Milena Minja Bogavac: Good evening and welcome to the panel discussion of the play “Extermination” which has closed this year’s Bitef. Along with the director Ersan Mondtag, today we unexpectedly have with us also Olga Bach, the author of the play, as we were not certain she would manage to be here with us tonight in Belgrade. I would like to congratulate you on this production, I think it is amazing, and to start this conversation with a sort of personal question. You are of similar age to that of your characters, so I wanted to ask you is there something that differentiates you from them, or do you identify yourselves with them entirely?
Olga Bach: Actually that’s a question that many people ask us, is it just an observation about someone else, or is it us. I would say that we were talking about ourselves from our early twenties, and some aspects of the ideology which we can see today. There are speech mannerisms which are connected to our lifestyle and I think it’s also about Berlin, about the contemporary scene. On top of that it’s interesting to wonder in which way you can universalize criticism of the society in which you live in, but in other ways it’s also like an expression of a lifestyle which you can only find in Berlin. As we are from Berlin, we know what the people you can meet there are like.
Minja: Are there differences between your lifestyle and the one of your characters? Since you were seeking something that was real, what was real in your life? (???)
Olga: You can say that we have tried to depict this type of situation and its limits and also the sociological way to express how people try to confront with the limitations of the society in which we live. If we live in a totality which is wrong and in itself you can not do anything right inside of it, I think that can try to describe it an artistic way.
Minja: I have read in your biographies that you two met in the Grips Theater Berlin’s youth theater group, and that your collaboration started around that time. So I would like you both to describe your cooperation.
Ersan Mondtag: We met when Olga was 13 and I was 17, so we have been friends for twelve years. We have started working in a rather critical, left-oriented theater, and we soon started making projects with collectives, groups.
Minja: And what can you tell us about your cooperation on this play?
Ersan: We started to think about what kind of play we would like to do, and at the beginning we were thinking about doing a play about terror in Europe. Something would have happened, a terrorist attack on a famous club in Berlin and suddenly all the structures would have started falling apart and we would show people reacting, reactions on social media and so on. We wanted to make a play about that, and so we rented a house in the French Swiss, brought the actors along and stayed for three weeks there. We worked on location and thought about terrorism, its degrees and structures, and then we quickly realized that there is much more to it. So we wanted to do something that was closer to us, about what might be terroristic potential inside our own societies. Because when there is a terrorist attack happening somewhere like in London, on the subway, it’s always a symptom of something deeper and the question was what that could be in European societies. Then we thought about this overwhelming “luxury generation” in Western societies, where people don’t have any orientation because don’t have any conflict, at least not a real conflict, an existential one. They don’t really have to do anything to provide for themselves financially, they didn’t fight for freedom, freedom was just given to them, or at least that’s the general feeling. So people get disoriented, they are on the lookout for a spectacle and out of this process comes out narcissism, and it leaves nothing on the inside - that was the idea we had, to make a play about that. I’m not sure I was clear.
Minja: What made this play so unique is the idea to set up the location in an artificial paradise. So is that a metaphor for Western European society? And also, in your directing I noticed that the lines and the physical actions of the actors are in conflict, and that they even oppose one another.
Ersan: I’m not sure how the translation was, we were skeptical when we read it, but the text was quite realistically written. We wanted to have it as realistic as possible, because the visual space was to be as artificial as possible, to separate the visual from the audio layer. The goal was for the text and the visuals to have their own separate references. Of course it’s formalistic, but it’s a symptom of the situation we have in these societies when what you see doesn’t fit with the content you get, there is always a skepticism surrounding content. You can’t really trust images anymore, because the images are very manipulative, and so we separated the layers. The stage maybe is a metaphor for Western societies, but it’s at least a plastic, trashy paradise where there is nothing true, there is no movement, the sound is just impersonating nature, but there is no wind inside so you don’t see any movement. It’s all just pretending to be a world, and maybe the world does not exist anymore. It’s like that in Europe we pretend we have everything, we go to bars, we have sex, we have all this stuff and actually on our borders people are dying in the water, which is like the reality outside of Europe, so it’s like we are living in a kind of bubble. And also the stage is referring to Ernst Kirchner, an expressionist German painter from the twenties, which was a similar time. People were looking for chaos because they had this similar powerless moment.
Minja: What is behind the door which we have seen on stage?
Ersan: It’s a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, “Hell”. And so the characters are in a way coming from hell into paradise, like the two sides of a mirror.
Minja: How did you choose the title of your play?
Ersan: Well, “Extermination” is a good-selling title (laughs). But “Extermination” is something brutal, and also in German it is connected to the Holocaust (die Vernichtung). Brutality is not physical, it’s on the inter-rhetorical level, the violence is about to unravel, but it’s not yet visible really. And this is actually a kind of extermination that could lead to extremes.
Olga: I think it also has a lot to do with desire of self-extermination, the decline of a system or individuals who live inside of it. When we were talking about terrorist attacks in the Western world we were at a certain point when we concluded that what circulates in our society is that in a specific way we want those attacks to exist, as if this world cannot go on like this. Terrorism is a very powerful and symbolical way of attacking this world. We are at a point in history when there, like in Paradise, there is no time development. After the war it was established that Western democracy is the best system for everything, the pinnacle of humankind and now we are developing structures inside the system but there is no development of the overall picture. The idea of self-extermination, and again referring to the twenties, is connected to the type of partying we showcased on stage, and it’s always a symptom of a system in which individuals feel that it’s declining and that it can’t go on anymore like that.
Minja: What could you tell me about the ending scene?
Ersan: I never had very hopeful moments in any of my plays because I am a very pessimistic person as I believe it leads to enlightenment. And I have never ended a play with something funny but the party scene was a bit too much for the people who have seen it so we added this ending. But also for me it’s not really pure hope, because ever after the “revelation” the character is still inside the structure, but there might be hope for a solution.
Minja: But it’s also very ironical.
Ersan: Yeah, maybe not ironical because I’m not an ironic person, but, um… (pause) No, it’s not ironical. It’s actually very clear. Because he is kind of free, but still he realizes “No, I’m not free”, he is disillusioned.
Minja: Could you tell us a bit about your work with the actors?
Ersan: It was good. I know them well, I have studied with the two of them and they were a part of my collective, Lukas (Hupfeld) and Jonas (Grundner-Culemann). I have also worked with the other two before, so we are also friends. As I said, for the first three weeks we were in a house and had a really intense time and it was rough for them because they had to separate their body from language, which is not so easy. It was like a workshop in a way, as we have developed methods to do so. Rehearsals came quick and it was hard for everyone involved.
Minja: Is the party scene a type of manifesto for you? I’m thinking particularly about the part in the end, when the choir comes.
Olga: The decision to create the choir has to do with the way we wanted to present the characters, as it is already hard to discern them from one another with the costumes and everything, but they are still different among themselves. They have different ideological approaches, but the choir provides the sensation that there are discussions like those (presented in the text of the choir) in so many places, for example in Berlin. It has to do with the totality I have mentioned, which is maybe wrong. For example you are talking at a party about relevant things, you are using your freedom of speech, which is a really important thing, but where are the consequences of the using it for the purposes we have tried to convey in the choir text. You use your freedom of speech at a party, but then you go to sleep, and the next day you go to work, and that’s how labor works, you can express yourself but there is no effect. And the choir underlines that these are not individuals, at least not in the political discourse they exist inside of. There are so many of these people, and radicalized ways of expressing your opinion about things like terrorism. For example, there is one of these characters in the play who is a drug-dealer and also a very paranoid person, and paranoia is very frequent in places like these, where people say things like “Oh the refugees are fake, Russia wants to destabilize the European Union” and stuff, and there so many people like this in these bubbles. It’s something we wanted to maximize using the choir.
Audience member: I was wondering what the audience feedback is like with this play, how are your circle’s reactions, since you are reflecting on your own surroundings. What do they tell you when they see how you have represented them?
Ersan: The audience is very polarized when it comes to the content, on the one hand people totally agree, on the other they say that it has nothing to do with their reality.
Olga: But also the theater audiences, especially in Berlin, tend to be older, about over 50 years old, and they can’t really identify and couldn’t understand and didn’t want to do so. People our age had less trouble with that because they know these stories, these types.
Ersan: Younger adults are also more able to understand the esthetic references, computer-style references, which also made a big difference. So it depends, and also the Swiss audience is completely different than the German and so on.
Olga: The local press commented that they don’t want to see what they already know, which I think is a strange comment, because I think it’s important to take on things from a different perspective with art. Art can make the radicalization visible.
Minja: How do you see your characters in the future? Is that like asking you about the future of Europe?
Olga: We can’t say that those two are the same, because the characters aren’t really totally like-minded. Some of them have faith in the capacities of the democratic system and the possibility to express your opinion also in the freedom of speech which is guaranteed by our Constitution. There is one character, the female one, she is always criticizing the others, making them question where do the things they say lead to and the like. As I think you know, “Alternative”, this right-wing party just won around 13% at the elections and is now the third biggest party in the Parliament, which helps the process of radicalization. If you become panicked and you say that we can’t rely on the system in which we live or the Constitution, even though it’s very strong. As we can see with Trump, he’s trying to destroy or to manipulate the system but it’s a tough fight. Of course you have to have a dose of “healthy” pessimism, but you can actually rely on the stability of the system in which we live.
Ersan: I don’t know, maybe they will perish, but I’m sure that one of the characters will not exist because he’s too self-destructive. I think that the woman is the character with the healthiest perspective, so she might have good things coming for her. One will be completely lost to drugs and conspiracies, and one will look for his mother, because he is completely confused. And about Europe, we will see. Europe is falling apart right now and it’s not only because of the divide between France and Germany or Brexit, but because Eastern Europe is getting restructured under Russian influence, especially in Poland, Ukraine and Hungary, and there are also movements like that in Serbia. So we don’t know right now, the right-wing is getting bigger and bigger in whole Europe, so we should be careful and just try to do something against that, I don’t know what, I’m not a politician, but I just see what I see in an artistic way.