F.I.N.D. #14
Caught in the Act: The Franz Ferdinand Assassination on Stage

by Joseph Pearson

8 April 2014

 We are at the hundred-year anniversary of the 1914 outbreak of the First World War. An avalanche of new scholarship has come from the historians examining causes and responsibility. Christopher Clark’s study The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bedside reading, or so she revealed a few months ago at a European summit. It emphasises the level of caprice, human error and emotion that brought Europe’s powers into confrontation. Regius Professor Richard Evans meanwhile tweets: »Surely we need to have a grown-up debate on the origins of World War I. Few signs yet that we will have one. Start with Serbia and Austria.«

So why not take their cues: bring the discussion to the human element, and to the interstices between Serbia and Austria: the city of Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The intimate relationships of the perpetrators is the subject of the theatre play, This grave is too small for me (original title: Mali mi je ovaj grob), the directorial début of young artist Mina Salehpour in a workshop production at the Schaubühne (6, 13 and 16 April).

But first, before we interview the director, a little well-known history …

Gavrilo Princip, a 20 year-old Bosnian Serb, had his birthday just a few days before he assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie. He did not act alone but was part of the »Black Hand« group of terrorists. Their acts provoked what Evans calls a »panicked over-reaction« by Austria, with its invasion of Serbia. Germany armed Austria with a »blank cheque« of support, a foolish »leap into the dark« (to quote then German Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg). Serbia’s long-time ally Russia quickly mobilized its troops. A jittery Germany then made a pre-emptive strike on France, via Belgium, violating her neutrality guaranteed by Britain. This brought the remaining Great Powers into a conflict that would leave a generation of men dead in the trenches: 37 million casualties including the wounded. It would too sow the dragon’s teeth for the war which impinges even more strongly on public memory than World War One – that is, of course, World War Two.

Those are the barebones of the macro story, of the onset of a brutal slaughter. But it’s a standard of historical inquiry to ask whether individuals or collective movements affect more history’s turning points. To radicalise that inquiry, why not bring it down to a representation of the everyday lives of those young people who committed the assassination that was the pretext for everything that followed? We are proposing an Alltagsgeschichte, or history from below, of individuals known as terrorists who ignited an international conflagration.

This is the subject of Biljana Srbljanović’s play This grave is too small for me, which premiered in German last year in Vienna. Born in 1970, Srbljanović is Serbia’s most famous contemporary playwright. Her work has been translated into 25 languages and performed internationally. She is a controversial figure at home, a long-time and early critic of Serbian nationalism. Her Belgrade Trilogy (premiered 1997) explored how the recent Balkan Wars tore apart society. Another piece, Pad / The Fall was a scathing critique of the Serb leader implicated in those wars, Slobodan Milosević. She is not an individual whose political commentary remains on the stage. She has been active in the Liberal Democratic Party and was a candidate as Mayor of Belgrade as the party’s candidate.

Mina Salehpour is the other important character in bringing This grave is too small for me to the Berlin stage, as director. Born in Teheran, Iran, in 1985, she worked as a direction assistant at the Schauspiel Frankfurt (2007–09) and in Hannover (2010) before becoming a freelance director. In Berlin, she can be found working with the GRIPS theatre (David Gieselmanns’ play Über Jungs) for which she won recognition from »Theater Heute« as best young artist.

It is with her that I had an enlightening conversation about risk-taking and humour, when approaching a tough subject from the perspective of young people who will start a war.

Joseph Pearson: How important is it that this play is set in 1914?

Mina Salehpour: The anniversary is of course extremely important … but we try to put this play in a timeless space. We don’t have historical costumes or a historical setting. We only have people who are together performing the text. The decision was not to tell the story determined by a historical time period, but rather to show that, often, terrorist attacks by young people can lead to wars.

When looking for causes of these wars, to what extent does the private life of individuals matter?

I think it always matters even more than the political aspects. That is what so interesting about this play, because it is written – and please don’t laugh at me – a little bit like an American sit-com. You see young people hanging out together. One of them says I want to do something really big, I want to shoot at least one person …

How innocent are these young people then?

When I look back to my teenage years [in Germany], I can say that they were innocent. But if you look, for example, at Iran, and to my relatives there, if they talk about revolutionary activities it is a dangerous thing. The talking, behaviour, appears naïve, innocent and childish, but the consequences are not. And in this play, you can see that the idea to start a revolution is innocent, but the consequences are really difficult for our protagonists, because they all die.

How was your sensitivity to politics cultivated through an Iranian family experience?

It had a huge impact, we cannot sit at the table without talking about the revolution. My mother always says, if something goes wrong – if she’s making a cake, for example, and it burns – »Oh my god, the revolution!«

Is there an aesthetic vision in your work that you keep coming back to?

Yes, always. I am always talking about what you call in German the Fallhöhe [height from which you fall] – it’s a really important word in German theatre. I always try to begin with a burst of laughter, to have comic relief, and big acting. I really like a play to be fast, to start fast, funny and high. And then, in special moments, it falls deep into the emotional aspects. If this works out, my job is done. Some people say you cannot talk about serious topics like immigration and laugh about it, but I don’t think so. People who know my work know it’s comic … The first part of this play is fast, and the second part is sad and serious, because they are in prison and they are going to die. So the Fallhöhe is written into the text.

So will this concept work in this play?

I think it’s going to be great. Every day I go to the rehearsal, I think, they only need to trust me. Because when I come to a new theatre, I explain myself, and there’s the big question mark among the actors, asking: are you really serious that we can do things like that, and it won’t be funny in a »bad way«. There’s a German word I love, it’s albern [silly]. Of course it is. It’s important it’s that way … People like Monty Python have shown that you can talk about serious topics in this way. It’s an experience to do it in one of the best theatres in Germany. So let’s see if it works.

How would you describe your sense of humour?

It’s a mixture: because I’m a mixture. I don’t have a real nationality, of course I have passports, but everything is mixed up. And the influence of British and American humour is huge because I watch television every day, which is not so common for theatre people. But I do watch TV and I love it.

What does TV give you? What do you like about it?

Inspiration of course. I like it because it always has the goal to entertain, and I don’t think entertainment is a bad thing. Sometimes I get the idea from German theatre that entertainment is not good, that there always has to be a real big message to change society. But I think that you can do this in different ways, and I like humour and entertainment. Which is not the same thing as saying it is stupid. There is of course stupid entertainment as well, but we are doing a great job.

So this is the challenge, how to take this emphasis on humour and entertainment as a means to explore a serious topic. That must be tough.

But I think it’s a good way to do it, because if you have an audience that is watching and listening, not thinking about when it’s over, or what they don’t understand, and – oh my god, that I’m shocked –, then it’s maybe more effective because someone is listening to you … But I’m not talking about a humour that’s sensitive. I like rude humour, like Monty Python. I think, for example, Hitler is funny.

They say when you can start to laugh at people, you have defeated them.

We had a piece, my second work ever, »Fatima«, for young people. We had one scene where an actor showed up on stage for a costume party dressed like Hitler. The stage design was like you have in sit-coms, with a garden, a backyard, the living room, the sofa, the stairs, and the kitchen. Above, you had this applause sign. It was very funny when people entered the stage for the costume party, because the sign would signal for people to applaud. The last person to come on stage was Hitler, and it signalled applause. Everyone clapped, then stopped immediately.

They were caught in the act. That was really good.  

This grave is too small for me

by Biljana Srbljanović
Direction: Mina Salehpour

Premiered on 6 April 2014