Christoph Schlingensief: Blood, Blackface, and the Total Works of Wagner

The Arts Music


Eine Kirche
Eine Kirche der Angst (2008). Film still. Courtesy of Aino Laberenz.

“…after a hush, rose high and clear the music of Lohengrin’s swan. The infinite beauty of the wail lingered and swept through every muscle of his frame, and put it all a-tune. He closed his eyes and grasped the elbows of the chair, touching unwittingly the lady’s arm. And the lady drew away.”  W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk


Christoph Schlingensief

New York City, NY                                                    

March 9 - September 1, 2014


MoMA PS1’s retrospective “Christoph Schlingensief” documented the late German director and performance artist’s anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, and anti-colonial films, performances, and actions. In 1998 Schlingensief co-founded the Chance 2000 Party, encouraging socially invisible people—homeless, disenfranchised, people with disabilities—to “Vote for yourself” for public office; he invited Germany’s six million unemployed citizens to swim at Lake Wolfgang, in hopes of raising the water level enough to flood Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s summer house. He also exhorted fans to “Kill Helmut Kohl!” (My Felt My Fat My Hare, 1997) and “Kill Jürgen Möllemann!” (Quiz 3000—Election Campaign Edition, 2002).


Schlingensief’s provocations sometimes pushed so hard that he came full circle. His 2000 action Please love Austria, satirizing reality TV and Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, gave viewers the opportunity to vote out—and deport—asylum-seekers (real ones or actors, he wouldn’t say). His action mingled resistance with, disturbingly, exploitation and reification of the discourses he was critiquing, as did Sinking Germany (1999), where he dressed up as a Hasidic Jew, yelled “Boycott German goods!” outside Goethe-Institut New York, then literally threw the baggage of German cultural heritage overboard, off the Liberty Island ferry. Did he really have to don sidecurls and tallis? Schlingensief’s exploitation of the power of stereotypes often failed, naively or irresponsibly, to reckon the harm rebounding from such representations.


Although Schlingensief sometimes failed, he always tried to fail better,1 devoting much of his professional life to engaging, or assaulting, the work of an even more provocative artist, the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, unifying artist, art, music, theater—and das Volk—served Schlingensief “as a dowsing rod of sorts”2 for his works Wagner’s Alive! Sex in the Ring (1999), Wagner-Rallye and Art and Vegetables (2004), and The African Twintowers (2005-9). Schlingensief jettisoned the artifacts for Sinking Germany (“the bloody tampons of the pubescent Rhinemaidens”3) to the strains of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But his resentment of Wagner’s grip on his, and his country’s, imagination—“ODIN WOTAN WAGNER,” he painted everywhere—was surpassed only by his helpless susceptibility to the music.


Outside the opera world, people associate Wagner with his fetishization by Adolf Hitler, who loved Wagner’s operatic triumphalism, obsession with purity, and refashioning of Norse and Christian legend; he was an intimate of Winifred Wagner, who from 1930 to 1945 directed the Bayreuth Festival, the opera festival/community inaugurated by Wagner in 1876 and still managed by his descendants. However, apart from twentieth-century collaborations and (mis)appropriations, Wagner damned himself by publishing such statements as, “[W]e have to explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews,” and “The Jew has never had an Art of his own, hence never a Life of art-enabling import…an import, a universally applicable, a human import”. He inveighed against the Jewish artists Felix Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, his early champion and patron.


Many musicians, directors, and obsessive Wagner fans, like me, strain “to divide the man from his art,” as Israel Chamber Orchestra conductor Roberto Paternostro said in 2011: "Wagner's ideology and anti-Semitism was terrible, but on the other hand he was a great composer.” Or as Daniel Barenboim told Edward Said, “First of all, there is Wagner the composer. Then there's Wagner the writer of his own librettos—in other words, everything that is tied to the music. Then there is Wagner the writer on artistic matters. And then there is Wagner the political writer—in this case, primarily the anti-Semitic political writer.” He added, “[T]hat he ridiculed the Jews is absolutely clear, but I don't think that this is an inherent part of the works.” Theodor Adorno, who argued with himself about Wagner for 30 years, wrote of Parsifal, “Exactly in that ponderousness that frightens the innocent opera-goer is concealed the ever-astonishing new”.4


Schlingensief said,I hate his music and his lyrics.”5 Wagner fans have returned the feeling since 2004, when Schlingensief directed Parsifal, Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel (stage-consecrating festival play) at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus itself, that supreme realization of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Or, as Adorno would put it, “the totalitarian and seigneurial aspect of atomization; that devaluation of the individual vis-à-vis the totality, which excludes all authentic dialectical interaction.”


A latecomer to opera, I never saw Schlingensief’s Parsifal, but PS1’s clips, photos, and mangy stuffed rabbit prop could only begin to survey the chaos he unleashed. It was too late to fly a “KILL WAGNER!” banner, so Schlingensief had to content himself with depictions of menstruation and fellatio, accusations of racism and Nazism between him and tenor Endrik Wottrich, who denounced the production as an “abomination,” and footage of a decomposing rabbit pullulating with maggots subbing for the libretto’s redemptive dove. One critic wrote, “I’ve seen a lot of stupid, repulsive, irritating, befuddling, and boring things on opera stages over the years, but Schlingensief’s dead-rabbit climax was something new: for the first time, I left a theatre feeling, like, ready to hurl.” Schlingensief’s staging also obscured sight and sound of the singers; it was neither coherent nor transcendent; a curtain fell on Parsifal’s head. Audiences booed.


If I were a ticket holder, I might be pissed too; the wait for Bayreuth tickets lasts nine years. And if ever the transcendent Jonas Kaufmann should reprise the role in the Met’s spare François Girard production, I will buy tickets to every performance, and not to watch him tangle with a curtain. Yet I’m troubled by my desire for uninterrupted pleasure, pure-voiced truth, transparency, and simplicity, in an opera where purity itself is fraught, with the accursed Kundry’s likeness to the Wandering Jew; Klingsor’s contamination and non-assimilation; the setting of redemption in medieval Spain, a site of the forced conversion of Jews; and the emphasis on blood, wounds, and shame, only decades before Der Stürmer propagated anti-Semitic stories of blood libel and ritual murder. While Parsifal contains no overtly anti-Semitic lyrics, and Wagner’s anti-Semitism predates the Third Reich’s, Marc A. Weiner asks, “do today's scholars and audiences continue to respond to the nineteenth-century ideology associated with these images, even as they refuse to acknowledge their implications?” Hektor K.T. Yan argues that, even and especially in contemporary, minimalist productions that universalize good and evil, “if anti-Semitism is indeed a widespread phenomenon at some point of human history, it does not always call for the conscious decision of individuals to sustain and reinforce it—the fact that certain anti-Semite ideas or images are considered to be commonsensical or readily understandable is precisely what gives them currency”6 and, “Parsifal leaves unquestioned ideas that are clearly exclusionary. Such exclusionary ideas can also be seen as presupposing a particular racial ideology: a system of thought that regards the categorization of human beings into essentially distinct hierarchies as natural or inevitable.”7


Kettensägenmassaker (1990). Film still. Courtesy of Filmgalerie 451.


As Karin Bauer argues that Adorno, in turn, argues about Wagner, “the morbid and nihilistic quality of decadent art constitutes precisely this point of resistance to the requirements of the healthy, strong, and all-powerful blond beast.”8 Schlingensief’s cluttered, chaotic provocations, successful or not, offered possibilities for engagement without neat moral compartmentalization. He divided the stage into fenced, barbed wired pens; reset the action in Namibia, with a multiethnic cast; obscured the singers with banners, screens, and video projections; and set the stage spinning and everybody shuffling. If music and action became incoherent, then, perhaps, the audience might recall Wagner opining that “the Jew's production of the voice-sounds, is a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle… so that when we hear this Jewish talk, our attention dwells involuntarily on its repulsive how, rather than on any meaning of its intrinsic what.… If we hear a Jew speak, we are unconsciously offended by the entire want of purely-human expression in his discourse...  If, on the other hand, we find ourselves driven to this more heated expression, in converse with a Jew, he will always shuffle off, since he is incapable of replying in kind.”


Schlingensief’s staging forced the question: what kind of individual is privileged to listen clearly and purely? Does the listener demanding intelligibility take the part of Wagner, or of the supposed Jew? When Schlingensief replaced the dove with the maggoty rabbit, was he invoking Joseph Beuys, or questioning Wagner’s dispensation of grace: “So long as the separate art of Music had a real organic life-need in it…there was nowhere to be found a Jew composer…. Only when a body's inner death is manifest…[then] indeed that body's flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect-life…. In genuine Life alone can we, too, find again the ghost of Art, and not within its worm-befretted carcase”?


But. Schlingensief also put Klingsor and attendants in blackface, and chose Kundry body-doubles suggestive of the Venus of Willendorf—or Sarah Baartman. Weh’! Weh’!” (Alas! Alas!), as the Grail Knights cry. Did he really have to do that? Once again, he crossed boundaries that good intention could never fully rehabilitate, punching down instead of up. Nor did he sufficiently recognize the possibilities of black people as collaborators, spectators, and critics of the performance, rather than as symbols of racist representation.9


Despite these grave missteps, Schlingensief succeeds for me. Like Parsifal, he was a kind of holy fool. He fucked up. But he didn’t whitewash, compartmentalize, or spare himself, either; he didn’t rescue himself from identification with Wagner, but staged his own flawed, implicated production, right in the heart of Wagner territory. Blackface was a terrible move. But in exposing his mistakes, and exposing Wagnerians’ endorsement of other, subtler travesties, he revealed the complicity of the audience, every time we clamor for simple, easy beauty.


For that matter, Schlingensief never discounted the operas’ enchantment. To represent them as wholly ugly and reprehensible would have been another kind of deceptive totality: too easy to dismiss; stirring up no moral struggle; deadening dialogue. It was the inseparable beauty and horror that kept Schlingensief harassing Wagner: in The Flying Dutchman he directed in Manaus, Brazil (2007); MEA CULPA (2009); and the Animatograph series. Der Animatograph—Deutschland-Edition: Odins Parsipark (2005) is a Parsifal-themed merry-go-round, a house of horrors with Nazi porn, Nazi monkeys, Hitler laughing while a swordsman attacks a guy in an ostrich suit, the scattered feathers of the murdered swan/ostrich, and opera glasses to view it all. And silk lilies, the filtered light of screens and chandelier, the hypnotic rotation of the platform, and strains of music. It is Parsifal restaged yet again, contradictions unresolved, unable to rise above its horror, yet shining, irresistibly. With a guestbook.


Passion impossible: 7 days of emergency call for Germany (1997). Film still. ©Alexander Grasseck, Stefan Corinth (Ahoimedia)


As the PS1 show catalog says, “Care is required to ensure that the productivity, courage, and wildness of thought for which Christoph Schlingensief vouched with his life are not posthumously smoothed out.”10 There is no totality, no Gesamtkunstwerk.




Before Schlingensief died, he set spinning a new work, Operndorf Afrika (African Opera Village): a village in rural Burkina Faso, co-designed by Schlingensief, architect Francis Kéré, and collaborators from Burkina Faso and Germany. The art school and health clinic have prospered; the Festspielhaus is under construction; the project grows and changes, for residents and visiting artists, beyond Schlingensief’s original plans. It is an active exchange of ideas about art, arts education, and how to live as an artist. Not postcolonial reparation, precisely, but partnership, unfinished, uncontrolled, changing, and moving toward autonomous control by the residents.


I hope Operndorf Afrika gave Schlingensief a chance to experience something like Parsifal’s third act, where curses lift, wounds heal, and compassion dawns on fools. Where he could wrangle Wagner’s grip on his imagination and culture one last time, and do Wagner one better, in creating a Gesamtkunstwerk if there ever was one, then letting it go.



  • 1. “Shaped by skepticism toward the overly perfect, in all of his productions his interventions were directed not only at the surroundings but also at his own work: self-provocations…[F]ailure was regarded as an opportunity and a principle.” Anna-Catharina Gebbers. “Me and reality,”Christoph Schlingensief (Koenig Books, London, 2013): 54.
  • 2. Alexander Kluge. If you’re serious you need to step on it—Christoph Schlingensief’s Toolbox of History (Dusseldörf: Alexander Kluge/dctp, 1999).
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Theodor W. Adorno. “On the Score of ‘Parsifal’,” trans. Anthony Barone, Music & Letters, Vol. 76, No. 3 (August 1995): 384. Yet even Angela Merkel has said, “To set aside is to suppress.”
  • 5. Yet when he felt sad and sorry for himself, he listened to Tristan und Isolde, as do I. Christoph Schlingensief, The African Twintowers (Germany: 2009).
  • 6. Hektor K.T. Yan. “The Jewish Question Revisited: Anti-Semitism and ‘Race’ in Wagner’s ‘Parsifal,” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 43, No. 2 (December 2012): 348.
  • 7. Ibid., 345-346.
  • 8. Karen Bauer. “Adorno’s Wagner: History and the Potential of the Artwork,” Cultural Critique, No. 60 (Spring, 2005): 81.
  • 9. Such as W.E.B. Du Bois’s John. Or Jessye Norman.
  • 10. Hortensia Völckers and Alexander Farenholtz. “Foreword,” Christoph Schlingensief (Koenig Books, London: 2013): 12.