In-depth | Culture

“The Return of Karl May”

By - 02.11.2020

A play that reverts the Orientalist gaze.

“The Return of Karl May, an entertaining play for the German people” premiered at the National Theatre of Kosovo on Friday, October 18. The play is as agitating as the title suggests, touching a raw nerve, as it takes on the demonizing approach of Western Europe toward the Balkans. 

Under the direction of Blerta Neziraj and written by the famed, award-winning Kosovo playwright Jeton Neziraj (husband of Blerta), the superiority complex of Europe is dismantled by resurrecting the famous German author Karl May’s fantasies about Albanians and attacking the “Muslim Foreigners” trope prevalent in today’s Europe with sharp sarcasm and comical absurdist scenarios. 

Karl May is still, nearly a 100 years after his death, one of the bestselling German authors of all time. Over 300 pulp fiction novels spanned everything from American Westerns to Balkan adventures. May, who came from a poor family and was entirely self-made, never traveled to many of the places he wrote about, including the Balkans. To this day, he is still widely read in Germany and is considered a national treasure.

The curtain raiser

“Your country can’t even be found on Google maps. You are a troubled country, with unresolved conflicts and we do not want to bring them onto the stage of our theater … our stage is reserved for civilized countries with a theatrical tradition over 500 years …, “ the cynical words of the artistic director of Berlin Volksbühne, Klaus von Dörr, echo through the projected video call across the National Theater of Kosovo and  with these scripted words the play between fiction and reality is opened.

For their visit to Berlin he invited the six actors and the playwright Jeton Neziraj, to perform on the side-stage of the theater. The German public would not be interested in hearing critical words about the most adored German writer Karl May. 

“Karl May” heavily satirizes the racist perceptions of Western Europeans about so-called “Muslim Easterners.” Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

May, portrayed Albanians as barbaric uncivilized savages. Explaining away his racist depictions as “fiction.” von Dörr instead suggests that they do a play with authentic local themes based on rich folklore, sword dances, blood feuds, deadly ambushes and sworn virgins. 

What appears as a public faux pas is in context a very well integrated stylistic decision made by Neziraj. Throughout the play, Neziraj stretches the gray zone between political criticism and entertaining cynicism in an assemblage of elaborate scenes and the restaging of the production process itself. “In reality collaboration with the Volksbühne was rewarding and von Dörr was enthusiastic about going to the core of Karl May’s depiction [of Albanians],” says Neziraj, with satire and biting wit, those mutual projections of East and West and the ignorance of one side toward the other is negotiated to its bitter extreme, yet always grounded in the crucibility of reality. 

It is presented as a play within a play. In the secondary play, Kara Ben Nemsi, the protagonist of Karl May’s book “Through the Land of the Skiptars,” flees from the East heading toward the German lands with a group of actors. On their epic journey, they encounter controversial figures such as Peter Handke, Slavoj Žižek and the German right-wing terrorist group the “National Socialist Underground,” to end up finally performing on the side-stage of Volksbühne.

Resurrecting ‘Kara Ben Nemsi” and sending him back to his place of “origin” is a subversive act to spark awareness of the troubled depiction of Albanians in May’s literature that are imbued with racism and prejudice. 

The production is a collaboration with the Volksbühne theater in Berlin and the National Theater of Kosovo and Qendra Multimedia. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Neziraj, who has dealt with the legacy of May’s work previously, while working with the Volksbühne, felt the urge to get to the core of May’s works. Not the least because he sees a continuation of his depictions as social norms on how Germans perceive Albanians and people from the Balkans in general. “I am fascinated by the obsession Germans have with Karl May … and I believe that German society is not freed from the prejudices Karl May and others have sown with their literature on Albanians,” says Neziraj.

Karl May’s books were written at a time of empires, when Germans considered themselves superior to those allocated outside “Europe,” the underdeveloped East and uncivilized Muslims or as in this case barbaric Arnauts. 

May’s continued popularity among Germans, leads Neziraj to believe that May’s fantasies about Albanians have become a social norm in Germany and beyond. A social norm that he aims to deconstruct. 

The complex interwovenness of cultural inferiority is played out on stage through encounters with European border patrols, German embassy officials, and the Austrian police whose closed-border-policy is justified with arguments shockingly similar to May’s hundred years old projections. 

Cultural ignorance

Neziraj sees ignorance as a root cause for this, which is why he believed that projects on “postness,” the idea of a theatrical experience beyond postmodernism, are crucial in order to defy stereotypes and see foreigners and Albanians in Western Europe beyond common perceptions.

Enacting it as subversive homage to the supposedly racial, cultural but also intellectual superiority of the West toward the Southeast in general, the play features subliminal messages. 

Neziraj uses the now fashionable “postness” genre in European theaters and speaks of it using skillful (self-) mockery: “Our play will be somewhere between “post-migrant theater” and “capitalist realism,” or perhaps it can be more closely defined as post-truth theater” … something like that, though I’m still not quite sure … But regardless, you can be certain that we are doing something very important,” Neziraj’s script reads.

Because of the pandemic it has not been shown in the West yet but the playwright, Jeton Neziraj hopes that will happen soon depending on the pandemic. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Indeed, a few theaters across Europe increasingly direct their attention toward critically dealing with imperialist legacies. At its best it is a counterweight to the prevalent populist ideology today that is cultivated by right-wingers without defense within the parliament, big publishing houses and theatres. 

“Karl May” came into being out of the joint interest across the transnational theater world to pose moral questions on this imperialist legacy. 

The production of the play began in 2019 as part of the Volksbühne-initiated program “Postwest” working with the National Theater of Kosovo and Qendra Multimedia. 

Designed as a transcultural festival, the Volksbühne under the curation of Alina Aleshenko, invited six theater companies from the South East region to collaborate and stage plays in Berlin that revert the gaze “the West” holds toward what is considered “the East.” Due to the pandemic, the program was transmitted only digitally. The Kosovar ensemble presented a collage of scenes as a Video on Demand on the Postwest online platform in June. 

Reverting the Gaze 

The play takes us on an adventourus journey toward the “the European land,” which as explained by Slavoj Žižek’s words in the idyllic countryside of Ljubljana, the Sava river marks the official border between the Balkans and Mitteleuropa, the “real Europe.” 

“Although both sides look the same, beware … on the one side, horror, oriental despotism, women get beaten, get raped and like it … on the European side, civilization, women get beaten and raped but do not like it,” Žižek’s character says in the play.

The closer they get to EU borders the more they are confronted with violent paranoia. Approaching Croatia, the group is sent away with the words “Roma and frogs are instructed to use other means of transport, such as caravans, swimming or running.” 

The group appears as an entertaining caravan moving through the lands of hostility. The closer they get, the more dim morbidity is substituted by lighthearted sarcasm. At the Austrian border, Yll Bardhi, playing a kinky police men, hisses sexually at Arta Mucaj who plays a refugee, spitting in her face “Stop you filthy Muslim, stop or I will shoot you,” Morina almost immerses himself into this role — Mucaj plays her character as full of terror — until another actor interrupts the scene right on time. 

Interruptions happen frequently on stage, an integral part of the play that uses the reconstruction of the rehearsal process itself as the basic line of narration. Scenes intercut with improvisations and frequent discussions over how to enact the story “correctly.” The play within a play helps to structure the bulk of the social commentary that jumps between time and place. 

Evocative moments arise especially when an apparently loosely conversation between actors and directors unexpectedly passes over to a well rehearsed pivotal scene.

But here the structure does even more, it engages the audience within the process on the difficult part: “How to best enact the interplay of seeing oneself through the eyes of the other” and yet be critical about it. Improvisation is repeatedly interrupted by Neziraj’s injections that vigorously try to mediate between mutual projections of East and West, and yet remain submissive to the whims of the German audience. 

When the actors suggest including encounters with Syrian refugee camps, Neziraj interrupts “Skip this part. Every other play in European theaters is about refugees. The Europeans only love refugees on stage, as fiction, not in reality.“ In another scene reconstructing the racist attacks in Hanau, the shootings are left out “because weapons on German stages are prohibited and if used, are only possible with 80 psychologists ready to assist the traumatized audience after the show.” 

Dealing with these serious matters through a play within a play helped Neziraj throughout the writing process to deal with mutual projections. In which one part feels inferior and needs to adapt, to explain themselves to the other superior counterpart. The actors in the premier remain “stuck” in improvisation and a well studied symbiosis of parody, cynicism and intervention. 

Multifaceted dialogues mingle, sometimes more sometimes less, into a rhythmic chorus. Evocative moments arise especially when an apparently loosely conversation between actors and directors unexpectedly passes over to a well rehearsed pivotal scene. 

A blue-helmeted UN official drinking beer apathetically, stands next to Peter Handke, who justifies his literate eloquence while washing his blame away by rubbing his body with soap. Handke, played by Adrian Morina, turns his back away from the audience, when Mucaj recites the eulogy Handke gave during the Slobodan Milošević’s funeral while simultaneously holding a “No teeth, no mustache, smell like shit, Bosnian Girl” banner. The graffiti written by Dutch soldiers on the walls of their bunker in Srebrenica.

Each element in the scene ridicules Handke — the 2019 Nobel Literature Prize winner — who openly denies the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing in Kosovo while expressing admiration for Milošević.

The words of the fictitious Nobel Committee member Rebecca Rädl, also played by Mucaj, argues with Handke’s pathetic defense of his literature being politically neutral; eventually his prize is stolen by the caravan but his helpless cry that “an honest European is threatened by Muslim bandits,” is left unheard. The hectic scene with flashing lights ends with an ironic hashtag #literatureüberalles, (literature over everything) criticizing the superficial European solidarity culture. 

When fiction isn’t innocent 

For Neziraj, speaking out about Handke is at the core of the drama, in essence dealing with violence clothed in fiction and hiding behind ignorance of the “superior culture.” The inaction of deferring his nomination, is yet another form of compliance to fiction washing of the racially motivated cruelties Albanians were exposed to throughout history. Both Karl May and Peter Handke never visited Kosovo, and based their work on Serbian myths and prejudices.

During the writing process, Neziraj was inspired by German playwrights Georg Büchner and Heiner Müller. Reading them helped him to find elements in order to form a dramatic arch between the Karl May era and current developments in Germany, and Western Europe. 

The actors in the play use extensive improvisation throughout. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

How could revisiting May help in a political climate of hardened borders and growing facsism? “We know the consequences of imperial times, and the resulting racial and cultural superiority of the West … I think literature produced in these times has been much ingrained within the supposedly “innocent” thoughts of the average German … It suffices to read some German newspapers and the language applied toward Albanians, this is our lack of knowledge, ignorance or at its worst, is used intentionally by those wanting to keep these prejudices and spread hatred,” explains Neziraj for whom ignorance is the root cause of prejudice. 

Yet, Neziraj does not want to reduce this to the Albanian people only and speaks of it as a common problem for the Balkans “When I talk Albanians in drama, I actually mean all the Balkans — when I talk about the East, I mean the East that the West has had and still has a supremacist approach to,” explains Neziraj for whom East and West are not to be understood geographically but politically. 

He remarks that the European’s paranoia toward “Muslim refugees” is a telling testimony of an already entrenched orientalization and bitter exclusion of “Muslims” from what is assumed as European. Threats fed with demonizations of Eastern Muslims are used to justify that wealth is kept between Germans only. 

‘An entertaining play for the German audience’ alone? 

At the start of the play Arta Mucaj reads the press release by the Kosovar National Theater, announcing in an ironic voice that the theater will support Volksbünhe to sort out internal issues. Within the scene this is “a good opportunity for Kosovars to pay back the debt owed to Germany for the 1999 bombs, also as an acknowledgement for Angela Merkel’s commitment to the fragile Balkan peace,” followed by #KosovaToHelpGermany #derMutter #kosovaintheEU signs held up by the actors. 

As the subtitle of the play suggests “The Return of Karl May,” is an “entertaining play for the German people,” but Neziraj says that this play is dedicated to neither Albanians or Germans but for everyone. 

What the play does is deconstruct and re-assemble historical and present trajectories to pose questions on future forms of cohabitation. Performing such plays in Berlin or other European cities, would have a beneficial effect for understanding East-West power dynamics, and would spark discussions over “nesting orientalisms” within the classical drama oriented theater audiences in the West. However this became impossible due to the spread of the pandemic, and the play missed its chance to be performed on the main stage at Volksbühne this May. Neziraj hopes there will be possible shows in the future. 

Many of the images and scenes produced on stage were made possible thanks to the improvisational input by the actors, whose ideas flowed into the artistic development and the final product. 

Karl May is a German national treasure but his racist depictions of Albanians still influence Germans today, according to Neziraj. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

The uncertainty of the pandemic, also turned the rehearsal process into an uneasy endeavor. But despite repeated interruptions, the actor Armed Smajli is satisfied with the energy brought to the final public performance. “Staging the play was a rewarding experience especially due to the reaction and conversation with the audience after the show, which created a special atmosphere where it became clear that there is much thought among the public on this topic,” he says. 

Playing the protagonist of Karl May’s book, Kara Ben Nemsi, Smajli had to immerse himself into how May depicted the “brave” German traveler, while at the same time finding the middle ground between colloquial language and precise cynicism. 

Smajli prior to rehearsal did not know much about the books of Karl May — just as others in the Prishtina audience did not — who were left with a lasting impression rethinking current issues about how the West treats the Balkans and how German conservative households might still picture Albanians and why. 

Shpetim Selmani has acted in Neziraj’s dramas for 10 years now and understands the irony in his plays, “I understand it especially as a means to critique different political systems and I am especially proud to be part of this one.” 

It is not the first time that Neziraj’s productions have dealt with the paradox of prejudice between East and West. His last play questioned the relationship between EU and Kosovo, carrying the comic title, “A Play with Four Actors and Some Pigs and Some Cows and Some Horses, a Prime Minister and Milka Cow and some International Inspectors.” 

Dealing with the remnants of unequal power dynamics in culture and politics between the West and the Balkans is a step toward constructing new visions of “Self” and “Other” for both western and Eastern audiences. Without being performed in front of a German audience the critical reinterpretation of “Karl May” will remain again peripheralized, lingering where it was sent to instead of dealing with it where it once took route from.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.