Review: Schlingensief – A Voice that Shook the Silence
by Jan Lumholdt
- BERLINALE 2020: Bettina Böhler paints a fittingly overwhelming portrait of an overwhelming life and body of work
Productive like Fassbinder, provocative like Waters, von Trier and Seidl put together, and multi-talented like – according to Elfriede Jelinek’s obituary – “nobody”. To which she added: “He was everything.” Big words, but then again, they’re about Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010), the central figure in Bettina Böhler’s documentary Schlingensief – A Voice that Shook the Silence [+see also:
interview: Bettina Böhler
film profile], premiering in the Panorama section of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. After watching it, it’s kind of impossible to disagree.
Born in 1960 to a pharmacist father and a paediatric nurse mother in Oberhausen, in then West Germany, Schlingensief reminisces about his parents’ plan to have six children. “It took them nine years, and when I came along, that was it, no more – so I’m really six children.” With his dad’s old 8 mm camera, he started to fool around at the age of seven. “I direct,” he told nonplussed adults when they asked him what he liked to do. His first fiction feature, Das Totenhaus der Lady Florence (lit. “The Death House of Lady Florence”), was shot in 1974. After two rejections from the Munich Film School (despite some string-pulling from Wim Wenders), he honed his craft via assistant jobs, and from the mid-1980s onwards, he was a director with a massive output, independent and deeply underground.
Titles such as 100 Years of Adolf Hitler – The Last Hour in the Führerbunker, The German Chainsaw Massacre – The First Hour of the Reunification and Terror 2000 – Germany out of Control earned him epithets like “damaged artist”, “traitor” and even “Nestbeschmutzer” (that excellent German expression for fouling one’s own nest). He worked with many actors from the Fassbinder camp, not least Udo Kier (who first approached Schlingensief in a bar using the words, “I’m Udo Kier – your film made me laugh myself kaput”), and really hit it off with Tilda Swinton. Add to this a number of theatre productions, often at Berlin’s Volksbühne, staged political happenings, operas in Bayreuth and Burkina Faso, art installations at the Venice Biennale, television projects, a personal cancer journal and more. All within one (overly short) life. Few can compete. Jelinek’s “nobody” and “everything” are perfectly in order here.
Via rich archive footage, director Böhler has assembled assorted interviews with and commentary by the main subject, creating an uninterrupted voiceover that certainly does shake all the silence away. Overwhelming at its 124 dense minutes, each second seems necessary in order to paint a true portrait. Although some knowledge of recent German political and cultural history will help, there’s still a lot of universal fascination to be had. Some especially beautiful parts involve Schlingensief’s quietly bourgeois parents, sometimes baffled, but ever lovingly supportive of their son – even as he throws 40 kilos of dead fish at a disliked politician.
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