In Memoriam: Christoph Schlingensief

The 49-year-old German director of theater, opera and film died Aug. 21, 2010

Christoph Schlingensief lost his battle with cancer on Aug. 21, 2010 | Photo: Georg Soulek

It is difficult to write about Christoph Schlingensief in the past tense because he is so alive, not merely on the internet, but in one’s memories. The German director of theater, opera and film, who died on Aug. 21from cancer at the age of 49, will continue to influence so many lives through his energy, example and ideas that his life has become a virtual reality and, in a sense, no longer his own.

Whether or not he was the greatest artist who ever lived, as Elfriede Jelinek has asserted, he was hugely influential in contemporary German culture, and his influence will undoubtedly prove enduring. His striving for authenticity and his highly unorthodox and idiosyncratic approach has and will continue to inspire many.

His life has already become universal; what it symbolizes is now more important than what the physical reality ever was. Yet at the same time, and as a corollary, it has become extremely intimate. It is thus almost impossible to think or write about him without using the first person. He was so open, honest, and revealed so much of himself that it was very difficult, for those who knew his life or work, not to be touched by him.

Without a doubt this sort of a presence can have weird repercussions, with thousands of parallel Christophs living in thousands of parallel and often conflicting worlds. How disparate these worlds are can be seen in the Online Condolence Book (within two day there were already over 2,000 entries: This would have amused him, because although he took the personal very seriously, mining his life to feed his art, he was also a great believer that, ultimately, all is one. He has become, as Heidegger would have formulated it, “at one with oneness”.

I remember Christoph Schlingensief not merely as a great artist whose work stimulated, enriched, and, in its generosity of spirit, transcended so many boundaries: artistic, social and cultural, not merely as charming and kind, not merely as glamorous but as, above all else, a figure of fun.

Few are capable of laughing about themselves, fewer still of laughing about death and the fewest of all capable of laughing about their own death.  Christoph Schlingensief belonged to that tiny minority of the latter. His humor was cheeky, irreverent, subversive and most definitely not politically correct. He was quite literally the best company in the world and a non-stop one man show.

His humor was also the key to his art. He could have said, alongside James Joyce, that one should never have taken what he did too seriously. He shared with Joyce a philosophical mind, a radical humanism (who despised social gradations and petty snobbery more than he?), a love of playing artistic games and an upbringing as a Catholic, which undoubtedly was formative for both men. His art was not, as many supposed, a question of self-centered, egotistical attention-seeking, but, like Joyce profoundly spiritual in its roots. To understand them, it is important to understand the countries and the families they were brought up in and how they tried to transcend their limitations. And like Joyce, however international he became he always essentially stuck to his native roots.

If there were to be a fitting epitaph it would have to be an irreverent joke about death. It might go something like this:


Cast a laughing eye on life,
On death.
Moped rider, pass by.

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