Oliver Frljić, co-artistic director of the Maxim Gorki Theater, is a man of restless intelligence. The director’s intellectual hyperactivity manifests in the design of this year’s Herbstsalon. Its title, “Lost – You Go Slavia”, is a pun that asks the audience to reflect on the construction of names and nations, directing our attention to the bloody dissolution of the former Yugoslavia into Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, as well as Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
Co-curated by Sherman Langhoff, the theatre’s intendant, and Johannes Kirsten, its chief dramaturg, the fall festival explores the Yugoslav wars in relation to the ongoing war in Ukraine. It is also a deeply personal festival for Frljić, for whom the conflict strikes at the very crux of his identity. Born in Bosnia, the son of Serbo-Croatian parents, he was 16 in 1992 when Yugoslavia broke up and war in the Balkans broke out.
We talked to Frljić about the expectations of being a Balkan artist in Berlin, humanity’s inevitable self-obliteration, and whether theatre might be able to do anything before such an apocalypse.
How is ‘Lost – You Go Slavia’ getting involved in discussions about Yugoslavia?
I would say there is a lot of exoticisation and superficiality when it comes to Yugoslavia. Of course, people generally like narratives and artists who do a kind of simplification and reduction of what this country stood for. But besides the country, there is also the idea of Yugoslavia. And with this festival, we are trying to show the great complexity of Yugoslavia, with all the positive things that were emancipatory in the project of Yugoslavia.
But we’re also showcasing the reasons, its internal contradictions, that brought it to its collapse at the end. Then, there is this bloody war [the Yugoslav wars], which hasn’t actually stopped – I would say that it never stopped. After signing the Dayton Agreement, it just moved into the institution of the nation states. Everything happens through this ethnocentric key in ex-Yugoslavia. And hate is still the main fuel on which all those societies run. There are different hates; national hates between different ethnic groups, but also towards all other minorities. For example, I used to live in Croatia. Croatia is an example of a liberal democracy with a very high record of violation of different human rights directed against their own citizens. And that’s the reality that we live in right now.
Together with this focus on ex-Yugoslavia, we are also trying to have another focus on the ongoing conflict in Eastern Europe. And in that sense, there are going to be many different authors and programmes. One that I find most interesting is a writing workshop, ‘History Writes Itself’ where we have authors from southeastern and Eastern Europe. We are trying to see how they reflect on recent history and how the present is always in the process of becoming history. And we brought together artists and writers from Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Croatia and Serbia.
Is there something difficult about broaching this conversation?
My situation here in Germany [is that] I’m an exotic animal brought to the zoo, to entertain, you know. And as long as I represent what is expected of me, everything works fine. The moment I refuse this role that has been imposed on me, when I start to question the gaze that objectifies me – in that sense, I’m not a good refugee anymore that escaped from Poland or Croatia, or from wherever.
How do you reconcile these external expectations with how this festival emerges from your own personal history?
I would like to keep the friction between expectations and the attempt to escape them. Sometimes expectations are a tricky thing. They can paralyse an artist. I find it interesting to work in this healthy tension between what is expected of artists coming from this region and what we are actually going to represent and do. Otherwise, people can go and check out [the famous filmmaker Emir] Kusturica or Marina Abramović or those five names that they know and identify with from this region. But I think to reduce a certain country to five names – that’s quite problematic.
The Herbstsalon brings together a diverse set of performance work, film and visual art, not only theatre. How do you conceive it all working together?
It works very well. I think that behind this whole exhibition is also an idea that theatre allows itself to gain new experiences through non-theatrical media – although we do have guest performances that are theatre. So Selma Spahić will be presenting two shows, and also Sebastijan Horvart with his production based on Heiner Müller’s Cement, and Roza Sarkisian. It is also interesting that this institution that is primarily formatted to deal with the theatre and theatrical representation gathers all those artists from non-theatrical media. I think that with all these works, they establish a very interesting dialogue amongst each other. And now it’s up to how invested the viewer or visitor is in connecting all those dots that we have brought before them.
Would it be right to say that you are sceptical about the power of any single story to represent human experience and history?
In Germany, I’m an exotic animal brought to the zoo, to entertain
[Jean-François] Lyotard announced the end of the grand narratives, but it seems that they never actually disappeared. I’m now doing Frankenstein – most people know the title, but not a lot of them have read it. So maybe it’s good that they come to inform themselves what this novel is really about. But in one of the books that I read for the production, about posthumanism and transhumanism, it is written that maybe humanism is the last grand narrative.
We try to operate within this binary of humans and nonhumans. So it’s around eight billion of us, and everything else. And this is quite narcissistic on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s also – if one follows humanism with a belief in human rationality – what brought us to the present moment when the world is on the verge of collapse. And it’s interesting that enlightenment and humanism are still seen as something very difficult to question.
I think that wars show what human nature actually is. If we are able to go on with killing each other and dehumanising each other, I’m asking myself, “But what then? What does this name ‘human’ stand for?”
Why turn to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – a classic novel from 1818 – to explore this modern situation?
I thought that this Mary Shelley novel could be a very good metaphor for the present time where humanity is getting to the point of creating something more powerful than itself. I think that the extinction of humanity – we cannot miss it. Either we end up in the thermonuclear war or going through climate change or in some scenario with artificial intelligence. So, chances for non-survival of humanity are very, very high.
And it may be that, most of the time, we have this kind of nostalgia which is based on this idea that we are the end of evolution, that there is nothing after us – that this universe, as Nietzsche said in one of his texts, did not exist before us, and it’s not going to continue to exist after us. We are just a speck of dust. We are a blink of the eyes in the eternity of the universe. And to bring this a little bit closer to the bones of the audience I think could be very, very interesting.
As both a well-known figure and as someone whom the characters of the novel have trouble facing, has it been challenging to represent the monster on stage?
In the process of adaptation, I was reading this novel together with my dramaturgs, Clara Probst and Johannes Kirsten. We had a lot of discussions trying to see which aspects of the novel we would like to represent on the stage. For me, it was very important not to go into classical storytelling, because I think that literature does this much better than theatre, but to find the essence, the core, of this novel.
We are just a speck of dust. We are a blink of the eyes in the eternity of the universe.
And in a certain way, I found it in this question: “Who has ontological primacy?” I think that in these terms, one sentence that [German journalist and author] Arno Widmann told me really helped me to ‘clarify the air’. He said: “But God is the first artificial intelligence.” It [the concept of God] is created by humans, but it’s still more powerful than the humans – at least in the different attributes that we ascribe to this entity. It exists, at least conceptually.
And God can be responsible for a lot of wars, even if we can’t prove its existence, or even if it’s non-existent, for it exists on the level of the concept. It’s like virtual reality and physical reality. We’ve seen through social networks and everything how much of an effect virtual reality can have on our physical reality.
So what is the role of theatre in all this?
This question of what art can do is an interesting one. We like to think that we can do more than we can, actually. We still operate in a very safe symbolic universe. It’s not really that anybody would actually face a bullet. Rare artists do, but most of them don’t. I think we can challenge existing perceptions of the world. We can try to introduce a kind of bug or virus into the reality that is constructed around us.
- Lost – You Go Slavia, Maxim Gorki Theatre, through Dec 10
- Frankenstein, or Paradise Lost, Maxim Gorki Theatre [Dates TBA], German with English surtitles