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Be Grateful!
»Danke Deutschland – Cảm ơn nước Đức« at the Schaubühne

Be Grateful!
»Danke Deutschland – Cảm ơn nước Đức« at the Schaubühne

by Joseph Pearson

March, 19 2019

Right-wingers attack a home for immigrant workers. A building goes up in flames. A crowd of thousands stands by and applauds.

These images – projected on the multi-tiered set, strewn with flowers, above the Schaubühne stage – are not, as one might anticipate, hateful reactions to the recent refugee wave, which reached its apogee in 2015. Rather, they are already almost thirty years old: from Rostock in 1992, during the worst mob violence directed against immigrants ever experienced in post-war Germany. Many of those who lived, in terrible conditions, in the multi-story Plattenbau centre for asylum seekers, the ›Sunflower Tower‹, were from Vietnam.  

»For me, it was interesting to compare the relationship between immigrants arriving today to the preceding immigration of Vietnamese to Germany«, Sanja Mitrović, the director of the production »Danke Deutschland – Cảm ơn nước Đức«, tells me.

»What does the lens of the Vietnamese experience tell us about Germany’s notions of belonging, and its capacity to absorb difference?« I ask.

Mitrović replies, »The Vietnamese community in Germany was part of one of the largest migrations that happened in this country [there are more than 100 000 in Germany today]. It was interesting to look at this example of attitudes towards immigration, definitions of what it means to be a good immigrant or a good citizen, and how the status of the immigrant has changed from the second half of the 20th-century to today. As these questions are dependent on social and economic conditions, I was interested in how the definitions Germans used have shifted, how they were shaped and instrumentalised by different political systems. This is the main dramaturgical line of the piece. I was interested in observing the differences between the former East and West of Germany, and the Vietnamese communities in both. The conditions were completely different, but there are also fundamental similarities, which help us understand reactions to the recent refugee crisis, populism, the rise of the right wing, and neo-fascism today. Migration, meanwhile, remains a key topic. It will continue to grow as the consequence of political conflicts and the capitalist economy, but also because of climate change and ecological catastrophe. By the year 2100, it is estimated that climate change will be responsible for the migration of a billion people«.

»You mention the divergent experiences of this community in divided Germany – what specifically was different about each?« I ask.

»In the Federal Republic in the late 1970s, both conservative and social democratic parties accepted war refugees from South Vietnam who were persecuted by the Communist regime – the so-called ›boat people‹ who fled over the South Vietnam Sea. When they arrived in West Germany, they received sponsors, language courses, the right of free movement, and easy access to the job market. The community was then asked to be grateful. The Vietnamese community in the West was put in the position of not wanting to be a burden, not raising their voices, in the fear of being sent back. In other words, they were invisible«.

»And what was the situation in the GDR?«

»In the East, contract workers were sent by the North Vietnamese socialist government from 1980 onwards, as part of study or aid programs, often to learn skills in the GDR that they could take home. They arrived full of hope; they felt it was an honour to have been chosen to go to Germany, a country they saw as their Socialist brother. But the reality was they lived in isolated hostels, spoke hardly any German, and contact with locals was not allowed. Integration was difficult. Then, after the fall of the Wall, these contract workers paradoxically found themselves having to compete in the market to stay in Germany. Many opened private businesses –  became self-employed, opened flower shops or restaurants – others were offered money to return to Vietnam. Both communities, in the West and East, had different experiences of immigration and overcame different problems. But even though Germany reunited, the two Vietnamese communities living here remain divided. On stage, we have a first and second generation contract worker, a first and second-generation ›boat person‹, all people who might otherwise never have met. In this project, they have the opportunity to discuss each other’s stories«.

During a rehearsal, I listen to how they recount their experiences. A student of medicine from Vietnam tells how she arrived in East Germany in the 1980s. She went excited to build a better life for herself but was soon surprised by the vocabulary she was learning in her German classes: Messer, Loeffel, Kartoffel. Why are we only learning words related to food?

She and the other Vietnamese women, who came with other more specialised skills, were required to work in kitchens. They were not allowed contact with Germans. She had to hide a pregnancy for seven months to prevent a forced return to Vietnam. As she speaks, a photograph is projected: I see a much younger woman standing before the World Clock in Alexanderplatz. The time in Vietnam is many hours ahead.

The manner in which these everyday histories are presented is through a patient and methodical – and I think deeply touching – school of documentary theatre that has been elaborated by Milo Rau and others (Mitrović herself has acted in Rau’s work). The body of the witness is present, time and space are provided to tell one’s own story, and we see projected the confirming primary sources – letters, snapshots, news footage of events that changed lives. But what I notice already about the Mitrović production (which might distinguish it from some Rau pieces whose long-form testimonies are very demanding) is its attention to tempo, to movement, the body, to dance. We oscillate between a meditation of human experience in history, and then we are suddenly dancing our hearts out.

»I like to play with musicality«, Mitrović tells me, »As you could see, it is present in the different layers of text, visual materials – such as photos and live video – and the choreographed sequences and body movements. For research, we had many interviews with the Vietnamese community in Berlin. We visited some of them in their homes, and from these encounters we chose our cast. As always, when I work with both professional and non-professional performers, the process in the most important thing. It takes you to unexpected destinations. We share stories together and look for parallel material that supports these stories. Even before that, we do theoretical research, which takes a long time given the complexity of the topic. The main point during the rehearsals is to work with all these elements in a musical, rhythmical way so they can create a sense of tension: between official history, events that are put under the carpet and forgotten, and the personal stories of the actors. Dance, meanwhile, creates a rhythmical dramaturgy«.

»Finally, I wanted to ask you about the title of your production. ›Danke Deutschland‹. It was, of course, an expression used during the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, to thank Germany for recognising the 1991 independence of Slovenia and Croatia. You are a Yugoslav director. The conflict in Yugoslavia was imbricated with questions of ethnic and civil citizenship, diversity, inclusivity, and the future of socialism. All are themes central to the current production. Yugoslavia is a country that dissolved. Vietnam and Germany are ones, divided in the Cold War between opposing ideological and economic systems, that reunified. How is Yugoslavia, then, present in this production?«

Mitrović replies, »The idea of Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic socialist state is still relevant to the key problems that Europe is facing today: questions of ethnic as opposed to civil or transnational belonging, questions of multiculturalism and diversity, inclusivity and equality. This was the kind of project that Yugoslavia was and, under certain conditions, it functioned for half a century. The European Community was imagined on similar principles but, like Yugoslavia at the end of the 80s and early 90s, Europe today, and even Germany, is neglecting these notions. There are attempts to make them seem less valuable, to belittle them as not logical or ›impossible‹. It seems we did not learn a lot from the example of Yugoslavia. Instead of supporting internationalism and multiculturalism, there is a return to narrow nationalistic impulses, which in the current political and economic atmosphere descend all too easily into xenophobia and neo-fascism. Germany had a key role in the break-up of Yugoslavia. There was a song in Croatia, called ›Danke Deutschland‹, which was an expression of gratitude and support for the separation which tore the country to pieces. So the title of the show has multiple meanings. First of all, it refers to the Vietnamese community and the imperative of gratitude for those who came here wishing for a better life. They simply had to be grateful no matter what conditions they were offered, and were required not to criticize – these were the conditions for being a ›good immigrant‹. But this title also has an ironic connotation, in the sense of my own background and the destruction of Yugoslavia«.

I see how the comparative lenses of Vietnam and Germany, divided between capitalist and socialist systems, investigate the bigger questions – of migration, belonging, citizenship. But where then is this third national example of Yugoslavia on-stage? I didn’t hear the word Yugoslavia mentioned once during the rehearsal. Where is this example of a multicultural, third-way Socialist, and non-aligned confederation, before it was destroyed by nationalism and the subsequent neoliberal turn?

»Is Yugoslavia… a ghost?« I ask.

»Yes«, Sanja Mitrović tells me, »It is present even when you cannot see it«.

Danke Deutschland – Cảm ơn nước Đức

by Sanja Mitrović and ensemble
Direction: Sanja Mitrović
World Premiere