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 change.org 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

Remembering the pioneering composer, visionary thinker, multimedia artist and techno-utopian, who died in May
Jennifer Piejko's guide to the best current shows in LA
Ei Arakawa work stolen from Skulptur Projekte Münster; Richard Mosse arrested; three men charged over counterfeit...
Joyce Pensato, Landscape Mickey, 2017. Courtesy: Lisson Gallery, London
Lisson Gallery, London, UK
Coinciding with Refugee Week, and her film Hear Her Singing screening at the Southbank Centre, the artist shares some...
Gilda Williams visits the first edition of the ARoS Triennial in Aarhus, Denmark
The Haitian Revolution as a lesson in corporate leadership and meeting the 'prophet of the Anthropocene': what to read...
Creative Time launches series of protest flags; photographer Khadija Saye reported as a victim of London's Grenfell...
A recent retrospective at the Museo Ettore Fico in Turin establishes the overlooked importance of a ‘total artist’
The third edition of the London performance festival makes the case for collective action in an age of political...
A past winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize, Zoe Pilger on the books and experiences that have influenced her as a writer
A guide to the best projects included in Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017
For the first in a series of our editors’ initial impressions from documenta 14 Kassel, Pablo Larios on the Neue...
Art sees itself as facing a crisis of legitimation – can this account for claims to 'authenticity' being made in shows...

An interview with the late artist on the unique classification system he devised to organize his books
The independent curator on 25 years in the arts

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017