The Prism of the Red Army Faction, Reflections and Refraction
by Joseph Pearson
5 April 2016
Director Armin Petras, in January 2015, brought Christa Wolf’s East German novel, »Divided Heaven«, to the Schaubühne. This FIND festival, his source is again a novel: Frank Witzel’s »The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969«. It is again a love story, and stars the same actors from »Divided Heaven« (Jule Böwe and Tilman Strauß) in collaboration with those from the Schauspiel Stuttgart, where Petras is the Intendant. This season, however, Petras, whose personal story is a product of those particular times – he was born in the BRD, emigrated as a child to the GDR, before returning to the West in 1988 – turns his gaze to a West German subject.
The story is the adolescence of a generation. Petras tells me, »It is precisely that generation who now control the economy and government today, who have reached their apex of power. We are showing how they grew up«. It is not a piece about the Red Army Faction, or RAF, per se, he clarifies – »there are no terror scenes, except really one« – but rather about how an adolescent perceives the icons of the period. The production deals with the problematic of childhood and what it means to be an adult, the fantasies that children have of adulthood.
Petras and his dramaturge, Maja Zade, came across Witzel’s book quite by accident, and discovered the story of a Catholic adolescent in a district of Wiesbaden in the 60s and 70s. The jury of the 2015 German Book Prize, when awarding Witzel’s novel, used a metallurgic metaphor for the book’s composition: »it is a large quarry, a hybrid compendium of pop, politics and paranoia«. Non-chronological, composed of 98 chapters, oscillating in tone between comic and tragic, and alloyed of diverse styles, from the interview to the treatise, its narrative is focalised through childhood confusions; its world is fractured and wandering.
What is the best narrative technique with which to reflect on the social history of everyday life, and emotions, in West Germany? Should one turn to techniques of representation that privilege the kaleidoscope, rather than the linear narrative?
»Treating the themes of West versus East German history on stage require different resources« Petras tells me, after several hours I’ve observed him in rehearsal, »East German subjects generally tell of a collective societal problem, while West German subjects are more individual in nature, more in flux«.
I suggest that the »The Invention of the Red Army Faction« lends itself to the diffused light of collage, to a series of imaginative flashes, precisely because this narrative technique is appropriate to a subject matter which was diffusely experienced, unlike the linear collective story told in Christa Wolf’s novel.
»You should direct a third play for your trilogy on German history«, I suggest.
»On reunification?« Petras and Maja Zade laugh, »we’re busy enough right now«.
The kaleidoscope is not simply a metaphor for the discontinuities of perspective – individual over collective – in a national history. Nor for the problem of recalling multiple memories of a generation, nor those more specifically of a depressed narrator between childhood and adulthood. But, in the specific context of this production, it is about different generational views on the subject matter within the production team.
The youngest people on set are without doubt the band members of Die Nerven – all about 20 years old – Max Rieger, who strikes me as a translucent figure from a Bronzino painting, Kevin Kuhn sporting long hair and melancholy, and Julian Knoth whose disobedient shrug would discourage parents from allowing their daughters to date. They saunter onto the set, in oversized jumpers and cascades of unruly hair, pick up their instruments delicately, then, with momentum accelerando, headbang their improvised soundscape for the on-stage action. Die Nerven combine an uneasy mix of nostalgic low-fi, influenced by punk and postpunk, and contemporary awareness. It seems the perfect reflection on the musical inheritance of the RAF era — the sound of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. Says Petras, »It was important for me to find a young band, and I found them in Stuttgart«.
The music grows in volume; the band is surrounded by dozens of muted mannequins in 60s dress, recalling the interiors of the department stores bombed by the RAF. Petras instructs everyone to improvise. It’s an experiment; the results are not known in advance. Jule Böwe growls into the microphone, above the bass, speaking material from the script, the voice of the 70s, a cry against the preceding »Auschwitz generation«. Armin Petras, born 1964, with a deft gesture tells the young rocker band to pump up the volume. Everything is intense; everything is loud. Generations intersect on stage, like so many instruments. Each speaks to the next, and to all.
by Frank Witzel
Adapted for the theatre by Armin Petras and Maja Zade
Direction: Armin Petras
Premiered on 9 April 2016Trailer