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© Arno Declair
© Arno Declair
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A Eurocentric Nightmare: Unterwerfung At The Deutsches Theater

Picture of Sophie Fenella
Updated: 3 October 2016
The historic Deutsches Theater is a landmark in German culture – a theatrical institution with three stages, a resident ensemble of critically acclaimed actors, and a diverse range of performances. It produces plays ranging from re-interpretations of historical classics by Chekhov and Goethe to contemporary playwrights and world premiers. This month we visited the theater to see a play based on Michel Houellebecq’s modern French novel Submission (Unterwerfung), a topical, political and dystopian view of the world in which we live.
© Arno Declair
© Arno Declair

Adapted for the stage by David Heiligers and Stephan Kimmig, the opening scene evokes themes of death and redemption: a man lies alone in a white, barren hospital room, naked, suffering, clawing his way through the void. The audience is drawn into a world on the brink of reality, where society, and modern values, are fading fast. The traditional values of France, and Europe, are threatened by extremism. There is fear of the outbreak of war and destruction of contemporary society, a fear that deeply resonates with a contemporary audience and feels very close to home.

The narrative flickers in between reality and fantasy as the protagonist, François, an academic, despairs over his relationships, his work and the political climate of the world around him. François is a literary scholar who has a history of unsuccessful relationships with younger women and an ever-diminishing wish to live. His own personal breakdown is exemplified by the breakdown of the world around him. Set in France 2022, this play imagines a Eurocentric nightmare, the end of secular society and the victory of an Islamic party that enforces extreme Muslim values on France.

The Muslim presidential candidate, Mohammed Ben Abbes, wins success over the National Front Party led by Marianne Le Penn, unfurling a battle between Christian and Muslim values, the West and the East. The play highlights the power of religion to overrule and dictate society, and how the conflict between Islamic countries and Europe is, at a simplistic level, a conflict of religious interest. At times painfully topical, the opening speech by the National Front Party represents the voice of young people, who are fed up with poor job prospects and a lack of unified identity. And so, they turn to extreme racist ideologies, something all too familiar to what is happening with the rise of far-right extremism in the UK, Germany, America and France.

Unterwerfung copyright by Arno Declair.
© Arno Declair

While Unterwerfung holds relevant political issues up to the light, it is also far removed from reality. Indeed, the appearance of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on a wooden cart reveals that this play is not an accurate representation of reality, rather it is a dystopic distortion of the what could happen if extremism wins. The action takes place on a rotating stage as if each scene is fading from consciousness. In the center of the stage is a staircase leading to heaven that turns out to be made of paper, and crumbles at François’ feet. The world that David Heiligers and Stephan Kimmig create is a reflection of contemporary society in a broken and dirty mirror.

Copyright by Arno Declair
Copyright by Arno Declair | © Arno Declair

The doom and gloom prevalent in the play are lightened by moments of humor, namely in the opening when François rants about the popularity of sushi in modern culture, exasperated at a mutual love of slabs of raw fish and rice. This level of disregard for the modern world, coupled with a fear of the world ending, is reminiscent of the post-war modernists, whose art was preoccupied with a sense that the world, and all of the values of contemporary society, were at a point of collapse. The play ends with François’ world collapsing around him, quite literally, as the ceiling falls, and he is left in a state of limbo, on the cusp of death.

Unterwerfung is one of many plays staged at the Deutsches Theater that has English subtitles, so a non-German-speaking audience is still able to enjoy this prolific theater. It’s a reflection of the way in which the Berlin art and cultural scene embraces its internationality. To see what else is on this summer, visit the Deutsches Theater program.