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Friday, December 8, 2023

New play by Falk Richter: fathers, sons, autofiction

Where the feelings are: “The Silence” by Falk Richter celebrates its premiere at the Berlin Schaubühne. The piece is about transgenerational trauma.

Dimitriij Schaad as Falk Richter sits by a tree in

Dimitriij Schaad as Falk Richter in “The Silence” Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola

“’To silence someone’ describes the process of silencing someone, it is an active process,” speaks Dimitrij Schaad. The 38-year-old actor, who is celebrating his Schaubühne debut this evening, has already slipped into his role, that of the author Falk Richter. Beforehand, Schaad, who is otherwise part of the Gorki Theater ensemble, introduced himself: “Dimi, Schaubühne. Schaubühne, Dimi.” The transformation into the autofictional judge then takes place with an announcement, but without fuss, with a smile.

Silence is not necessarily quiet; actively created silence can become “unbearably loud,” especially if it lingers between the lines. “In my family we talked all the time, and yet all the talking was like a big silence,” says the man who played a younger version of the author that evening. What this means is the silence within the family about what happened there, but also outside. The thing no one talks about. The Richter family didn’t talk about how many people their father killed as a soldier in World War II.

That he fathered an illegitimate child with his mother, who was still a minor, and hid them both in an apartment on the outskirts of the city in order to lead a double life for nine years. There was also no mention of the grandfather, who came from Russian captivity and to whom his family was a stranger.

Keep everything quiet

There was no talk of abuse or neglect, both of which were passed on from one generation of parents to the next. There was also silence about the son’s homosexuality, which during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s was quite naturally labeled “as a punishment from God” by local politicians and the media.

For Falk Richter, the evening is a return to the Schaubühne, which he started in 2000 with pieces like “Trust” and “Fear” playedbefore he to the Gorky Theater changed. From then on, the texts of the author and director, who was born in Hamburg in 1969, became more personal. For “In My Room” Richter dealt with the relationship between fathers and sons, with the patriarchal structures of our society and the toxic image of masculinity reproduced in it.

All of this can be found in “The Silence”, but much more intimately; the monologue presented by Schaad is based on Richter’s experiences. These are scenes of violence that the young gay man experiences in the 1980s, on the street but also at home, because he does not conform to the image of masculinity and is thus predicted to live on the margins of society. Always present is the silence that is diametrically opposed to the violence – from passers-by as well as from mother and sister, who only watch when Richter is beaten – and which amounts to a failure to help.

Purple Flokati carpets

“I never felt safe in my family,” says Schaad at the beginning of the almost two hours. Meanwhile, he stands in a dream landscape devised by Katrin Hoffmann made of purple flokatis, a birch tree under which Schaad lounges like Goethe in the Campagna in a kimono and cowboy hat, and crumpled papers that multiply throughout the piece when the author tries his thoughts to bundle.

How difficult this is becomes clear when Schaad, alias Richter, repeatedly thinks up alternative storylines: that of a gay guerrilla fighter, for example, or the father’s imaginary last words full of remorse and empathy for his son.

Whenever that fails, Richter’s desperation is not the only thing that becomes palpable. Schaad also seems to struggle with the mammoth task of slipping into someone else’s memories. And yet he masters this routine with flying colors. Maybe because writing down your own memories already fictionalizes them in the same moment, he muses.

Attempting a conversation

To counteract the autofiction, videos are projected onto a semicircular screen. In addition to images of a middle-class suburban settlement in black and white, they show excerpts from interviews: Richter with his mother, an old woman with a practical short haircut, in his parents’ house. The son’s attempt to have a psychoanalytic conversation with his mother is only semi-successful.

The woman, who not only had to experience the violence and betrayal of her war-disabled father towards her mother, but was also drawn into an ignorant, almost abusive marriage, clings too vehemently to her own historiography. She mostly denies what the son perceives as reality, but does not seem malicious or unsympathetic. Your reality is different. She can’t feel all the pain because it would kill her, says Richter’s therapist, into whose role Schaad briefly slips.

It’s difficult to keep up with all of this. Not because the production is boring. On the contrary: Richter’s sensitive text and Schaad’s great acting set something in motion where one, like the autofictional Richter himself, does not want to go. Where the feelings that absolutely want to be felt are located.

For the mother and her generation, silence was a survival mechanism, but for the offspring it is powerful. “Time is not linear,” repeats Schaad. In order to break through what those before us were unable to do, we must vicariously feel what would otherwise be carried on in the form of trauma – this is the conclusion.

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