Feb 1, 2014

Crackle of Time - Christoph Schlingensief and His Opera Village in Burkina Faso

As leftist loon Marie-Hélène Gutberlet wrote in her article In the Wilds of the German Imaginary: African Vista featured in the BFI Modern Classic work The German Cinema Book (2008) regarding the late great Teutonic Renaissance man Christoph Schlingensief (Mutters Maske, The 120 Days of Bottrop) and his scatological satire The Slit (1996) aka United Trash: “A further exception is Christoph Schlingensief’s Die Spalte (1996) an ironic look at the military, shot in Zimbabwe. The film’s international title, United Trash, sums up Schlingensief’s rationale and his blatant disregard both for issues pertaining to the Nazi past, and for political correctness. The film pursues the implications of the UN deployment in Africa, which has brought German troops once again to foreign soil. German soldiers fire a human-powered V2-rocket at the White House, with Udo Kier and the film critic Dietrich Kuhlbrodt playing a pair of perverse, Prussianesque generals who surround themselves with dancing ‘natives’ in short straw skirts. The film’s ‘trash’ aesthetic met with widespread incomprehension, and was indeed responsible for a brief suspension of diplomatic relations between Germany and Zimbabwe.” Of course, Schlingensief ultimately did more for the Dark Continent than all the kraut-hammering Hebrews and culturally cuckolded krauts of the Frankfurt School combined as he managed to receive funding from the German government and began building an opera village in Burkina Faso that had neither a school nor hospital, thus bringing not only Wagner and Bayreuth but also education and medicine to some of the world's most isolated and impoverished negroes. On top of that, Schlingensief only had one lung, was on a steady dose of the hardcore pain killer fentanyl, and was dying of cancer when he made it literally his life's mission to take on the seemingly impossible project. In the documentary Crackle of Time - Christoph Schlingensief and His Opera Village in Burkina Faso (2012) aka Knistern der Zeit - Christoph Schlingensief und sein Operndorf in Burkina Faso directed by Sibylle Dahrendorf, the many problems associated with Schlingensief’s opera village—a project inspired by the director’s hero Joseph Beuy’s “social sculpture” idea—is depicted in candid detail. Aside from being a wonderful depiction of positive post-Hitlerite ‘Wagnerian colonialism’ in motion, Crackle of Time is a must-see doc for serious Schlingensief fans as it depicts the lapsed filmmaker’s rather idiosyncratic and seemingly possessed (not that he did not always seem possessed by something) state of mind while staring death in the face. 

 With the help of black Berlin-based Burkinabé architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, Christoph Schlingensief is determined to literally work himself to death in his quest to transform a small Burkina Faso village near Ouagadougou into an art-addled opera village equipped with a theater, school, and small hospital, among other things.  Starting building in January 2010, Schlingensief is fully conscious that he is living on borrowed time and will not last much longer. In a scene early on in the documentary, a tiny black boy on a shadowy theater stage angrily shouts to an all-European audience the following scornful words: “You Europeans are all perverse! All of you! You escape to your dreams to avoid the catastrophe of your real lives. You dream of me because you can’t stand your own dreams. But what you’ll encounter in your shitty dreams will be much worse than all the altruism you imagined possible. And it begins like this: You only dream because you’re not tough enough for reality. In the end you’ll return to a reality all of your own because you can’t stand your dreams. Yesterday’s dreams are today’s harsh realities. The gallows await you! Me, I’m real. And I can even bear it. Shit. To hell with you! To hell with you!” Of course, fun-loving aesthetic terrorist Schlingensief fed the little boy the lines of what is ultimately a self-deprecating speech written by a terminal artist chasing one last dream. On top of hoping to “steal something from Africa,” Schlingensief gives the following tongue-in-cheek reason for wanting to bring Wagner to Africa: “At some point I started worrying about how I could create a monument to myself. Of course I want people to revere me after my death. I want editions of Geo history magazine written about me.” Having 13 large containers shipped from Germany to Togo, which are then driven by 13 large trucks to Ouagadougou and eventually dropped off at their remote rural destination, Schlingensief manages to bring a theater to the small Burkina Faso village. As for the exact location of the opera, the renegade artist declares, “I’m now standing on the opera hill. Thank god it’s not the green hill. It won’t be a green hill. This won’t be Bayreuth, I guarantee that. I’ll swear an African oath on that.” Schlingensief does not want the locals to become pseudo-Teutonic Uncle Toms, but organically-inclined individuals with artistic passion who sire art from their heart and souls. For a time, Schlingensief attempts to teach the villagers how to create art, encouraging them to come up with Wagnerian raps and directing films and creating multimedia instillations with them, but his dream of seeing his project is not completed as he finally succumbs to cancer on August 21, 2010 in Berlin, Germany at the premature of age 49. Luckily, Schlingensief’s Finnish wife and long-time assistant Aino Laberenz continues the project and the school is finished in October 2011. With continued fundraising and support from artists ranging from Patti Smith to Marina Abramović, the opera village project is still in progress to this very day. 

In what is probably the most reflective segment of Crackle of Time, Schlingensief confesses regarding his intended legacy with the project and the insights a lingering death brings to one’s mind: “The world is at its most elevated when you’re about to die or leave.  It’s the moment of super-heightened awareness. All the trips and this project mean that I can think about the future, and fantasize, which is wonderful. To look into the future, to see yourself in the future and ask: What’s important for the others to know when I’m gone? Who built this road? Who put this seat here? But it’s clear…I’ve also learnt that if other people hadn’t stuck their neck out for me, I wouldn’t be able to do this. And I’ll take that example and say, I’ll carry on building, so that others can continue after I’ve gone. And no one has to learn my name then. They can’t pronounce it. Here, I’m called Singelfinger. Schlingensief is too complicated. I’m Singelfinger. “Mr One Finger.” That’s wonderful.” Rather unfortunately, it seemed Schlingensief was at the height of his artistic prowess while working on the opera village, thus making his premature death all the more tragic. Long before the end of his life, the aberrant artist found it impossible to direct films as demonstrated by his documentary The African Twintowers (2008) where the filmmaker fails to complete what would have been his final feature (also called ‘The African Twintowers’) as he was a man whose energy was too untamed and his vision too grand to be confined to the passive artistic medium of film. A sort of scatological contra Hitler who, like the Führer, was inspired by the operas of Wagner to construct the ultimate real-life and practical ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where art and life become merged into one, Schlingensief was arguably the last great German artist and the cultural void that was left when he died will never be filled. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Schlingensief described his last feature The 120 Days of Bottrop (1997)—a work that features the AIDS-ridden ‘ghost of Kurt Raab’—as the ‘last German Cinema Cinema’ as a work that one might describe as a coup de grace to Teutonic cinema in general. A real-life Teutonic Fitzcarraldo who managed to take German kultur further than Syberberg but in a paradoxically ludicrously lowbrow fashion, staged a race-based Big Brother-like TV show in the heart of Vienna, remade Veit Harlan’s 1944 National Socialist masterpiece melodrama Opfergang (which was apparently the favorite film of Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who Schlingensief claims is a maternal relative of his) as a spastic scat-fest, and staged Richard Wagner's Parsifal for the Bayreuth Festival after rather shockingly being invited by the actual Wagner family, among countless other singular achievements, Schlingensief is the last truly great Germanic iconoclast and I cannot help but smile thinking some young and impoverished pickaninny from Burkina Faso will remember him forever as the man who brought opera, education, medicine, and art to his hometown. 

-Ty E

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