Jan 29, 2014

Theater in Trance

Technically, German New Cinema alpha-auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder's antepenultimate film was the rarely-seen documentary Theatre in Trance (1981) aka Theater in Trance aka Theatre in Trance: Ein Film In 14 Teilen, an ethereal and poetic 91-minute celluloid document covering the 1981 ‘Theaters of the World’ (aka “Theater der Welt 1981”) that took place in Cologne, Germany on the Rhine. Covering an event that included over 30 different theater/dance groups (including Het Werktheater, Squat Theater, Sombras Blancas, Kipper Kids, Jérôme Savary, Yoshi Oida, etc.) from 15 different countries who gave over 100 performances over a two week period, and told in 14 fragmented yet seamlessly woven segments, Theater in Trance is more of an avant-garde tribute to theater and a call for truly anarchic theatrical art than a simple report document of the Theaters of the World event. On top of being one of Fassbinder’s rarest films (it has yet to be released in the United States in any form), Theater in Trance, which was commissioned for West German television channel ZDF and shot on a handheld 16mm camera, also has the distinction of being the only documentary the auteur made, but of course, it is by no means a conventional documentary (in fact, Fassbinder's Danish filmmaker friend Christian Braad Thomsen described it as more of an 'anti-documentary'). Featuring typically monotone narration by Fassbinder himself of excerpts from his poet/playwright hero Antonin Artaud’s collection of essays The Theatre and Its Double (1938) aka Le Théâtre et son Double—an iconoclastic assault on modern Occidental theater and art that expresses the importance of Europeans to develop an atavistic awakening and recovering “the notion of a kind of unique language half-way between gesture and thought”—Theater of Trance is essentially an eclectic collection of 14 theatric tableaux that the filmmaker felt were worth preserving (and, in some instances, potentially mocking). Indeed, ranging from theatric performances of a fellow declaring that he “feels like Adolf Hitler” to primitive African dancing, Theater in Trance has a strikingly oneiric stream-of-conscious essence where the images sometimes seem in stark contrast to Fassbinder’s readings, as if the filmmaker was attempting to express his agreement with Artaud in regard to the current degenerate state of European theater and the need to destroy and rebuild it. As a work directed by a man who got his start in theater and once stated, “In the theatre I stage things as if it were a film, and then shoot films as if it were theatre,” Theater in Trance acts a sort of mixed-medium esoteric celluloid metapolitical manifesto on not only theatre, but cinema and cultural politics as well. Indeed, the tone of Theater in Trance can probably be best summed in a scene where Fassbinder narrates the following words to images of naked women in what seems to be a sanatorium for the mentally deranged: “The theater, like the plague, is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure. And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification. Similarly the theater is a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction. It invites the mind to share a delirium which exalts its energies and we can see that from the human point of view the action of theater, like that of plague, is beneficial for impelling men to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world.” 

 Undoubtedly, Theater in Trance begins charmingly enough with a satirical scene of theater bigwigs and wine-sniffing kraut cultural bosses being served champagne and whatnot by butlers to the soothing Teutonic technocratic sounds of “Computer World” by Kraftwerk, but not before the following words are narrated, that theatre (and, in turn, cinema), “never goes so far as to ask itself whether this social and intellectual system might not be based on injustice through pure chance. But I say that this present state of society is unjust and worthy of destruction.” Of course, being set during the post-counter-culture era, Theater in Trance is packed with subversive and sometimes sacrilegious theatric performance that ranges from simple nudity of the high-camp sort to all-out scatological performances of the literally infantile ass-licking-and-fingering sort. Among other things, the documentary features Jack Smith-esque diva shows, countless unmanly men in drag, bodacious negro dancing performed by muscular black broads sporting aesthetically repellant neon tights, adult women pretending to be little girls while riding mini-tricycles, pseudo-cripples being wheeled around in wheelchairs as if in a drag race, pretentious art-punk-noise performance art, and cyber-punk instillations that seem to be taken straight out of Kamikaze 89 (1982); the final film Fassbinder starred in. In one rather amusing segment, a degenerate Brit with an Uncle Adolf mustache of the theater group the Kippers Kids (co-founded by Martin von Haselberg, the husband of Bette Midler) self-righteously declares, “The reason we really came here tonight is that we want to have an intellectual discussion about what is theater and what is not theater. What is art and what is not art,” only seconds after his female partner shoves an object up his ass. From there, the Kipper Kid has his ass wiped and licked by his partner and the two proceed to get messy Viennese Actionist style. Although Fassbinder mumbles words in a seemingly apathetic manner, one gets the impression he considers the Artraud’s writings to be the holy writ of both theatre and cinema. This becomes especially apparent by the fact that he tends to repeat the same passages, with the following words seeming to be the most imperative text: “Either we return all the arts to a central position, a central necessity and find an analogy between a gesture in painting or in the theatre and the gesture of the lava in the catastrophe of a volcanic explosion, or we must stop painting, gabbling, writing and anything else.” In the final performance of Theater in Trance in a rather wayward work entitled ‘Andy Warhol’s Last love” performed by a group called Squat Theatre (started by Hungarian Jewish refugees who had a hard time correctly practicing social realism), the corpse of Red Army Faction cofounder/far-left-wing terrorist Ulrike Meinhof is sexually ravaged in her jail cell by an alien and transported to a revolutionary planet where she is ordered to do the following: “The intergalactic 21st revolutionary committee sentences Andy Warhol to be shot for his merits. The sentence is to be carried out instantly. The intergalactic 21st revolutionary committee designates Ulrike Meinhof to carry out the death sentence.” Rather fittingly, the documentary concludes with Artuad’s words: “Only in the acting out of a temptation, in which life has everything to lose and the spirit has everything to gain, can the theatre regain its specific meaning.” 

 Aside from Theater in Trance, Fassbinder would pay tribute to his hero Antonin Artaud with Satan's Brew (1976) aka Satansbraten, which opens with a curious quote from the playwright, as well as Despair (1978), which was dedicated to the Greek-French mad man of theater. As demonstrated by a good portion of his films, but especially World on a Wire (1973) aka Welt am Draht, Satan’s Brew, and Despair, Fassbinder was obsessed with the idea of the double/shadow/doppelganger, so it should be no surprise he included the following quote from Artuad in Theater in Trance: “Every real effigy has a shadow which is its double, and art must falter and fail from the moment the sculptor believes he has liberated the kind of shadow whose very existence will destroy his repose.” Not surprisingly considering it was the enfant terrible’s only celluloid excursion in documentary cinema, Theater in Trance is in many ways Fassbinder’s most bizarre and idiosyncratic work and probably his most revealing film in terms of expressing his particular artistic Weltanschauung, which certainly owes more to Artaud than kraut commie Brecht. That being said, the documentary is no mere completist work as I initially assumed but essential viewing for serious Fassbinder fans. Probably only comparable to his Swiss friend Daniel Schmid’s documentary The Written Face (1995) aka Das geschriebene Gesicht—a nonlinear ‘dream documentary’ about Japanese Kabuki theater—Theater in Trance is more of a hypnotic ‘experience’ than anything, but one with actual ‘intellectual’ meat to it that demands just as much visceral soul as grey matter, or as Fassbinder once stated himself, “it is not thinking but dreaming that broadens life.” Mixing the Vietnam War, Warhol, Meinhof, Kraftwerk, and art-punk, Theater in Trance holds up remarkably well today as a nonlinear document of cultural debris and it is undoubtedly all thanks to Fassbinder’s innately anarchistic yet highly personalized approach to the typically aesthetically sterile documentary form. During Theater in Trance, an unnamed female narrator speaks the following line: “The thick-skinned Germans sleep in their bottomless pride.” While that line might be an attack against an entire people, he also leaves the prophetic line for himself: “Dying is an art like everything. I can do it particularly well.” 

-Ty E

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