Milo Rau, Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs

What Milo Rau’s new play tells us about our current ‘humanitarian’ European identity

Consolate Sipérius and Ursina Lardi in Milo Rau's Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs, 2016, Schaubühne Berlin; photograph: Daniel Seiffert

Consolate Sipérius and Ursina Lardi in Milo Rau's Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs, 2016, Schaubühne Berlin; photograph: Daniel Seiffert

Consolate Sipérius and Ursina Lardi in Milo Rau's Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs, 2016, Schaubühne Berlin; photograph: Daniel Seiffert

The take-home message from Milo Rau’s play Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs (Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun; 2016), currently on view at Schaubühne, Berlin, seems simplistic in its cynicism: ‘Wir sind alle Arschlöcher’ – ‘we are all assholes’. But effectively, Rau’s play is one of the more complex artistical responses to the European refugee crisis I’ve seen so far (even if, or precisely because, it deals with the subject only in passing and in a somewhat mediated way). It is, at least, a far more intelligent and compassionate response than Ai WeiWei’s reenactment of the image of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey. 

In Mitleid, Kurdi’s image features, too. Actress Ursina Lardi shows it on a big screen, when reporting from a research trip she undertook with Rau to Turkey, Greece and Macedonia. Whereas Ai is trying (and utterly failing) to play the emotional mechanics of Western media, Rau is concerned with laying bare the morally dubious roles compassion and empathy play in a contemporary ‘humanitarian’ European identity. Framed by intro and outro monologues by Belgian-Burundian actress Consolate Sipérius, whose family, she tells us, fell victim to genocide in the early 1990s, for the most part Mitleid consists of a harsh and often borderline racist monologue by Lardi. She is essentially playing a version of herself: an actress on a research trip to the Congo (a trip made with Rau); a woman feverishly recounting her memories as a NGO aid worker in the very same region more than 20 years prior. The script, though, is taken from actual reports and interviews with former NGO workers. 

If Mitleid was only about revealing the not-so-hidden ambivalence of Western do-goodery, it would be unbearable: too simple; too cynical, above all. But empathy and compassion mirror the emotional and projective mechanics key to theatre itself. Switching between luring the audience in only to repel it again, Rau turns Mitleid into a meta-play on the very possibility of ‘staging’ authenticity – and the impossibility of being truly political on a theatre stage. In the end, the question of what form compassion might actually take that is not poisoned by curiosity, sensationalism, and what Rau recently termed ‘cynical humanism’ –signing another petition; or watching a play like Mitleid, I am tempted to add – seems increasingly impossible to answer. And there is no right answer anyway. Admitting to being an asshole might not offer a solution – but for the time being it’s as ‘authentic’ a response as most of us can manage. 

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.

Most Read

London’s fourth plinth artists announced; a new fund to protect cultural heritage in war-torn areas
Annika Eriksson, The Social, 2017, wallpaper and objects on a shelf, 500 x 450 cm. Courtesy: The artist and Moderna Museet, Malmö
Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden
Paul Scheerbart, Nusi-Pusi, 1912. Courtesy: Berlinische Galerie/Kai-Annett Becker
From a short history of plagiarism to Trisha Brown's walk: what to read this weekend
Q. What is art for? A. To tell us where we are.
The work of filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins on the occasion of his inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial film...
Trisha Brown has died, aged 80; two new appointments at London’s ICA; controversy at the Whitney
A round-up of the best shows to see in the city ahead of this week’s Art Basel Hong Kong
How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-...
Charlie Fox on a new translation of Hervé Guibert's chronicle of love, lust and drug-addled longing
Three highlights from the New York festival promoting emerging filmmakers
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
A report and the highlights from a show themed around fluidity, flux, botany and the subterranean
From growing protests over the gentrification of Boyle Heights to Schimmel leaving Hauser & Wirth, the latest from...
kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Mexico
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland
The body is a troubled thing ...
Sir Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84; finalists for Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 announced

From the Women's Strike to a march that cancels itself out: what to read this weekend
The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and...
With the reissue of their eponymous debut album, revisiting the career of legendary Berlin art project / punk band Die...
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil 

Tramway, Glasgow, UK
A work by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez
Munich’s Haus der Kunst embroiled in Scientology scandal; Martín Ramírez to inaugurate the new ICA LA
If politics today obsesses over the policing of borders, art in France is enacting multiple crossings
A new video installation from Richard Mosse investigates the refugee crisis
Gustav Metzger has died aged 90; director of the Met resigns
What draws us to certain stories, and why do we retell them? 
It’s time that the extraordinary life and work of Anya Berger was acknowledged

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Nov - Dec 2016

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017