ATKIN

Christoph Schlingensief’s 1982 film Für Elise sets a bleak scene. A lone man stands in the middle of a provincial street on top of a thick blanket of snow. As the man lifts a trumpet to his mouth and begins to play, the camera pans out to reveal the full extent of the scene: where black, skeletal trees line the street on either side; and dark, hunched figures shuffle and trudge through the frozen crust on the pavement. In fits and starts, the man crudely plays Das Deutschlandlied, the longstanding German national anthem composed by Joseph Haydn. But this public display of nationalistic pomp is strangled by its vacuous setting. The warm and wholesome sound of the trumpet is strained in the thin, chilled air. The optimistic tone of the tune is absurd in this god-forsaken winter scene (complete with a hobbling street cleaner). And the implied message of the song – “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles…” – seems totally incomprehensible and misplaced; both in its stunted recital and in relation to its disinterested audience. The man’s playing is simultaneously inept, insignificant, inappropriate and invisible. His feeble ode to Germany fails to strike a chord with the people in the street. The old national identity conjured up by Das Deutschlandlied is dead and gone, and the scene is saturated with an icy air of melancholy.

Sarah Hegenbart’s paper in the Courtauld’s Research Forum explored how Christoph Schlingensief’s early works in film wrestled with Germany’s post-war identity and its burden of collective guilt. Via Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) and Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s The Inability to Mourn (1967), the seminar traced how Schlingensief’s films immersed themselves in this state melancholy in order to enact the ‘necessary’ depression advised in the psychoanalytical literature: facing the past in order to break through it. After observing this melancholy in early works like Für Elise and Menu Total (1986), Sarah’s paper identified this melancholic period’s conclusion as manifest in the compassionate breakthrough in Schlingensief’s later projects, such as his staging of Parsifal in Bayreuth, 2004-2007, and his on-going Opera Village project in Burkina Faso.

The theoretical perspective of the paper generated some fascinating discussion around questions of how psychoanalytical frames can be applied to collective identities and nations. Overall, however, the paper’s sensitive engagement with the moralistic value of Schlingensief’s work and the message of his career was less open to debate: whereby, after his tormented grappling with the dark days of Germany’s Nazi past, his later work amounted to a plea for love, love at all costs.