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Welcome to Weimar Kunstfest

How an Arts Festival is Promoting a Better Germany

Early this year a political earthquake shook Germany, the state of Thuringia, and one of its central cities, Weimar. Thuringia, recently host to the famous multidisciplinary arts festival Kunstfest, voted in a far-right prime minister, Thomas Kemmerich, with support from the far-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany). The political collaboration was a violation of the German rule that prevents politicians from conspiring with far-right groups. Exclaiming this was a “bad day for democracy,” Chancellor Angela Merkel fired Christian Hirte, East Germany’s government commissioner, who had publicly congratulated Kemmerich. Hirte’s act inspired comparisons to Hitler’s meteoric rise in Thuringia; Hitler had been supported by conservatives in Weimar’s post–World War I failing government and was similarly publicly endorsed by Germany’s then-president.

The political fallout has now been partly resolved—new elections were held and Bodo Ramelow, from Die Linke (the Left), was voted in as prime minister—but the region still suffers from disruptions to its democracy from the far-right and, in particular, the AfD. AfD’s leader, Björn Höcke, who the German courts ruled can be legally labeled a fascist, contests Holocaust narratives and, using Nazi language, claims Germany is undergoing a “Volkstod”—the death of the German people—through population replacement. The AfD is rising in popularity and its warped narratives are so toxic that Höcke and the AfD are banned from the Buchenwald Memorial, a World War II concentration camp that sits on Ettersberg Hill above Weimar.

What better to reflect on this political turmoil and fallout than with a festival that digresses from the white male point of view and proposes to present Germany as it really is: multicultural, many voiced, and with multiple perspectives on history?

a group of actors onstage

Phit Nan So. Photo by Thomas Mueller.

Kunstfest: A Soft Resistance

Weimar’s Kunstfest takes place in the heart of Thuringia and is Germany’s most famous multidisciplinary arts festival. Yet its current artistic director, Rolf C. Hemke, still has to battle to maintain the festival’s diminishing budget—it gets around 900,000 euro from the city and 250,000 in other funding, an amount that has remained the same for almost a decade, though costs have risen. The festival’s importance does not prevent opposition to its existence: some people in Weimar’s local government, usually those who are right-wing, says Hemke, try to get it defunded. Hemke also mentions that right-wing groups redirect funding away from cultural projects to their own. Thus the social cracks appearing from the rise of the AfD can’t be papered over—Berlin might seem a hotbed of art and freedom-loving attitudes, but out in the regions, something more dangerous and oppressive is simmering under the surface. Kunstfest, which took place in person late August and early September this year, tackled issues associated with the far-right—immigration and identity—under its “Thuringia” theme, as well as focused on COVID-19 and the environment. (The AfD, of course, are climate deniers.)

Moving On

It is time, Hemke tells me, for the city to move on from the cultural heritage embedded firmly in the past, including Goethe and Schiller. “Look around Weimar,” he says,” and you will see that it is built on their legacies, yet they were also once considered avant-garde.” Hemke hopes to change this with the introduction of companies like Novoflot (an independent opera company based in Berlin) and Dumbworld (a UK-based company that makes work at the intersection of music, images, and words) to push Weimar’s love of words and music beyond its classical obsessions into unexplored experimental universes. This year, festival projects also focused on the nine-hundred refugees present in the city and included big-name theatremakers such as Theresia Walser and Falk Richter. International contributions came from Malian actor and director Habib Dembélé, Taiwan- and Berlin-based choreographer Shang-Chi Sun, and La Fura dels Baus to name but a few.

What better to reflect on this political turmoil and fallout than with a festival that digresses from the white male point of view and proposes to present Germany as it really is: multicultural, many voiced, and with multiple perspectives on history?

Finding Space, Expression, and Safety in Thuringia

The experimental dance piece Phit-Nan-So (Shelter), created by Sun and visual artist Chaong-Wen Ting, grapples with identity and immigrants making Weimar their home and, more politically, with the idea of transformation of the self within new habitats. Appropriately played out in the corridors of the Bauhaus museum, which has a rich history of international collaboration, this is a fragmented narrative where dancers and musicians slip among the visitors like shadows, not quite interacting with them, not quite ignoring them. Discombobulated steps and hesitant pas de deux are splintered by halting monologues that project a sense of loneliness and disconnection. As time progresses, tables and dolls become instruments of transformation as bodies grow and take root, as if to say, We are here now, in Thuringia.

In the middle of Weimar lies the Sunken Giant—a sculpture of a Black man, created by Walter Sachs, half submerged in Weimars clay beds. For Berlin artist Lydia Ziemkes audio site-specific installation Flucht nach Thüringen–Gestern & Heute (Escape to Thuringia, yesterday and today part II (Surfaced)), which followed from her part I (submerged) that premiered at the festival in 2019, audience members listen through headphones as Iranian refugee Roghaye Wiseh softly assesses her time in Weimar, accepting her dislocating situation, projecting her feelings through the Sunken Giant, and locating herself in the city center, culturally laying claim to its space alongside Goethe. This is a soulful collage of reflections from people from different parts of the globe who have made Weimar their home and is meant to reflect a resurfacing experience the refugees feel as they become more visible in Weimar’s society. Other participants include Iranian filmmakers Salman Vakili and Sahar Darwish Zahdeh, as well as actor Tahera Hashemi.

a large black and white photo of an elderly white man outside

Gathering at the station for Buchenald. Photo by verity healey.

For Ziemke, using art to form a sense of ones self is the real point. She tells me Weimar feels like a sinister open-air museum—its rich classical history is displayed all around but is plastered over the Nazi’s persecution of artists who refused to embrace the celebration of humanist art. In her project, it is especially important for her to bring immigrants to life as artists in their own right, free and able to express what they wish, how they wish—thus creating their own narratives and sense of self within Weimar. If it feels like a direct rebuke to the AfD, it is probably meant to be.

Expression and identity is present, too, in the work of Novoflots Die Oper #2 – In den Seilen (Vom Ende) (The Opera #2 – On the Rope (About the End)) an exploration of Claudio Monteverdis Italian opera The Coronation of Poppea. The group used it as a vehicle to imagine how opera might sound today if the later works of the composer had not been lost to history. Beginning with a queenly speech from an empress that seems like a take on Weimars 1919 Bill of Rights (which included rights to free speech, equality before the law, and labor rights) yet sounds like a state opening from UK parliament, audiences are invited to assess language’s malleability and what happens when it loses its sense and meaning. Whilst it is certainly nice to muse that the Bill was being used as a direct swipe at the UKs current drifting away from democracy—made all the more ironic because it was spoken from the seat of Germanys 1919 failed attempt at a representative democracy, which ended with a Hitler government—it was also a comment on how quickly language can lose its meaning once syntax and semantics are left out.

Novoflot also messes with the rhythm and pitch of the music, setting players against each other. Later in the show, soloists holler into the microphones trying to silence DJs scratching their decks, interrupting Monteverdis classical overtures being desperately strummed by the Staatskapelle Weimar (Weimar’s town orchestra). As a kind of harmony is gradually found, it is obvious that Novoflot wants audiences to play with the idea that what we consider to be an accepted and traditional form of musical language might not be what was originally intended at all, thus asking us to celebrate and consider the other” multiple voices in all their forms.

Berlin might seem a hotbed of art and freedom-loving attitudes, but out in the regions, something more dangerous and oppressive is simmering under the surface.

A Message to the Far-Right

There have always been multiple voices making up Weimars demographic. People might not want to remember, but it has continually been a place for immigrants to find sanctuary, despite Weimars past in World War II. But Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau, the head of strategic communication and public relations of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, tells me that the memorial’s seventy-fifth commemoration of its liberation in the face of re-emerging völkisch (populist) politics and eroding knowledge of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1949 is essential in dealing with history and finding new forms of discourse.

two actors onstage

La Scortecata. Photo by Thomas Mueller.

Buchenwald towers above Weimar on Ettersberg Hill but out of sight. Hemke tells me it is important to bring this mountain” down into Weimar and into the marketplace, which Kunstfest did in Wir sind hier! (We Are Here!)—video projections of survivors and the murdered onto the citys Rathaus (town hall). Along with multimedia artist Christoph Korn, the festival also helped the city take part in an audio commemorative walk—Gang nach Buchenwald (Walk to Buchenwald)—a reenactment of the ten-kilometer walk the Nazis would make Jews, Slavs, the mentally ill, political prisoners, members of the LGBTQIA community, children, communists, and all others considered different” take from Weimars Bahnhof (railway station) to the camp, which was attended by over two hundred Weimar citizens. “There is something, aesthetically, about Buchenwald to which I cant give voice,” Korn, who created the audio installation, tells me. For Korn, the focus had to be on the walk rather than a response to the camp itself and on the recorded thoughts and feelings of survivors, alongside words from American artist Pauline Oliveros telling us to listen.”

Listen we do—and it is easier as we approach the camp through verdant semi-wild orchards, but the woods made up of beech trees (“Buchenwald” means “beech trees”) are still and aloof. On the railway of death trains, marked with stones with the names of the children who were murdered in the camp, all that could be heard were the thuds of peoples boots and a voice, in our ears, counting the kilometers… eight, nine, ten. Then silence. Passing through the quiet copse where thousands of soviets were killed with a single gunshot to the back of the head and buried without headstones, a commemorative quiet weeping is the hearts only answer. Lüttgenau found the experience moving, commenting, You exchange ideas, you notice that you are not alone with your questions. I found the mood among the participants to be serious and relaxed at the same time. This fine balance was very nice.” Prime Minister Ramelow’s attendance also sent a direct message to the AfD and other far-right groups that dispute the historical narratives told by the memorial.

She tells me Weimar feels like a sinister open-air museum—its rich classical history is displayed all around but is plastered over the Nazi’s persecution of artists.

German Theatre’s Response to COVID?

When it comes to COVID-19, Falk Richters Five Deleted Messages attempts to respond. In the piece, Dimitrij Schaad plays K, an actor whose dream job playing Faust is robbed from him by the pandemic. K has such energy he almost pinballs off the scaffolding at Weimars Alte Feuerwache, a former drive-in cinema. Together with a huge screen, the scaffolding forms part of the stage and the dark recesses of Ks mind as he goes through a hellish existential crisis. Richter, with video by Chris Kondek that is as poetically transcendental as it is banal, gives us a portrait of a modern-day German man who alternates between Kafkaesque passivity and Faustian enquiry. Using silent disco techniques, audiences—physically distanced—listen to the dialogue through headphones, an isolating and yet inclusive experience, an appropriate dichotomy that serves to symbolize Ks conflicting philosophical responses to the pandemic and his existential crisis.

Italian director Emma Dantes La Scortecata is a comic, humanistic tale. A spin on poet and courtier Giambattista Basiles tenth entry in his collection Lo conto de li cunti (The Fairy Tale of Fairy Tales), Italian theatre stars Salvatore D’Onofrio and Carmine Maringola, in the style of Commedia dellarte and in old Neapolitan dialect, play two old Italian women who trick the king into falling in love with them. There are no English subtitles, yet the visual elements of this piece are so beguiling it has me in tears and laughter at the same. Whilst much has been made of the works message about not being vain and taking things at face value, I would add that Dantes production teaches us how role-play and fantasy can help us come to terms with reality.

an actor onstage

Endlose Aussicht. Photo by Thomas Mueller.

In the same space as Five Deleted Messages, Walsers female protagonist in Endlose Aussicht (Endless View), Jona, knows her own response to COVID-19 too well. Playing Jona, Judith Rosmair brings a manic approach that gets right under the skin—you wish she would stop the incessant monologue about being stuck on a cruise doomed to sail the high seas forever, yet you cant look away. It’s as if Walsers writing forces some dark epiphany out of the audience—who, mainly white and German, are forced to consider their colonial past, the aspirations of which have now transferred to a cruise liner. Walser tells me she used the colonial past to draw parallels with how the underclasses in todays world are treated—once it was slaves maltreated and forgotten in the dark bowels of imperial ships, now it is servants and ship workers, who, once they contract COVID-19 and die, get thrown overboard without ceremony. Jona is the woman who sees it all, who can see where it will end, who is part of it, and who is swallowed by this whale of horrible self-realization and responsibility, yet cant escape either.

In Canoe ka visa ko (A Visa for Kanuté), we flip over from the colonizer to the colonized. Director, writer, and actor Dembélé struts out onstage cavalierly dressed in a flamboyant shirt and pinstripes to conjure up a magical atmosphere, an element of ambiguous poetry. The play, which has toured in France and Mali and is now being readapted to reflect concerns about the environment, examines global warming and social injustice through an interrogation of Mali, a complex land, and its colonizer, France. The piece features several characters including Kanuté Seniors son who wishes to emigrate from Mali to France, where he believes he will get work, and Baradjis son, already there, who only wishes to return to Mali where he believes he will finally fit in. Dembélé’s natural gift for comedy and visual storytelling, enriched with African traditions, does nothing to assuage the painful moments in this story. Dembélé himself, who twice ran as a presidential candidate in Mali, insists there is a strong connection between art and politics because both, he says to me, “are trying to describe and perceive peoples lives and what matters to them.” The only difference is that politics is less positive and more violent than art, which is passive, but efficient.”

an actor onstage

A Visa for Kanute. Photo Candy Wel.

Community Theatre About the Environment

Kunstfest’s assistant Katharina Rückl told me that pretty much every citizen in Weimar has an artistic hobby, like playing an instrument, and Weimar mach auf, a community participatory project, bore this observation out. Focusing on the environment, citizens of Weimar who either work or live in its old town were invited to perform scenes from their shop or house windows for passersby. Watching Barbara celebrate American singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer (who in 1960s America was already warning the public about the dangers of dirty drinking water) or Heidrun do a fun audience participation skit about animals, a lightness was brought to the festival. Weimars story is not just about war, persecution, identity, and the far-right, but about the global concerns of its local citizens right now.

In all, there were sixty shows and two hundred events at this years Kunstfest. I only saw a handful of these, but still I gleaned that Weimar Kunstfest is on a mission to break its own mold. It wants to build something new, freer and more daring—a move away from conservatism and in the far-right heartlands. When I asked Hemke if COVID-19 has changed his opinion of what art is for, he answered it had only confirmed that theatre especially can react very quickly, intensely, and in a clever manner not only to the pandemic, but to the current political storms as well. Theatre is a soft power—and in Germany at least, if not elsewhere in the West, it is in safe hands even as the far-right rises.

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