A conversation with Jens Hillje, co-director and dramatist at the Maxim Gorki Theater
Margarita Zieda 09/12/2015
I met with Jens Hillje, one of the directors of the Maxim Gorki Theater, before the mass terrorist-killings in Paris had taken place. But they were anxious days nevertheless, with even the most optimistic of us beginning to suspect that the unending flow of refugees into Europe could trigger something ugly.
And the following question just seemed to be getting harder to answer: How should the theater function now, when an unpredictable reality is crashing into one's peaceful life? And to not feel this – to not see it, not react to it – is impossible. What do we do? Continue as if nothing is happening? Or do we react to what is going on? And if we react, then how?
Already in their first season of work at Berlin's Maksim Gorki Theater, the director tandem of Shermin Langhoff and Jens Hillje earned the theater company the title of “Theater of the Year” (as awarded by a survey of critics for the German magazine Theater heute). It is due to the company's active perception of today's reality – in which they include and address all societal groups – that the Gorki has become the most important, and intellectually and emotionally stimulating, theater company in Berlin... and beyond, actually.
We're meeting in irregular circumstances. German newspapers are running headlines such as “The Times Have Come Unhinged”. The British are distancing themselves from Europe and don't want to step off of their island; and they're not the only ones. Even in Germany – a country that thinks that it will be able to handle the situation – the refugee issue seems to be getting out of control. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. In such an unstable time, what can the theater hope to do?
The situation is paradoxical. Theater was proclaimed as dying. That sort of assumption especially intensified in the digital era. And it is paradoxical to experience that, in reality, the theater is becoming increasingly important and viable.
And that is happening because not only does the theater deal with reality, it creates it as well – as a social occurrence. Theater is the only art form that is also a social occurrence. It takes place in the moment when the people on stage come into contact with the people sitting in the audience, and through this bond they put forward their requirements for the present. It is the situation of the theater itself that brings this about, that creates it.
In the last few years, the following phenomenon has come as a surprise to me – by placing the right people on stage, the viewer experiences a reality that surrounds us all. Consequently, this then provides the opportunity to, as the Germans say, “agree in terms of the present conditions”. To discuss this case of living together. The central point is to have a discussion. To talk. And [to be aware of] the fact that this is even possible.
Discussions always have something socially humane, and at the same time – political – about them. Under what conditions do we all want to work together? In order to live. And this is always accompanied by conflict. There are two choices in which to handle conflict – one is violence, and the other is through discussion. But the situation that we're experiencing with the refugees right now – it doesn't surprise us.
It has surprised the whole word, but not you. Why is that?
Berlin has always been a place that has taken on a lot of immigrants, and subsequently, many have emigrated away from Berlin. This makes up the city's foundation of having a certain kind of experience. That's why we've never perceived this situation as being stable. For many of us working in this company, our personal experience tells us that it could very well happen that tomorrow, we'll have to pack up our things once again and move away.
This has even happened to my family, which came to Germany from Scandinavia in the 18th century, in 1790. With those horns on our heads. And it's likely that this immigration wasn't even all that peaceful. It's become our family myth: for a thousand years we lived in a village on the North Sea, and then everyone began to move away. Although there are, of course, some who continue to live in the same place 1000 years later. I know these sorts of people. But when I visit these families from which my ancestors supposedly come, they are foreign to me. I have the experience of my parents, who fled from the GDR to West Germany. It could happen that tomorrow, you have to leave this country.
And also, Germany itself. It's in the middle of the continent. We're not on an island. Germans often dream of being like the Swiss, but we have a completely different experience compared to Switzerland. Our country has been built upon 15 million refugees who moved in after WWII. And based on this experience, our country is reacting differently than other European countries. That's why we have this strangely broad notion of Willkommen.
And with this kind of situation, and the way it is developing, the notion of the Gorki Theater itself is what is helping us deal with it. Yes, we may be surprised at the quantity of what is going on, but not its quality.
The Maxim Gorki Theater is under your and Shermin Langhoff's leadership for the third season now, and it has become the most current and most visited city theater in Berlin. In addition, your audience is extremely socially diverse, containing groups that one usually doesn't see together in one place. In terms of themes and issues, it is the most engaging theater in Berlin. However, outside of Germany, when I talk to people about the Maxim Gorki Theater, everybody – be they professionals or theoreticians – looks upon your company's conceptual subtitle, “Post-Immigrant Theater”, with suspicion and skepticism. And then I often hear that you're nothing more than a social-amateur project, of which there are many.
We are a city theater. And what separates us from other similar theaters in Europe is that we don't have amateurs up on stage, but artists. They are not guest workers, but colleagues. Pledged artists and intellectuals who have either fled from countries under crisis, or for whom Berlin is their second place of work. They work in Berlin and Cairo, in Berlin and Budapest, in Berlin and Istanbul. Because Berlin is a place of freedom. And artists with two home bases use Berlin as a place for refuge or as a workplace. And then they head back to the more complex situation, to their home country: to Budapest, to Cairo, or to where there currently is a totally strained situation right now – such as Damascus.
In other theaters that also have artists speaking from the stage, they only represent the societal majority. We want to encompass the whole of society that is really out there. Berlin is made up of three groups: the old East Germans (alte Ossis), the old West Germans (alte Wessies), and then one third is made up of the New Ones (Neuis). Our theater company's job is to bring them all together. To combine their stories. And that is what is new at the Gorki Theater.
And what happens is – by way of the fact that these New Ones are up on a stage where their stories are being presented – this societal group also begins coming to the theater. And then other groups start coming, even if it is not their specific story being told on the stage.
They also come because right now, we're at this point of looking for a new “us”. And this “us” is made up of three different groups: the old Western Germans and Eastern Germans, and the new Germans. That's our concept.
Once again, taking a step back into history, Berlin has always been a city of newcomers. There are those who came sixty years ago, and their children and grandchildren now live here. And then there are those who came 600 years ago: from Central Europe, from Eastern Europe, from the South, from the North. And then there are people who came here just 60 minutes ago. And this last group also fits into our concept; they will also appear on our stage and show up in our audience.
The largest influx of people into Germany took place 60 years ago, with the coming of the “guest workers”. And this process has been going on ever since then.
These newcomers can be either Syrian refugees or Norwegian artists. There are very many artists from the Scandinavian countries who come to Berlin to live and work. We have people from the UK and from France; there are newcomers from the so-called economic-crisis countries: Greece, Spain, Italy. Berlin is a growing city.
And our goal is to find a form of art in which to tell these stories, and, through them, to show the society that is really here in this city. To show reality.
At the moment, very many German-language theaters, including the Maxim Gorki Theater, are putting on productions of the play “The Suppliants” (Die Schutzbefohlenen), by Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek. Both the desperation of refugees and the cynicism of Europe are intensely portrayed in this piece; Hamburg's Thalia Theater even put real refugees on the stage in their production. Is this enough for today? – To simply put refugees on the stage and let them speak?
That is one option. But that's not the road that we've chosen to take.
We embark from the assumption that all of the realities that need to be discussed are available right here, in the city. Also available are the artists that live and work in this city. That means that we don't have to take refugees from elsewhere. Berlin has enough artists/colleagues/actors who have gone through the refugee experience.
We opened this season with our production of “The Situation”, which reflects upon one of the hottest neighborhoods in Berlin right now – Kreuzkölln.
What makes this neighborhood – which is actually a combination of two neighborhoods – so special? Why is the theater interested in it?
It is the border between two of the city's districts – Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Both neighborhoods have national importance. Kreuzberg is traditionally more progressive, and the most leftist part of a city that one can find in Germany. It has a population of about 340,000, and it is a world of its own. Neukölln, on the other hand, has traditionally been seen as a problematic part of the city, and it is closely linked to second- and third-generation newcomers.
Kreuzberg presents a utopia, while in the eyes of many German citizens, Neukölln is connected to dystopia: the fall of the state due to cultural conflict, poverty and violence. It is a vision of fear.
But then something happened – over these last five years, Neukölln has become the most sought-after place to live, and not only in terms of Berlin, but in all of Germany. Everyone, not only the hipsters, want to move there. It's cool, it's full of vitality. Apartment prices have grown astronomically.
These are phenomena. On one hand, there are these visions of fear; on the other – visions of euphoria. Neukölln is like a symbolic place for Germany's future. In Germany, Berlin has always been seen in people's minds as the country's laboratory of the future. And now that Berlin has become an international city, it is seen as the laboratory of the future for all of Europe.
The production of “The Situation” raises to prominence one group out of the reality of the city, and then takes a closer look at it. These are the people who have left the Middle East – Israel, Palestine and Syria. They are all artists and colleagues with differing refugee and migratory experiences; from a successful Palestinian actor to a Syrian soap-opera actor. And they come up onto the stage with their stories.
The production is set in the situation of a German language classroom; an integration class. “The Situation” interrelates with another production of ours, “Crazy Blood”. In it, there's a German language class taught by a guy named Stefan.
A German. Aaah, but the key is in the fact that Stefan is not any old Stefan. So, in this class, Palestinians, Israelis and Syrians – who, most likely, would never have come together – meet one another. And they charge up the space with their stories and their conflicts. These are stories in which conflict lives; according to these stories, these people are deadly enemies. And now they live together in one of Berlin's hottest neighborhoods.
You mentioned the production of “Crazy Blood”. Four years ago, German, Austrian and Swiss critics gave it the title of “Production of the Year” – the year's most important production. It was specifically this piece that became the breakthrough for your, at the time, post-migrant theater company housed in the small OFF Theater in Kreuzberg. The most powerful thing about the production was the revelation that integration – which is seen as a panacea for all of Germany's problems – takes place in a much more complex manner than one would like to admit, if it even happens at all. Your work is currently being “reproduced” by other German theater companies and is being requested as a guest production all over the world. How are things really going with this “integration”? Isn't that also just one big utopian hope?
There was a fantastic production of “Crazy Blood” that I saw in Lviv. Up on the stage they had a Russian-language school in Kiev, which the Ukrainians were trying to integrate. The audience in Lviv just watched in wonder, thinking – “What is this?”
“Crazy Blood” works on a universal level. Our production was successful also in Poland and South Tyrol. It works in all locations where differing cultures overlap – where one culture tries to rule and dominate, forbids the use of a language, or changes the language. Whether those are German-Italian relations in South Tyrol, German-Polish relations in Toruń, or Russian-Ukrainian relations in Livov or Kiev.
[In the German version] this authoritarian German literature teacher shows up in a class of Turks (the teacher is actually Turkish, but she has this German attitude – “I'll show you what's right”). There's a moment of Nazism in there. Nazism is a universal modernist experience that maintains that is has the right to give orders to others and to tell them the way that things are going to be. But humor comes to [the scene's] aid, and that is something that works everywhere – this German experience can be shared everywhere, and at the same time, you can watch your own experience. We can free ourselves of this attitude – one of “We're going to tell you how to do things because you are on a lower cultural level than us” – with comedy. And most of all, it is a freeing of ourselves from these authoritarian fantasies of telling others what to do.
But for this sort of theater to be intelligent and complex, one has to work for years. It doesn't happen all at once. For instance, the director Sebastian Nübling, who is directing Jelinek's “The Suppliants” for us right now, I first met 27 years ago when he was putting together a Turkish-German theater company.
Many in Germany don't even know this because now he works with the big companies. You have also been successful several times in developing new pathways for German theater. At the beginning of the 90s, together with the director Thomas Ostermeier (both just freshly-minted theater studies graduates), you created a new offshoot of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin – the Baracke (Barracks). After a few seasons, the Baracke was named “Theater of the Year”. Then you were both given the responsibility of further developing one of Germany's most notable theaters, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz; and now you're doing the same for the Maksim Gorki Theater. What, in your opinion, does the theater need so that it has meaning also for those who watch it?
Considering that I, from experience, tend to see myself as not having a homeland, what I've always wanted to do ever since I began to work in the theater, is to create meeting places. Ort [Eng.– place] – that's a very beautiful German word. It is something concrete, but it is also linked to an idea. It's a specific space that is in possession of an idea. And then it becomes a place where people meet.
I began to practice theater at age fifteen, at a hotel. It was an attempt to create a revolutionary people's theater in one of Germany's most conservative regions – Lower Bavaria, where 95% of the population is Catholic. And it still is one of Germany's most backward and conservative regions. Back then, I, an Italian-raised homosexual boy, put on Arthur Miller's “The Crucible”; it was the Bavarian version of the repression of minorities and social outsiders.
Bavaria has a powerful so-called “other Bavarians” tradition that, in this very conservative land, makes up the opposition. It is a rebellious insurgent movement against the conservative, dominating part of society. And it takes place right in the theater. Bertolt Brecht is the most famous one to have come from it. Brecht wanted to work in Munich, but he wasn't allowed to and he moved to Berlin.
No revolutions arose from my first work, but we argued a lot and then we celebrated together and had a drink. And that was my idea, after all – that people should meet. People with differing thoughts and beliefs. And they argue and tolerate one another. And despite their differing opinions, they can sit together and celebrate. Even if they are very different.
And that's what I've always been interested in – how to put together a progressive and popular theater for the people.
So, one could say that the Berlin Gorki Theater is a progressive and popular theater for the people?
[Laughs] Yes! Only I'd never say that in Germany because Northern Germans wouldn't understand that. In Berlin, “theater for the people” means “the boulevard theater” aesthetic. And this French term is also perceived as being derogatory.
But how do you yourself understand the term “theater for the people”?
In that I would like to see all societal groups sitting in the audience, and that I would like to change these people – but not by way of a civil war. Civil war is actually at the base of the German experience. That is also what is at the core of their fear – that there's going to be a huge civil war. We're the only country in which Protestants and Catholics are 50/50. That's the German tradition. And if the Germans began a civil war, then both sides would be equally strong. We have, after all, the experience of the 17th century to look upon, when the 30-year war took place and half of the population was killed. And if we started a civil war today, then 40 million people would be dead by the end of it. We're seeing this sort of civil war today, in Syria. That's why the greatest achievement is to know how to deal with conflict. And we also see this in Ukraine – that's what happens when people can't deal with this conflict anymore.
We can look upon the Nazis and the Third Reich the same way.
You yourself have grown up and gone through socialization in two countries – Italy and Germany. How does this experience affect a person? How does it change one's world view? What are the constructive aspects of this experience?
It is not only an enriching experience, but also a complex experience. On one hand, I know two languages – I've grown up with German and Italian. And when I speak any one of these two languages, I am a different person. When I speak Italian, I act differently than when I speak German. I've noticed myself that I say completely different things depending on whether I'm speaking Italian or German. They are two different identities. It's enriching, but it is also problematic.
But for artists... That's why art has no homeland, or it has several homelands that are in conflict with one another. As a young person, it is confusing because you don't know where you really belong. But as one gets older, it all becomes more productive. And I don't think it is a random occurrence that I ended up in the theater because that's the only place that I felt I belonged. Where I could truly say: “I belong here” – in the sense that I have a right to be here. If a person roams about, or arrives in a foreign place, it is hard for him or her to say: “I belong here”. And that is a moment of great uncertainty. But if one learns to deal with this uncertainty, then one becomes stronger.
A person who has several identities and a different experience has a clearer view of conflicts that take place between differing identities. And this person has greater patience in relation to these conflicts. Because he or she has had to learn to endure them. Endure them in the sense that everything is in a state of flux, in process, you haven't arrived in a safe place. And in modern life, that is the central moment – if by modern life we understand the loss of safe living conditions. Roaming, wandering – those are modern experiences; experiences that make a person more able and strong enough to deal with modern conflicts. And how to survive these conflicts, because just in our theater company alone we have assembled so many conflicts – in separate stories, separate people – and nevertheless, we work very productively with them.
We have all sorts of Germans in our company – former East Germans and former West Germans, Northern Germans and Southern Germans – which is not always that simple. And Turks, Armenians, Kurds, Isrealis, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arabs. We have all of the 20th-century conflicts that have taken place between peoples; in our theater company, they are all found within the members' biographies. And that is what gives the Gorki Theater a special kind of conversational style – it is very direct. We believe that if you are able to respect others' stories and conflicts, then it is possible to experience these conflicts productively.
What does that mean – productively?
That these issues are productively developed further. As both individuals and as a society. And then you are armed and ready for the kind of situation that we have now.
One of the persisting dogmas in Latvia is the driving of theater back into the ivory tower. If the theater reacts to a topical national or international situation, then there are always those who object and say that the newspapers, not art, should deal with that. How do you look upon this?
The work of our theater company is based upon making society and culture strong. So that it is able to deal with situations like the one we see now. On the facade of our theater is a sign that says: “Why is it that we are still barbarians?” That's a quote by Friedrich Schiller.
In Germany, we've been working on staying civilized ever since the end of WWII. And on becoming more civilized. And on dealing with the constant challenges that everyone faces, both as an individual and as a society. Because in Germany, during the time of the Nazis, we had the collective experience of what happens when civilization falls back into barbarism. And that is why it is clear to us that, in order for civilization to survive, you have to work on it every day. It must be fought for. Both as everyone together, and as each person separately. And art and culture work with this differently than do newspapers and journalism. Because the theater is more like a space for contemplation, a space for thinking further, a space for experience and not for decision-making. I can't speak on behalf of journalists, however. But I can speak about the way it is with us. We try to open up things – phenomena. We try to be open and strong enough to be open; to be able to see the world and reality with openness and to experience it. But open situations create fear, and our job is one that is aimed at conquering fear.