BERLIN — Christoph Schlingensief, the provocative German film, stage and opera director, died Aug. 21 in Berlin of lung cancer. He was 49.
An autodidactic artist, Schlingensief was widely considered one of the most important figures in contemporary German theater.
Schlingensief cemented his reputation early on as an eclectic and influential enfant terrible whose works of political expression included satirical film works such as 1989’s “100 Years of Adolph Hitler,” which screened at the Berlin Film Festival, and 1990’s “The German Chainsaw Massacre,” a gory post-unification tale about a brutal West German family that murders and cannibalizes newly liberated East Germans.
Schlingensief often collaborated on his films with filmmaker Oskar Roehler and actor Udo Kier, both of whom also worked on his 1996’s Cannes screener “United Trash.”
Schlingensief attracted much media attention with guerrilla-style performance art on city streets and his political actions.
In 1997, he was arrested at the Documenta X art exhibition in Kassel for titling a work “Kill Helmut Kohl.” In another attack on Kohl, he called on 6 million unemployed Germans to jump into Austria’s Lake Wolfgang to flood the holiday home of the then- chancellor and once sought to toss 100,000 deutschmarks from the roof of the Reichstag for a piece entitled “Save Capitalism.”
“Provocation was not a rare part of his stylistic device,” said German state commissioner for culture Bernd Neumann. “With this he sought to trigger controversy and irritation.”
Often turning his focus to marginalized groups, Schlingensief produced 1997’s “Passion Impossible — 7 Days Emergency Call for Germany” in Hamburg, which involved drug addicts and homeless people. In 2000 he went across the border for a “Big Brother”-style show for asylum seekers in Vienna entitled “Please Love Austria.”
Commenting on his passing, Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick said: “We have lost an extraordinary person, filmmaker and political artist. Schlingensief acted out of a deep moral conviction. With his art he fought passionately against deportation, racism and human rights violations.”
While never exactly moving into the mainstream, Schlingensief’s work found increasingly broader audiences. He went on to work at major state and municipal theaters in Vienna, Berlin, Zurich and Frankfurt and in 2004 he directed “Parsifal” at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth.
Schlingensief made his two-year battle with cancer very public and part of his recent works, such as the hospital aesthetic of “Jeanne d’Arc — Scenes From the Life of St. Joan” at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper and his 2008 production “A Church for the Fear of the Foreign Within Me” at the Ruhrtriennale, an annual arts festival in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Despite his illness, Schlingensief never stopped working. Last year he served on the international jury at the Berlin Film Festival and published “Heaven Could Not Possibly Be as Beautiful as Here: A Cancer Diary.”
This year Schlingensief began work on “Remdoogo — the Opera Village,” his most ambitious project, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. Backed by funding from the German government, the project is to include an opera house, a school providing music and film lessons for 500 children and a clinic.
“The children and adolescents will learn from themselves, from their own culture and not from whatever we might want to explain or dictate to them,” said Schlingensief about the project. “My prime motive is ‘to learn from Africa!’ That also means officially robbing from Africa – not unofficially, the way we’ve been doing it up till now.”
The project also led to his most recent work showcasing talent from Burkina Faso, “Remdoogo — Via Intolleranza II,” which was staged in Brussels, Hamburg, Munich and Vienna this summer.
Schlingensief is survived by his wife, Aino Laberenz, whom he married last year.
Donations may be made to the African opera project, go to schlingensief.com for details.