Interviews

Milo Rau in Vienna, interviewed by Dana Rufolo 

Milo Rau, the founder of the theatre company The Institute of Political Murder, is in the pantheon of the most important twenty-first century European directors of theatre and performance pieces – most of which are what he calls “re-enactments”.

His approach to political and personal events that have a social significance is distinctive and, as this interview establishes, often biographical, but he has an uncanny ability to choose subjects of immediate relevance and universal appeal. He has staged re-enactments of political or social events that have occurred in Romania, Moscow, Zürich, Rwanda, Norway, Belgium, France, The Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Italy, Iraq and the Amazon.

For this sensitive work, he has received the European Theatre Prize in 2018, the Swiss Film Award in the documentary category in 2021, and the Swiss Theatre Award in 2014. Additionally, he is a playwright and the author of many books, the latest being the 2023 publications Was Theater kann: Essays und Gespräche (What Theatre Can Do: Essays and Conversations) and Die Rückeroberung der Zukunft: Ein Essay (Reclaiming the Future: An Essay).

Rau’s directorial perspective views stage and audience as contiguous. Audience members see dramas that recall political events which have become socially significant; re-viewing them leads to changes in attitudes that directly influence socio-economic and moral decisions in the present and near future.

I interviewed Rau during an intense phase of his direction of the five weeks of the Wiener Festwochen 2024 which has challenged the traditional concept of the festival as a simple cultural adjunct to the city of Vienna. He is working with a budget of €14m. Rau announced “The Free Republic of Vienna,” declaring that what politics cannot achieve can be achieved through art.

When the festival opened on 17 May 2024, Rau (with a showman’s instinct) announced that “Vienna must burn” and the initial events hosted Pussyriot, Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek, Swiss novelists Kim de l’Horizon and Sibylle Berg, Croatian philosopher Srécko Horvat, activist Carola Rackete, and popular bands including the Austrian Fuzzman & The Singin’ Rebels, Voodoo Jürgens & Die Ansa Panier, and Monobrother. The Vienna Trials were ongoing through the festival; they are three “boxes of truth” presided over by genuine judges well known to the Austrian populace and featuring public figures attached to lie detectors. They were interrogated by the respected German actress Bibiana Beglau who is affiliated with Vienna’s Burgtheater. The public debate-theatre events cover these subjects: The Wounded Society: Covid-19 and its Consequences,  Attacks on Democracy, and The Hypocrisy of the Well-Meaning.

Milo Rau in conversation with Dana Rufolo.

Vienna, Austria. 30 May, 2024

 

DR: You were born in 1977 in Switzerland?

MR: Yes, in Berne. Then after a year I moved all over Switzerland.

DR: What was your native language?

MR: Swiss German [Schwyzerdütsch]. That was my first language. In school, when I was taught to read, I learned German and slowly I became Germanized …

DR: Ah! I see from your choice of words that Schwyzerdütsch is the language of your heart …

MR: Yes, indeed. But you know in Switzerland we have any number of dialects that are still there, and each canton or region has its own accent. I changed accents depending on where we were living: Bern, Zürich, Grisons in the Alps, and then St Gallen – and that became the definitive accent. When I speak German, most people imagine that I am Austrian, because the accents in Voralberg, Austria and St Gallen resemble each other.

DR: So both of your parents are Swiss?

MR: Yes, a part of my family – the Jewish side – moved from Germany to Switzerland to escape the Nazis shortly before World War Two, and the other side is the Italian side. My mother, with the name Larese, has Italian origins and my father had the German name Rau. When my parents divorced (I was about two years old) until I was 18 my name was Milo Larese, but then I decided my name was too romantic and I chose the family name Rau.

DR: So you had a sort of traumatic childhood with divorced parents?

MR: “Traumatic” is not the word I’d choose. It is a scientific word used a bit carelessly, like “autism” and implies that you survived a massacre and are imprisoned in the experience; you can’t get out of it. I had difficult experiences, but they weren’t traumatic in that I was able to overcome them.

DR: But it seems to me nonetheless that you had significant potentially traumatizing experiences in your youth of which you were unconscious; I draw this conclusion from looking at your radical approach to dramatic art.

MR: In my opinion, there were two events which defined my personality. Not the divorce, I was too young. Firstly, the fact that my mother had to move from one Swiss location to another in search of work, secondly when I encountered my second father, a Swiss citizen who is a Trotskyist on the left – that was in 1989 when even in Switzerland we were still thinking in terms of revolutions – we still believed in Communism. His socialist way of thinking had an enormous influence on me. He was also a musician. I even had my own music group for a while.

The third influence was Dino Larese, my grandfather who knew Thomas Mann and Martin Heidegger; he wrote biographies. I was his secretary for a while. He convinced me that the arts – writing, literature, poetry, art, theatre, philosophy – were more important than anything, more important than medicine or law. So that gave me the desire to go into the arts as something important. And he was an Italian who became a recognized Swiss intellectual who learned the language. He became my number-one inspiration.

I am the first in my family to go to university. They were simple folk. I went to Paris to study with Pierre Bourdieu, to Geneva … I was intent on educating myself thoroughly from an early age.

Also, we moved a lot. When I was growing up, my family moved 13 times. Each time, I landed up in a new milieu with hierarchies I knew nothing about and a new dialect, so I had to learn the sociology of how to get along in an environment where I was the new kid on the block repeatedly. Exclusion is pretty much the story of my entire youth. And it was these experiences that have made me very allergic to exclusion.

That’s why I have projects like The Free Republic of Vienna [an integral part of the Wiener Festwochen] and run an office like the one you are in now [housed inside the Volkskundemuseum Wien/Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art] where all the doors are open because I don’t want anyone to be excluded. Because when I arrived, I was excluded, and so I would say I developed an art form which is inclusive as a reaction to my early experiences.

DR: So your inclusive art form is based on your memory of personal hurt?

MR: Yes, to a certain extent. But also feeling of solidarity and the beauty of language, because you see theatre is a fantastic place that lends itself to experimentation. You have video, you have research, you have interactions, you have reality, you have poetry, you have all this at the same time, together, and that is why in each play I try to work with new people. Everything rests on the specific team that creates a project together.

DR: How did you veer into theatre? We read that you began your career as a political journalist for the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, so what did you see on the street or in a theatre one day that triggered you and made you think, “Ah, theatre is what I want to do!”

MR: I saw two things that affected me. The first was a play performed outdoors; it was Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Women) by Molière at an outdoor amphitheatre somewhere near Avignon in France. I was seven years old and didn’t understand anything, but I still remember the sun shining, the costumes, the words. It was like a Greek theatre performance.

And the second show I saw was in St Gallen, where I was living then, at Theater St Gallen. It was Three Sisters by Chekhov. I am even today a great fan of Chekhov, not him specifically, but the realism and what I guess you’d have to call the Russian dramaturgy where there isn’t a tragedy or anything like that, where there is something going on that is more or less banal.

I’ve always been inspired by that way of finding dramatic impact based on the banality of rather unspectacular or ordinary people. I also saw that the scenographic aspects in that production were an attempt to get away from the ordinariness of the characters, and even as a 12-year-old kid I realized that this was a mistake.

I couldn’t figure out why the people working on the production didn’t themselves see that the mixture of styles was unauthentic. Pop music, Regietheater – that directorial style died out 30 years ago, but in a way, those two theatre experiences became the two standards for me ever since. The good and the bad. The outdoor performance of Les Femmes Savantes was correct, and the indoor Chekhov play was wrong. So ever since, I’ve tried to duplicate that first good impression of something fresh and attractive, like the Molière play seemed to be to me. I may not always be correct, but I try to keep my work simple and direct. Like the Vienna Trials that is happening now for the Wiener Festwochen – something simple, direct, and slow.

DR: But tell me, how did it happen that you were a journalist, getting a good salary, and then you made a transition and you were suddenly a man of the theatre?

MR: Well, to tell you the truth, that is a myth I’ve never managed to correct. I never was a journalist. It’s some biographical information that was inaccurate but published and repeated. I’ve always written manifestos, books, reports, essays. I was already involved in theatre projects and then from time to time, perhaps once a month, I’d write an article. But just because there was something I wanted to write about.

The editor-in-chief of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in that epoch was my metaphysics professor at the University of Zurich. I was in his course on Meister Eckhart and the philosophy of the Middle Ages, and I wrote a paper on Proust and Roland Barthes the prof said was excellent, and he asked me to edit it into an essay which was then published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Barthes, inspired by Proust, had a project to put himself in a room and write a novel, but he died before he ever got around to doing this.

My essay was on the idea of existential liberty that Barthes maintained by entertaining this project of writing a book which he never did write. And that was published in the newspaper. Then the editor asked if I wouldn’t like to write about books, things like that, and since I was 20/21 and could always use some money, I agreed. And right up to now I continue to occasionally write a book review or something for them. But there came a time, when I was around 25, when on one side of the newspaper page there was my critique of someone’s play, and on the back page, there was a review of one of my plays. So the editor said that he couldn’t continue letting me write critiques of other theatre performances. So, that was that.

DR: So you never worked as a journalist sent out to cover world events?

MR: No, no. I’ve travelled a lot, but I always travel to undertake research in connection with one of my plays. And I’ve also written reports about these travels. When I was in Brazil to produce Antigone in the Amazon [2023], I wrote pieces that were published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. When I was making the film Das Neue Evangelium (The New Gospel, 2020) in Italy, I wrote around 20 articles.

I write all the time. This morning, for instance, I wrote for two hours, because it is my profession. And if I don’t write, just like my grandfather I don’t feel good about it. And if I write for even one hour in the morning, then I feel liberated, relaxed; the thoughts are down on paper.

DR: Do you have a personal diary? 

MR: I do, but it is definitely intimate. I’m not going to publish it. I write plays or I work on a book. I’ve just started a new book. My last one was Reclaiming The Future. It sold well; it is the first of my books that sold well. Another one sold kind of well, but I’ve written more than 20 books and they are invisible, you can’t find them anywhere!

DR: I’ve noticed that when researching for this interview!

MR: Well, the publishing house for Reclaiming the Future is well known – it is a pretty edition, and they asked me to write a new book. Since I studied ancient Greek when I was young, I want to write a book about the Greek tragedies. There will be 32 chapters. Thirty-two tragedies and each tragedy, I believe, has to a certain extent influenced the European sense of what politics is. But we in Europe are not conscious of that influence. How we look at conflict is heavily influenced by our concept of the tragic which goes back to the Greek idea of tragedy. So I want to develop this idea. So now, every morning I write about one tragedy at a time, and afterwards it will be a small book that will be called Der tragische Geist (The Sense of the Tragic).

DR: Will you be reading the tragedies in Greek?

MR: In translation. I studied ancient Greek 20 years ago. Antigone, for instance – the chorus is always difficult, because the lines for the chorus were written in a different dialect, so to speak, the Spartan dialect. That’s when the choir sings. But when they speak, it is in the Athenian dialect which is simple to read and understand. The speeches were written for everyone to understand, even those who were illiterate; there wasn’t even a body of literature at that time. But the songs in the choir needn’t be understood by everyone, just like in a pop song nowadays.

DR: Of course the basic problem is that we’ll never be able to lay our hands on the entire body of Greek tragedies. It’s a big problem, isn’t it, because we have an idea of ancient Greek tragedy which is based on a fragment of the totality of what was written?

MR: And not even necessarily the best tragedies.

DR: “Oedipus”, perhaps. At least according to Aristotle.

MR: My play Medea is being performed here in Vienna during the Wiener Festwochen; it has children in it – the title is Medea’s Kinderen (Medea’s Children). When Euripides wrote Medea, it wasn’t well received, and the people didn’t know why he’d chosen that particular story. But that play survived, and because it survived Medea has become one of the best known myths in our civilisation. That shows how much is the result of chance.

DR: Clearly, you grew up in a highly stimulating intellectual milieu, but let us now look at your Institute of Political Murder, which was founded in 2007. “Political murder”? Can you tell me what that means?  

MR: Originally, I created this institute because I wanted to re-create the three attempts to assassinate Hitler in Dresden at Hellerau, the European Centre for the Arts, which had a very large space and which had been taken by the Red Army after the war. They were looking for a new artistic director. Well, that didn’t work out, but I kept the institute anyhow, and I began to do, for instance, in 2009, The Last Days of The Ceaușescus. I kept the name of my institute but it became a metaphor, because after that I did, for instance, Hate Radio. And the idea is that there are intimate murders, like in Medea or in a family, and then there are political murders that are connected with History with a capital ‘H’. Eventually, some of my productions weren’t focused on a particular political murder, but it was something that interested me. Once you’ve named your company, that’s it!

DR: But then, what does political mean to you?

MR: I’ll answer by referencing Jacques Rancière who said there is “la politique” and “le politique”. “La politique” is parties –  all that absurdity about making coalitions to ameliorate percentages in the vote, things like that. For me, that doesn’t have any meaning at all. There might be important people involved, but usually these people are so much in their bubble it is impossible to change anything. On the other hand, “le politique” has to do with civil society deciding about issues that will determine their future.  How do we want to live? And in this case, there are real antagonisms. There are people who are traditionalists, and that is okay. There are liberals, and that is okay too. But the antagonism comes from the tragic conflicts. For example in my The Moscow Trials [2013] and now in Vienna with the Vienna Trials there is a tragic element, in the sense that there will always be two sides. There is the reality that we are living but we will die, we are singular in our body but we are a society. Contradictions are everywhere, we already saw them in the Greek tragedies, and the tragedy of “le politique” is always based on antagonism. Feminine/masculine. Spirit/body. Nature/humanity.  It’s simple, no need to go over it.

In “la politique” we believe there is a sort of metaphysics that will overcome the contradictions but in “le politique” the antagonisms cannot be transcended.

Let’s take the example of Romania. In “la politique” we have the impression that there has been a change in the system of government, but in “le politique” we see that the persons who were part of the earlier system remained in charge after the changeover.  They had been Stalinists, and afterwards they became capitalists. Let me remind you that when we performed The Last Days of the Ceaușescus in Bucharest, the people in the audience saw the play and then the film and they were astonished because the same people who had been allied with the Ceaușescu couple were now in the Constitutional Council or were now the President and so forth. So the transformation never really happened, and the same set of antagonisms carried over.

DR: But I heard that play wasn’t allowed to be performed.   

MR: Yes, because the son of the Ceaușescus forbade it. [Presumably on the grounds that ‘Ceaușescu’ or ‘Ceaușescus’ is copyrighted as a name and consequently it was illegal to use that name in the play’s title.]

DR: Isn’t there a personal side to your engagement with this historical re-enactment, as well? You have a cousin who married a Romanian in … 2003? 

MR: Yes, and also I have a very clear childhood memory of that process. I saw the images on TV. I was 12, and I asked myself what that was about. And then this memory came back to me 20 years later.

DR: You always have a significant effect on your public, because you are raising awareness of historical events. Everyone knows that one of the most striking  positive effects came about through your film “Das Neue Evangelium” (“The New Gospel”) which associated the life of Jesus Christ with the fate of exploited migrant agricultural workers picking tomatoes in southern Italy. In other words, activism became an integral part of the filming process. The migrant workers have benefited enormously, and apparently the effects continue to ripple. Can you tell me what the latest positive effects have been? 

MR: The character of Jesus was played by the astonishing actor Yvan Sagne, originally from Cameroon. He is a militant advancing the rights of undocumented migrant farm workers in Italy. The film associated political social movements with the Bible, and Sagne has managed to regularize the migrant workers so they have workers’ rights and proper pay.

We made the film as a sort of propaganda for his activist work, and now we are establishing automatic distribution through large supermarket chains such as Lidl in Germany. We tried Delhaize in Belgium, but they chose against taking us on. The tomatoes are unsprayed, and Alnatura [the German biological food chain with an outreach into 15 European countries] agreed. Because of this distribution chain, we have been able to regularize 1,000 agricultural workers. That’s an impressive number of people!

DR: One last thing I’d like to ask has to do with your work with children and trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) actors. “The Last Generation” is staged mainly by Down syndrome actors, “Medea’s Kinderen” (“Medea’s Children”) has children in it, so did your re-enactment of the Marc Dutroux child murder case, entitled “Five Easy Pieces”. Then there were the children in your re-enactment of the family that committed collective suicide, “Familie” . 

MR: These are two very different kinds of group. But one thing they have in common is that if you work with either, you are going to be working with women. Because you are always working with institutions, sometimes very indirectly. For example, I don’t direct, but rather their pedagogues develop the mise-en-scène. For The Last Generation, it was the Belgian company Stap that came to me to ask for my involvement. We saw each other, discussed the script and worked on it for around six months, but afterwards it was up to them to decide who plays which roles. They are a genuine theatre group.

I have a Down syndrome cousin, with whom I grew up. And in Switzerland when I was growing up, they were everywhere. I went to school with them. I’d already directed The Last Generation in Zurich in 2017. The people running Theater Stap saw this play there and had been asking me to do the same play with their company, and in the end I agreed and together we created the play you saw in Belgium (see The Last Generation or the 120 Days of Sodom.)

I was a bit worried about how the Belgium press would react, but they were extremely positive because they said that finally these actors were not obliged to play pretty, good, sweet roles. There are two antagonisms in the play. On one hand our society is hypocritical in that these Down syndrome humans are killed even before they are born. About that we could have an etiological discussion, but that is not where my competence lies; evidently it is up to the woman to decide what she does with her own body. But demographically these actors are of the last generation because they are going to disappear.

 

This interview was translated from the French by Dana Rufolo.