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Play 'Nibelungen' debunks modern Europe at Holland Festival

Berlin's Gorki Theatre won a prize this year: it was named the best theatre in the German language area by the German-language press. The company received the award partly because it employs many actors of immigrant origin. With the performance Der Untergang der Nibelungen, to be seen at this year's Holland Festival, the group additionally thematises the situation of modern, multicultural Germany versus original German history, which once began with medieval Nibelungenlied.

That song centres on the Nibelungen, the guardians of the Hort, a huge gold treasure, the source of incredible prosperity for those who had access to it. The story begins with the hero Siegfried's victory over the dragon that held the Hort. As a reward, he is allowed to marry the daughter of the gods, Brunhilde, but he rejects her because he covets the Burgundian princess Kriemhilde. Through a ruse, he attempts to exchange Brunhilde for Kriemhilde, but the women refuse to play the game. In the political jousting that follows, Siegfried is murdered by hired assassin Hagen, after which the cycle of murder and mayhem escalates, with no survivors in the end.

The material was used by Wagner in 1876 for his magnum opus, the opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Gorky Theatre's play, titled Der Untergang der Nibelungen - The Beauty of Revenge is a modern adaptation of the play Die Nibelungen by German playwright Friedrich Hebbel from 1861. The play can be performed in one evening. I saw the play in Berlin in April. It was and austerely staged play, in which all the action took place around and sometimes in a very luxurious Mercedes S-class, which could no longer drive due to extensive damage. The performance raised many questions. I myself had a strong association with the mafia war that is currently claiming so many victims in Amsterdam. So time for a good conversation with Jens Hillje, dramaturge and artistic director of the company.

Jens Hillje of the Gorki Theatre Berlin (Photo Wijbrand Schaap)
Jens Hillje of the Gorki Theatre Berlin (Photo Wijbrand Schaap)

What makes this 1861 play topical for a contemporary audience?

'There are three aspects to this story that make it interesting for us. You have the myth an sich, then you have the myth of the German nation-state, which for a long time was interesting mainly because Wagner used it for an opera. In that opera, he criticised the rise of capitalism. There was even something revolutionary in it at the time. That seems different now. So, like all mythologies, this vergaal is full of internal contradiction.'


'That starts with the fact that many people think the myth is about Siegfried. In reality, it is about two women. The two queens, Brunhilde and Kriemhilde. At the heart of the myth is the political fight between the two queens. Siegfried is the victim of that fight. So you have two interesting female characters.'

'The cause of conflict is raw materials. The Hort, the treasure of the Nibelungen, is a raw material. They call it a treasure, as they do in The Lord of The Rings. Such a treasure is a resource that gives you power over people. So after Siegfried's death, Kriemhild uses her property to gain political power. She needs a new partner to fight the other queen, Brunhilde. And then there is conflict between lineages. Brunhilde, like Siegfried, is an immigrant from the North. Kriemhilde's comrade in arms is Atilla, who comes from outside and works in a very different system. Burgundy, after all, is the classic European people's state, where descent is the binding factor. Atilla represents a system based on a shared goal. He does not care about the descent of his followers. That is a struggle we still recognise.'

'Next: this is the first work that appeared in the German language, at the end of the 12e century. This story also established the idea of a German people and culture. The German state is a fabrication, a construction that begins with that text, in the 11e and 12e century. Before that, there were no German people. Yes, there were Germanic people. But the historical idea of Germany was born then.'

'Third: Friedrich Hebbel, with his stage adaptation of the Nibelungenlied trying to make the story really exciting. He added psychology. That also makes him special as an author. He was poor, broke. He grew up in a basement closet under a stairwell. There he read books. It was there that he started dreaming of an existence as a successful author. He comes from German Friesland, a very poor area in the north, but nevertheless he managed to become a successful author at the imperial court in Vienna. The road he has taken to this is also a social process. He is very aware of the status struggle in society: newcomers want a place, but the incumbent does not want to give up his privileges. He incorporates that struggle in his play, which makes it interesting for us. Nowadays, there is also struggle over political status, over resources, over influence between newcomers and those defending their old status. That question plays out in every European country.'

You work this out with a very international-looking group of players.

'But they are all Germans.'

But they have different origins.

'They don't all look "German". That's exactly the case with Siegfried too. In Germany, the ideal is to look like Siegfried. But German people don't look like Siegfried. Hollanders maybe, but Germans don't.'

But with us in the Netherlands, there are not that many actors on the big stage of immigrant origin either. We still tend to stereotype them. That image also crept up on me with this performance: this is about gang warfare, big-city youth, marginalised groups. How do you get from that image to that big European story?

'That misunderstanding is familiar to me. It has been misunderstood here too at times. But the intention of this group of players is to get old and new Germans working together against the rest of the world. The new Germans, and I am talking about second or third generation immigrants, are often more German than the Germans themselves were. These people, whether they were originally Italians, Turks or Greeks: they all have the same conception of what is right, what belongs. They often have more awareness of this than the "German" Germans. These, in turn, are often often more tolerant and less harsh than the newcomers. Those who have fought their way up and inside also demand that commitment from their fellow sufferers. That has now become typically German.'

'In this play, that is in the characters Brunhilde and Siegfried. They come from outside and are well integrated into Burgundian society. We see that Burgundian society as an interpretation of what Germany is today. Their foreignness is accepted as long as there is another enemy to fight. Just as we accept gays and lesbians here in Germany as long as they fight with us against the shared enemy, Islam. This is how we forge coalitions.'

'But stronger than ever now, there is a tendency to completely assimilate everyone in Germany under the one German denominator, around the one German treasure: the Ruhr region. Whereas in the 50 years before that, we actually excluded all these new groups as much as possible. Now we unite everyone because we have to defend ourselves against everything that rises in the East. Again, just as in the Nibelungenlied.’

'What many people in Europe do not understand is that Germany is particularly concerned about China. There, economies are emerging that could become a real danger to Europe's success. We incorporate things like that into the play. For example, there is a speech by King Günther, after the death of Siegfried. For that, we used the original text of the speech Angela Merkel gave at the commemoration of the victims of the NSU, the neo-Nazi group that had murdered dozens of people over a period of many years. She had to answer for a complete breakdown of the German investigation and security system.'

It contains quite a lot of contemporary texts. For us Dutch, that can be tricky: we didn't grow up with the story of the Nibelungen, but do not know recent German history in such detail either.

'But I thought that was something we had in common, at least in the beginning, right?'

I don't know if the Dutch public makes that link immediately.

'That may also be because we are harking back to that nineteenth century, which established German identity, and which was very different for the Netherlands?'

I fear that, despite everything, when people think of German identity and the Nibelungen, they still have to think of Wagner and Nazis. That's a bit deeply ingrained, however unjustified the association. But more than that: a non-imported audience might just see a play about immigrants, power struggles and murder surrounding an expensive Mercedes S-class. How can we help draw Dutch audiences to that higher plane of German and European identity? An attempt: in Wagner's version, you could very briefly say that humanity eventually overcomes the old gods. In your story, no one overcomes. Everyone loses, and it ends with a big 'no future' feeling.

'The whole point of Hebbel's piece is that there are no gods. There are only interests. That's what makes it so modern.'

More modern than Wagner?

'But of course.'

But no one wins.

'We changed the ending.'

I couldn't have known that.

'That's a positive intervention we did in the original story. There, they all kill each other at the end. With us, Hagen, the assassin, calls for a fair fight at the end, after all his dishonest actions. So that last scene is essential. In it, we combine patriotism around German football with German economic patriotism. We do this by using excerpts in his monologue from speeches made by the Nazis at the end of the war. So it contains phrases about their economic success and the need to continue fighting. So we show how the rhetoric shifts from success in war, to success in life, to economic growth and finally to success in football. It's all the same language.'

How pessimistic are you yourself about the future?

'We have to learn to let go. Two years ago, when we started here in this theatre, we organised a festival around what we then called the Arab Spring. This season, our inaugural festival was about the failure of those revolutions. It was about the situation in Turkey after the smothering of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. It was about Ukraine after the initial success of Maidan revolution. You have to see this piece in that light too: what is knocking on our door now?'

'The wall fell 25 years ago, now what? Everyone makes speeches calling for all the walls to come down, and at the same time we have a huge crisis around refugees: so there are only walls coming down.'

'We have a Centre for Political Beauty. That is a group of activist artists who held a performance titled: the second fall of the wall. They kidnapped the commemorative crosses meant to celebrate the fall of the wall and demanded a ransom. They did not return them until 2 hours after the official ceremony. It turned out that they had moved those crosses to the "new" wall on the borders of the European Union.'

'There was a lot of discussion about it. After all: we commemorate the victims of the Berlin Wall, but we don't have an ankleful of respect for the people who are daily victims of the wall we are now building. They also tried to cut through the barbed wire that is now being put up in Bulgaria on the Turkish border. We know those images from the beginning of the fall of the wall in 1989. That action had tremendous impact in politics here. The politicians here did not want a comparison between then and now. But now we have to learn to live with it.'

'So I say: learn to let it go. As theatre, we argue that we have to make political, social and economic choices if we want to continue living in an open society. After all, we already know enough about living in a closed slam society. That was under Nazism, and then under Stalinism. In contrast, there are those nasty demonstrations by Pegida in Dresden and other cities, calling for a fight against gays and Islam. Always in that combination. And then we have to learn to deal with the refugee crisis.'

'In this theatre, we want to avoid losing our dignity.'

That's a huge story surrounding the play. That does help me make better sense of the performance.

'Yes, I think, in retrospect, we could have been clearer. There are quite a lot of people who understand the piece directly at that level, but also a lot of mnsen who find it difficult to read all that into it. Who think it's about a street gang. But there's a Mercedes S-Class on stage there, right? That's not a gang car, is it? That's the car all the politicians in Germany drive. But maybe it's different with you.'

'Of course, the problem is also how you look at the actors. If you only see a Turkish German, some people immediately think of a street gang.'

That bias exists, yes.

'I think this production would be viewed very differently in two or three years.'

The show can be seen on 10 and 11 June in Amsterdam. Booking and information.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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