These two people are separated by history, geography, language, maths, and other school subjects and common truths. But they are united by love. Does this mean something in a society saturated with mistrust, tension, stress, cataclysms, and unlearned history lessons? This is what director Nada Kokotović, following Rainer Werner Fassbinder, tried to find out in the play Fear Eats The Soul (Theater TKO, Cologne, Germany), which was shown as part of the 10th edition of the Madách International Theatre Meeting opening in the Hungarian capital.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film of the same name has become a classic of world cinema and won the International Federation of Film Critics award for best in-competition film and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. The more years pass since its release, the more relevant it becomes. The story of intolerance and xenophobia, of fascism that has permeated the walls of homes and the souls of people, of the rejection of the different – does not lose its relevance. Director and playwright Nada Kokotović, creator of the choreodrama format, knows first-hand what it is to be an outsider. In 1992, because of the war in Yugoslavia, she, a Croatian, emigrated to Germany. In 1996, together with her partner, she founded the theatre TKO (Theater Kokotović – Osman) in Cologne. Multinational and multilingual components are an important part of her work, which is why her performance fits so well into the concept of the Synergy festival, which became part of MITEM this year. I would like to remind you that the festival focuses on minority languages and other aspects of multiculturalism.
With Fassbinder’s film text, Nada Kokotović has skilfully abridged it and introduced elements of the present day: hints of the pandemic and other global challenges of the time. Doris Plenert and Nedjo Osman, are two people whose love is condemned by a society that divides the world into insiders and outsiders. She is German, he is an outsider, a migrant, a gypsy. But they decide to get married, in defiance of all those around them who want to divide them on different sides of supposed social decency (or prejudice). Stereotypes rule minds and dictate the same substrate of life to all: those who lash out are punished by social censure. But when help is needed or material gain is seen, society instantly forgets its prejudices and fears. “- They are obviously happy. – But what is happiness? There is a concept of decency, isn’t there?” – darts of words and attitudes wound characters already scarred by life.
Fear Eats The Soul is a very disturbing play from the start, because a fundamentally simple plot is used here to emphasize a dark, moralistic, racist social background. The looks here, at times, say much more than the words, and the music completes what Fassbinder seems to have left off-screen or between the lines. Nada Kokotović is interested in the feelings that bind two people together, but perhaps above all she is interested in exploring how these feelings fit into and interact with a highly unfavorable social context.
The characters in love here wear masks or rather transparent protective shields, familiar to us from the days of the pandemic. But ironically they are the ones who are not hypocritical, unlike the other characters in the story, who in this laconic and polished performance are embodied by another couple Katharina Waldau and Klaus Nicola Holderbaum. The minimum minimorum of means of artistic expression here embodies the maximum of emotional tension for the audience. In the space of an empty stage, where there is nothing to lean on and nothing to defend themselves with, the characters suddenly realize their loneliness, discovering the betrayals of the people closest to them or those who were dear to them yesterday. Smiles are fake, words are empty, and change is illusory. The meeting of two lonely people does not deprive them of loneliness as such. Lonely existence is replaced by the status of untouchable, judged, different, and therefore alien. Rejected.
In Nada Kokotovic’s play, we witness the pandemic of intolerance and fascism, for which no vaccine has been found to this day. In essence, the play is a social pamphlet exposing the influence of political clichés and social stereotypes on minds. We hear and observe how people with reason and free will suddenly begin to think in imposed schemes and templates, express not their own thoughts but those heard from high tribunes, and trust the majority rather than their inner voice.
The play is deliberately simplified and placed in conventional circumstances devoid of everyday life. The dialogues, following the original script, are simplified, fragmentary and abrupt. The result is something between realism and a socio-historical sketch. The protagonists here seem to be generalized characters, just people, ordinary people, those who are not expected to be radical or unexpected. However, the social is not put above the artistic. The play skillfully balances ethics and aesthetics. From one dance of encounter to the final dance of pain, the director spins his characters around, turning inside out human psychology and the structure of modern society, which has not changed much since 1974, when Fassbinder’s film was released.
Skin tone, eye cut, accent – people here evaluate their peers as if they were filling out a protocol or a medical chart. But the fear in the play, which is in the title, is not born not from this, but from the feeling of a stamped world divided into black and grey, black and pale, black and light brown (brown in the ideological sense, too). White is not a given here, it does not survive in the world of performance, it gets dirty…
From love to hate, they say, is one step. From hate to love is a long, branchy path, often leading to a dead end. Society here responds to foreign and alien love with hatred. Love is labeled and labeled here, declaring it unacceptable, scandalous, dirty, or simply indecent. And both characters have to re-learn to live in a society set against them. It turns out to be more difficult to live together than alone. And if the migrant protagonist tries to assimilate into the new country, this assimilation does not mean conformism of the soul. The protagonist, on the other hand, experiences the drama of rejection and the state of “stranger among her own”. The soul minus of each of the characters is multiplied by the minus of the other and gives a plus. Was there hope in Fassbinder’s text? If there was, time has shown that it was not justified. Is there hope in the play? And yet there is. It is expressed in the music of the brilliant accordionist Dejan Jovanovic, who at some point becomes the dominant element of the performance. His music is a conversation between two souls, a cry and anger, a plea and acceptance of the inevitable.
Fear Eats The Soul is a chilling play about the difficulties of translating from the personal to the social. Episodes of silence and stifling dumbness, minimal scenery emphasizing the alienation and coldness of the surrounding world and the suffering of the protagonists – this is the space of the performance, which creates a sense of anxiety and danger. Fear eats away at the souls of those around them, while the souls of the protagonists are free and in spite of everything. However, it is difficult to resist the world around them and the hatred coming from everywhere, one cannot live in society and be free from it – sooner or later the fear of the world around them will penetrate even the freest soul. When the external pressure subsides, the heroes’ relationship reveals even greater internal contradictions, becoming the test of strength that any mutual feelings undergo. Fassbinder shows how destructive fear can be, whose seeds enter us – it wounds the body of the protagonist from within. Fear leads to the dissolution of the individual into the mass, to the repetition of other people’s actions, not always weighing their logic and humanity.
Nada Kokotovic’s performance does not seek to shock the viewer, to throw him off balance, or to provoke him. It simply states the bitter truth of our days. “The banality of evil” here soils walls and hearts, speech and actions. There are no crimes here, on the contrary, the desire for deliberate law-abidingness, tradition, morality, and proclaimed values, turning out, if not ruinous, then ruinous consequences both for the protagonists and for the society that survives them.
Adapting cinematic language to the world of theatre can be risky, but Fear Eats The Soul Theater TKO successfully overcomes this challenge. When the feelings, emotions, and poignant themes of our society are at stake, theatre proves to be sharper than film in its power to affect the audience. So far, Fear Eats The Soul is a great success of the MITEM festival, which has gathered a palette of different, poignant, socially responsible plays that disturb the mind, heart, and soul. Fear Eats The Soul is a play about post-racism and the hypocrisy of a society unwilling to learn from its own mistakes. It is a play about social distance, in which two people who, according to an unwritten but “sacred” social law, should keep their distance, meet, love each other, and even get married, canceling – against all taboos – the distance that society would like to impose on them. Love is like a virus here. Love that has taken root in society receives an “immune response” from it – rejection, resistance, attack. But what seems to be a “foreign body” turns out to be in fact a cure, a vaccine, an antidote that prevents the disintegration of the soul, society, and the world. We forget about it all the time. But at least let the theatre prevent us from forgetting it completely.
Photo from the official page of the performance on the festival’s website. Photo: Juergen Steckmaier
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This post was written by Emiliia Dementsova.
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