Falk Richter takes a retrospective look at Fear, the 2015 play the AfD tried to censor. It returns to the Schaubühne this month.
For the German writer and theatre director, today’s far-right populists are the direct descendants of Germany’s Nazi past. Who better than AfD bigwig Beatrix von Storch, the granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister, to express that lineage? And what better than the lawsuit she threw against him over her depiction in Fear to express the party’s threat to artistic freedom? The high-profile multimedia production brings Richter’s most nightmarish fears to the Schaubühne stage. It’s attracted three lawsuits (including Von Storch’s) and a barrage of hate mail in the wake of its October 2015 debut. We sat over coffee to discuss the play and what’s changed since it premiered.
You decided to write a play about German right-wing populism back when the AfD was still a small party. Why?
At the time, German right-wing populism was still quite weak compared to France or Holland, but I noticed that this new movement was bringing back the kind of political concepts we had experienced in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and I felt it was quite dangerous. I wanted to know who these people were, what their philosophy and agenda was and how they connected with Catholic extremists, Christian fundamentalists, etc.
Like Beatrix von Storch? She’s big in your play!
Beatrix von Storch is a character in two of my plays, in Fear but also in my Frankfurt production Safe Places, where I wrote a long text from her perspective. She is the granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister and with her, you see that the new fascist movement has a direct connection to the first fascist movement in Germany.
So that’s what made her so inspiring to you, her “Nazi blood”?
She is almost like a Shakespearean character, if you think about it in theatrical terms! I mean, her grandfather was a very powerful person. As a finance minister, your job is to calculate how much it costs to build concentration camps and kill six million Jews. But she never distanced herself from him. And now, she wants to free us from this “left-wing European dictatorship”. She wants to free das Volk!
A typical populist thing to say… but as someone asks in your play, “Who are we? Who is das Volk?”
Beatrix von Storch and the AfD are a direct threat to myself and the peopleI live and work with. For them, we are the enemies.
That is the exact question my artistic work is grappling with. The people of Germany have evolved. Look at my ensemble: in Fear, there’s a black German, an Asian German, an American who’s lived here for 20 years… For me, it’s important to say, “This is the real German Volk.” Beatrix von Storch and the AfD are a direct threat to myself and the people I live and work with. For them, we are the enemies. So it feels like a nightmare, that all of a sudden these crazy ideas of race are back. The whole piece is structured as a nightmare. All these people – Wilders, Le Pen, Petry, Von Storch – they’re like monsters. The question is: Are they real? Are the Nazis coming back from their graves?
The piece is a jarring patchwork of speech excerpts, images of populist leaders, actors and dancers singing, shouting and fighting… do you see it as a work in progress?
Are the Nazis comingback from their graves?
Yes. Fear isn’t actually a play, it’s more different attempts at dealing with a phenomenon. My work explores how societal shifts affect individuals’ way of feeling, thinking, moving. So dancers are important. And here I was interested in the question: How does a body move when in constant fear? When there’s no trust, only hatred? We’re becoming zombies in a way.
Is movement there to express what words can’t? Do you feel we live in a world where words are losing their meaning?
Right now, definitely. With Trump – lying, saying one thing and then taking it back – we’ve reached the next level. But that’s populism: it’s actually destroying language, it’s trying to destroy meaning in a way. That’s how Von Storch operates; she always says something really horrible like “We should kill women and children at the border if they try to cross” and then takes it back because she “didn’t mean it”. But people know exactly what she means, and it triggers the emotions it’s supposed to trigger: fear, anger, hatred and violence. In Germany there are around two attacks on refugee camps per day…
Do you think there can or should be a dialogue?
I don’t think dialogue is possible. Those people want to overthrow our government and our system; they want to get rid of the EU… So I see no point in going on a talk show with Beatrix von Storch because there are certain beliefs that are not worth discussing anymore – like that some people are more “worthy” than others.
What about the voters? Do you also think they’re all fascists?
No, they’re not. Speaking in theatrical terms, they are the messengers. It absolutely makes sense to listen to what the AfD has to say beyond the provocation. We always pretended that the reunification went very smoothly and we are now this one big country, which is not true. There are parts of eastern Germany that have collapsed financially and culturally. Society’s like a jungle, where people are suspicious, frustrated and unhappy. In Fear, I compare it to the HBO series True Detective, where they’re showing the run-down South after Hurricane Katrina. It’s creepy. And then enter saviours like Trump who promise they’ll help the poor. He’s a billionaire, he’s not helping, he’s basically fucking them! Same with Beatrix von Storch. She’s royalty, a duchess, and her grandfather destroyed Europe! She’s not our saviour. Definitely not.
Among the faces of far-right xenophobes you’re beaming in a loop on stage, you can spot social democrat Thilo Sarrazin…
Sarrazin is a good example. He began this whole populist movement in Germany. He was the CEO of the Bundesbank and a social democrat, which is messed up. And then he started up this nationalist movement against Muslims, foreigners, Jews, gays… Which makes total sense, because after the 2008 financial crisis, people’s anger could have been directed at the ones who were actually responsible, the CEOs that got paid €10 or 20 million a year. Then he wrote his book (Deutschland shafft sich ab) and basically said, “No it’s not our fault, it’s the Muslims.” The AfD does just that – shift the blame.
What do you think is more dangerous, the AfD itself or the culture they’re fostering?
I feel our culture is undergoing a right-wing populist shift, and that’s something I’ve been experiencing firsthand. Some theatre critics will just trash you if they don’t like your politics – reviews in right-wing blogs have become personal insults. Of course it’s happening mostly online, we’re not shooting each other in the streets. But this desire to destroy people in commentary threads, in social media… People are in a more aggressive mode. It’s not an open discussion anymore.
Isn’t right-wing populism an easy target for the Schaubühne public, a bit like preaching to the liberal choir…?
At the time it premiered, in October 2015, there was no artistic criticism of far-right populism yet. Few people had heard of the AfD. Many even thought that Beatrix von Storch was a fictional character! So I wish I was preaching to the converted. But Schaubühne-goers didn’t believe Brexit would happen; they said that of course Trump cannot win; now they say that of course Marine Le Pen won’t win.
Do you see it as your duty as an artist to bring awareness?
I wanted to raise awareness that these people are not just funny clowns saying ridiculous Nazi propaganda things. They mean what they say. If they come to power, they will become very dangerous very fast. And then there are the conservatives who deep down are a bit racist and a bit annoyed with feminists and gays, the ones who’d bring the AfD to power if they could form a coalition. So I think it is high time that the democratic majority start pushing back.
The “Fear” of your title, is it the fear experienced by AfD voters, the fear propagated by the party, or your own fear?
All of them. It’s the fear that the populists are playing on. At the end of April I have a third court case against me by Gabriele Kuby, a Catholic extremist working with the AfD. It’s another attempt to intimidate me as an artist. They want me to be afraid of them.
Schaubühne director Thomas Ostermeier called the lawsuits an attack on artistic freedom. Judges agreed by turning down the claim. Do you feel vindicated?
I think it is important that this is about Kunstfreiheit, artistic freedom, which should be inalienable and protected. Fear is a piece of art. I’m a writer, and it’s absurd to sue me for a work of fiction. It’s on a theatre stage, there’s video work, people are dancing, it’s clearly not a political happening! This is a huge threat to artistic freedom, and we can’t accept that.
FEAR, APRIL 22-23 | Schaubühne, Charlottenburg (in German with some English)