Bosnian-born director Oliver Frljić on the flaws of democracy, the role of culture and his second production at the Gorki Theater.
Oliver Frljić likes to ruffle feathers. Never one to shy away from a furore, the director has become infamous through a string of provocative performances that have sparked a backlash from the church, state and far-right across eastern Europe. But behind all the provocation lies an uncompromising director hell-bent on illustrating the dangers of fetishising identity and trivialising history. Following last year’s Gorki – Alternative für Deutschland?, Frljić now returns with his second production for the Gorki stage: a civilisation-critical adaptation of Kafka’s A Report to an Academy.
You seem to live a nomadic existence at the moment, producing across Europe. Where’s home right now?
Technically Croatia, although I only spend about a month a year there. I basically come home, wash my laundry and see the few friends I still have there and family. The last two years I’ve predominantly been in Germany. I’m thinking of moving here actually. In the current political climate, I have a feeling that Germany is an island in Europe – a place to escape fascism.
Some in Germany might be puzzled that you would move here to escape the far-right.
They should come to Poland, Hungary or Croatia and see how a certain type of discourse has been institutionalised, how antifascist values have become relativised.
That hasn’t stopped you from staging controversial productions in these countries. In Croatia you questioned nationalist tendencies following the civil war, in Poland it was the role of the Catholic church. What do you want to address in Germany?
I’m interested in what democracy stands for because I think we’re witnessing a paradox. As a form of political representation, it can give legitimation to political platforms which are essentially anti-democratic. That’s a weakness of democracy: that it doesn’t have a mechanism to prevent forces which only use democracy in order to destroy it.
You’ve taken direct aim at the AfD with Gorki – Alternative für Deutschland? Have you had any reaction from the party so far?
I actually asked my actors to join the AfD and Gorki to pay the membership dues. The AfD were criticising Gorki on how they spend public money so I said, let’s all become members of the AfD, pay this with taxes and see what happens. We were trying to deconstruct what they stand for from inside.
And did you manage to join?
I couldn’t become a member because I don’t have permanent residency. The actors applied but didn’t get accepted. It’s interesting that they exclude people on the basis of their backgrounds – I think that tells us a lot. But basically, I still believe that nobody takes this party seriously enough. I’m worried because they could easily get into power.
Do you think there’s a danger of preaching to the converted, especially in a theatre like Gorki?
My idea of theatre is not to tell the audience what they want to hear or what they already know, but to really challenge their opinions, attitudes and ideological platforms. Theatre has to be a front, not a shelter. This battle of theatre against all other problems in society is in a way lost from the very beginning. But as Heiner Müller said, there is dignity in defeat.
You’re no stranger to provocation. In your Dantons Tod, a chicken was slaughtered on stage. Now you’ve cast a real-life baboon in A Report. Should we be worried?
We would never do anything to traumatise this baboon. But we’re questioning and deconstructing the anthropocentric nature of the theatre. And the fact that she’s not aware of the theatrical frame, or so we believe, raises a lot of questions. An ape on stage represents a kind of anarchy. It’s something uncontrollable.
Alienation and assimilation run as themes through Kafka’s oeuvre. Did choosing his A Report have to do with your own feelings as a Bosnian living and directing in Croatia?
Yes. The language I used to speak before the war was officially called Serbo-Croatian. Overnight, I suddenly had to speak Croatian and was made to feel ashamed at school when a Bosnian or Serbian word slipped out. During the war, I was threatened several times by military police to be sent to fight in Bosnia, even though I was still a minor. This helped me to understand how culture operates as a form of exclusion. It tells you where you don’t belong, what you still have to learn and accept if you want to be a member of a certain society. And like in A Report, there’s something that always tells you, you will forever be a monkey.
A Report to an Academy Mar 7, 30, 19:30 (English surtitles) Maxim Gorki Theater, Mitte