I can never be the subject myself

Interview with Tom Stromberg, Ritsaert ten Cate and Marianne Van Kerkhoven

Question: Your latest theatrical production "Roemische Hunde" in Theater Am Turm in Frankfurt is based on the Heiner Mueller text "Der Horatier", a text on war, battle, victors and losers. Did this subject prompt you to use this text?
Heiner Goebbels: It certainly wasn't for this reason that I reached for this text at this moment. I have wanted to do the text for a long time, for four or five years. Nevertheless, it certainly wasn't by chance that the text came along at this time, but I think it probably has less to do with the discussion of war and victors. These are, so to speak, only the images that tower above the other images in the text. I am more interested in how judgements ore formed, and how judgements describe defence mechanisms. The point is not whether there is a battle that will be won by someone. What I am concerned about, is how distinctions are made. That is the most current aspect of "Der Horatier" for me. In many discussions, whether the starting point is German history, or the Stasi past, or whether the talk is about hatred of foreigners and racism, or whatever are the most current subjects of discussion, only one thing really interests me: when do judgements become opinions and what is hidden behind them. That's what interested me in the "Horatier" text, - and not that it was about "war". I can't do a play about "war", because I have nothing to say about its laws or experience. I can only provide information about conditions which I have lived through personally. Moreover I believe that there are misunderstandings when dealing with Mueller's texts. He radicalises images of a condition "beyond the disaster". Nevertheless, I believe that the strength and the humour he displays when doing so, always reveal the opposite as well: an incredible and for me very positive energy. Therefore, I also frequently refer to the humour in the texts of Heiner Mueller: other people only see the existentialist or nihilistic aspects. I have never seen it that way.

The way in which Heiner Mueller writes, that is, the fragmentation, breaking up the texts, is something that appears again and again in your work, as a constant thread. You always split up things, whether it's in your radio plays, or in "Roemische Hunde": you break things down into fragments, into component parts. Is there still a story anyway, in your view or is it even necessary to have a story, which forms a linear basis or do you believe that we can look for a story ourselves in the individual component part?
That's not a contradiction. After all, you can only tell stories by no longer representing them as a whole, but by dissolving them into their component parts, into individual experiences, which may be unrelated to each other, which have their sudden leaps and contain abrupt breaks. That is your only chance to hear something resembling a story. These leaps are very important to me, since I believe that we must be influenced by our perception, by what we call reality, even if this is a kitsch idea. The biggest change going on now, for me, is that there are no more transitions; no developments - either because they are no longer visible, or because they really only come to light in breaks.

Even if we are still in a position to absorb the transitions of a development, are we still equipped for it?
Yes, probably in our wishes. That is, the sentimentality and kitsch of many wishes and many feelings naturally tend in the direction of transitions, slow transitions. But our perceptions are already shaped by these breaks, in every way where the developments in Eastern Europe are concerned. I don't know what is happening over there from one day to the next, or what is not happening, or what is "standing still", so to speak. I have just seen a film, "Eisenzeit", by Thomas Heise. It is a documentary film about the first socialist city in the G.D.R., the first new city founded in 1950 with the name "Stalinstadt". It was later re-named "Eisenhuettenstadt", and was in fact a steel works-town. The filmmaker tried to follow four young people and film their biographies. These people were maladjusted, but they tried to keep their head above water in this horrible little town. Of course, this project wasn't allowed in the G.D.R., so he made it on his own after the collapse. Of the four young people two had already committed suicide. Both the others are living in West Berlin. For me, the most terrifying thing was really the faces of the parents he interviewed. Something very similar to "Wolokolamsker Chaussee Teil V", Heiner Mueller's foundling story. For the first time, I saw what I had always thought to be an anticommunist cliché : that the G.D.R. had in fact taken over many fascist structures. That for whole groups of workers and subordinates there really had been no break between fascism and the beginning of the G.D.R. - they didn't even had to change the vocabulary. And you can see this in the faces of these parents, in the way they talk about their sons who have killed themselves, in their claims when it comes to obedience and adjustment. And it was extremely shocking, because you could notice that nothing had changed, not even now after the death of their children. That is this contrast, this sudden disappearance of biographies, but also this cement-like continuity which functions without any transition. And this is something that is very important to my music, these experiences. When you compose music comprising gently rounded forms, in which things develop slowly, or in which one theme gradually gives rise to another one; music like that has nothing to do with the actual possibilities of our experiences, observations, and perceptions.

Then why are there these blues at the end of "Roemische Hunde", this music which describes exactly what you have previously denied, which no longer appears in your work. These blues sound beautiful and are almost conciliatory?
I don't think that's any argument against it. The blues consist precisely of both - they consist of much more, but above all, it is an absolutely computerised music, which I have composed on a computer and played just using on and off commands. And you hear the voice that tries to say something different out of this background. For me it is important, for both the elements to he there. I am really interested in the contrast between various movements, between certain tempos between certain structures. For example, I am very interested in the voice of the female singer Gail Gilmore, with in the background some quite mechanical arrangements, which have no rounded edges, and are repetitive. I can show you the computer print-out of it. Similarly, the biography of these young people interests me, when confronted with the background of the father, or that of a concrete construction proclaiming socialist Man in Eisenhuettenstadt. It is only exiting when you see them both at the same time, and not when they get dissolved when you look at them from one point of view or from the other one.

What about your music: is it easy for you to get into present day trends? Today that means Acid House, Rap, etc. Do they flow into your music?
Yes, because I listen to a lot of music myself, and I grew up in it, I still go to discos a lot, and I hear these things and like them. I don't believe that you should use them just like that as an outsider. These attempts are painful most of the times. This music should only be used when the material matches your personal opinions, and when you still have the opportunity - that's at least what I try to do - to maintain a distance, so that it won't become fashionable. I basically don't believe that I have a style of my own, even if many people say "but that sounds like Heiner Goebbels". Nobody can have his own personal style in music today. Now that all possibilities of narration, including musical narration, are available, and you can work with them, when you know your way, and you can work with these means carefully, with taste and consideration, that's the only way in which you can say something new. But even then, I don't believe that you can still maintain a personal style in the idealised manner of the 19th century.

You have a great musical breadth. You have produced work with heavy metal music over rap to music from orchestras with a classical strength, for example, the Ensemble Modern, which really uses the classical instruments and works little with computers, or the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris.
I have no problems with style. I am interested in methods of working, and I can confront them with very different kinds of materials. When I am working with a speed metal band, then, I know why, and I also know the criteria l have to use in order to work with their materials, but then I don't go and say "Oh God, if you do that you are no composer anymore". That is no problem for me, maybe I am more a director than a composer at these moments, but those elements are inseparable.

Do you do things for the public, or for yourself?
I have never asked myself that question. There are too many examples in art which are really not interesting because the people who create them are only working for themselves, and vice versa, there are just as many works of art which are boring because you have the feeling that the people who produced them are only making eyes at the public. That must be a very complicated, contradictory process in which both poles are involved. They shouldn't be separated from one another. A decision in either direction is wrong.

For example: "Roemische Hunde": I go in, I come out, what should happen to me?
Really, nothing should happen to you. I would like something to happen, which the public can control itself. A performer should offer something on stage, in words or music an offer to which you can respond, which may perhaps take you by surprise. But I am a little more reserved with regard to surprises.

In the beginning, when you spoke about this film on 'Eisenhuettenstadt', you seemed to speak with less distance than is felt in your performance "Roemische Hunde".
That has something to do with the fact that am personally in favour of distance.

Do you need distance?
I believe we all do. We all need this alternating relationship between feeling and distance. Naturally, I hope that it will sometimes go this way and sometimes the other way. I expect something from it. You need distance again and again, in order to be able to put it aside. If there is a distance in front of me, then I would like to link certain things with each other, and as an observer, I can cover this distance myself. If I act on stage as if I know what belongs together, I won't need to go any further as a spectator. The best evenings in the theatre, for me, are those in which I have to put things together for myself first, things that are represented separately. I am more in favour of distance than of identification with a feeling. What my work is concerned, I think I am too boring to provide any information about myself. I can speak about certain perceptions which interest me, but I can never be the subject of an evening myself. I believe that the period during which this attitude was possible, is over. Even in pop music, there are only a few who try to keep it up, and most of the times they are epigones. That doesn't work any longer.

But if the individual is no longer the centre of things, what will happen with your subjective decisions. Don't you agree that a work should start with some personal feeling, some passion?
The decisions are not that subjective, since I don't work alone. In the case of "Roemische Hunde", I didn't just work with Michael Simon, but we also invented all the material, everything you see and hear, together with the actors, in a very empatical sense. So they didn't just act out what we had already in our heads beforehand; we really invented a great deal together.

We sometimes hear artists say they are a counterweight in society. Is this true? Or is that just their imagination?
Well, I don't dream it up. The power relationships are completely different, and I have no illusions in this regard, nor am I so naive as to presume I am able to undermine. But you can occupy free spaces or even update perceptions. I don't say, artists are poor beggars, but I don't say we are threatening the power structure either.

Are you against kitsch?
As regards politics, yes, otherwise no.

But perhaps all we need to do is make more kitsch in order to be understood by politicians, and this also in relation to "being against the power structure". We need another language.
Well, by kitsch, for example, I mean something like Peter Maffay saying "I am a foreigner". There is a series of famous posters showing this. That is simply complete rubbish, since identifying with the victims or with the oppressed is just bigger a defence mechanism than so-called "friendliness to foreigners". That can't be the theme. I think we need distance, or you have to look for confrontation in order to get experiences on this level, because otherwise you are only beating about the bush. There is a big difference between art and life, and we have to fight out on stage a lot, which we can't fight out elsewhere.

(The interviewers were Tom Stromberg, Ritsaert ten Cate and Marianne Van Kerkhoven, Frankfurt, February 13th, 1992)

Theaterschrift (DE), 1 (1992)