Terrorist Puzzle

Closed Circuit

“You have all become political caricatures. CROSSWORD CLUES. You became definitions used by the blasé ruling class, when they needed a seven-letter word to build a terrorist puzzle. How can you consent to being marionettes? … Heroes of a fucking REVOLUTIONARY FICTION!”1 With these words Ulrike Meinhof – a protagonist of Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel Teresa – addresses the other RAF, leaders Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, in response to the vision of the next, “expected, planned or only imaginary” action already devised within the concrete walls of Stammheim Prison. This quotation seems interesting not only as a fantasy about the subversive potential of the RAF’s structure, but most of all, as a starting point for an investigation of the complex relations between terror, theatre and archive – a puzzle of notions revealing both the anarchist and the myth-creating powerof the Red Army Faction. What is more, these relations show similarity both structurally and functionally, and they are connected with a net of interdependencies: plays and theatre spectacles devoted to the problem of terror, conceived on the basis of documents, may become an “ephemeral” archive themselves. Both perspectives – horizontal and vertical – embrace the idea of an archive as a specific institution (diverse systems of rationalization and social management), but also more metaphorical interpretations: above all, an archive as a reservoir of cultural memory or concepts that make it possible to see artistic gestures in the very idea of the archive.

Of course, Sem Sandberg’s title, Teresa, evokes the Carmelite who – abandoned and rejected by her community – introduced reforms to Catholicism. The association between Ulrike Meinhof and Teresa appears in the book only twice (inspired by Ensslin), but this is enough for the author to shift weight from the opposition between terrorists vs. state apparatus to a certain incompatibility and incoherence of attitudes within the group. Traces of such thinking could also be found in a piece by the French playwright Michel Deutsch, The Red Decade, in which Gudrun Ensslin, in a letter to Meinhof that she wrote from prison, also calls her Teresa: “You, Ulrike, are Teresa. Saint Teresa who reformed the Carmelites and does not belong to the Pequod’s crew. You are a good sister. To you, joining the RAF was like joining the convent… Besides, you piss me off. You piss everybody off!”2 Most narratives about the RAF concentrate on the moment when Ulrike Meinhof went underground, particularly on her decision to join the terrorists. However, both Deutsch and Sem-Sandberg also attempt to show something else: firstly, that the RAF members considered their activities to be copies of cultural tropes (Saint Teresa versus Penquod’s crew in Melville’s Moby Dick) before pop culture did;3 secondly, that Ulrike Meinhof can be perceived as a virus (and not only a variant of the saint fanatic) that unveils the internal heterogeneity of the group.

This special position of the intruder, assigned to Meinhof, is combined in Teresa with a double optic that makes the protagonist both a participant in the events and a commentator on them. “It’s the same stale air as in the whole shitty building, it flows around a closed circuit; you can’t even notice it because you are stale and unoriginal yourselves:”4 Meinhof indicates the kink of the RAF in Sem-Sandberg’s book. Being trapped in the “closed circuit” where the stale air is only exchanged (but not changed), and being unintentionally unoriginal are probably the two most significant paradoxes of the Baader-Meinhof group. The history of the RAF is still the story of a battle against fascism that immediately led to the reproduction of fascist patterns. The spiral of violenceembracedbothstruggling with the democratic State – a struggle defined as a radical criticism of capitalism and a resistance movement against the Nazi past – and constructing the internal structure of a group based on a hierarchic, almost military system under the charismatic leadership of Baader.

A closed circuit, of course appropriately scaled, is also the modus vivendi of an archive. Its oppressive nature; that of a machine that disciplines and categorizes, was already discussed by Michel Foucault, who considered the archive to be an instrument of controlling bodies, territories and knowledge. Nonetheless, information supervision and management is only one (external) symptom of the archive’s violence – the archive understood as an apparatus of power and a tool of nationalization and the institutionalization of historical knowledge. In opposition to the politics of memory that various institutions identify with, there emerge more and more anti-historical narratives that interfere with the status quo and introduce into public debate memories or images of the past hitherto perceived as cumbersome or even forbidden or superseded. The major goal of Foucault’s anti-historical project was to give voice to the victims excluded from the historical discourse producedby the winners.5 According to the logic of inversion, there are counter-archives or retrieved archives. Even though the analogy with terror is obvious in this type of archival operations, a much more interesting element of the archive – in the context of the RAF – is what happens not outside but inside it, in its very structure. In Archiving Machine – or a photo camera and a file cabinet, John Tagg notices that even early attempts to order and catalogue information or images were made by means of marking semantic space “where singularity of the view was inserted into a more complex representation of the world that, in its aspirations at least, offered a glimpse of a kind of topographical encyclopedia whose organization betrayed a whole geographical system.”6 These functions were assigned to a file cabinet and an ordinary glass-case, or even a shoe box that was provisionally adapted for archiving. “The spatiality of this view, its insistent penetration, functions, then, as the sensory model for a more abstract system whose subject is also space. View and land survey are interdetermined and interrelated”, wrote Rosalind Krauss about the file cabinet.7 This double optic spread between a singular view and an abstract land survey – although it mainly concerns photographic archives – shows how the archive’s internal logic as a type of a two-leveled semantic game is constructed. As a consequence, notions related to both topography and linguistics contribute equally to the description of the archive’s paradigm. “But, as in the Saussurean model itself, the construction of meaning across this structure of differences could not but radically conflict with the notion of meaning as a fullness interior of the sign.”8 What is more, Tagg observes that the archiving machine – even though it was a kind of a closed circuit – could not, also for other reasons, be perceived as analogous to an ideal linguistic system: “in itself, that system could never escape its structural incompletion, marked by the fatal shafts of emptiness that pierce the architecture of Borges’s library.”9This structural incompletion is also the repressed side of the archive. Tagg refers to José Saramago’s All the Names,where the author writes about the “inescapable incompletion of the archive, undone not only by error, decay and the work of unseen parasites but by the fallibility of its very system, marking, in Saramago’s terms, the triumph of sense over meaning, irresolvability over instrumentalization, irreducible difference over absolute fixity and the bureaucratic closure of the State.”10 Similar observations regarding the totalizing tendencies of archives and hence, their oppressive inclinations, were formulated by Robin Kelsey.11 In his opinion, they result from the fact that “the logic of instrumentalization is not given but it has to be articulated and instituted, so that …, the drive to close the semantic circuit of the archive is always open at every point to resistance and contestation. … the circuit is never finally able to secure itself, so that the functioning of the archive – meaning the signification of the evidential document and the computation of the archiving system – is always both excessive and inadequate in relation to itself: the instrumentalized record is always simultaneously too big and too small for its discursive frame ….”12 Repressing or cropping out this excess and inadequacy by archival systems is another, more latent symptom of the violence they practice.

One could, therefore, risk the thesis that the myth of the RAF as an “instrumentalized document” is also too broad or too narrow in reference to its discursive frame. Maybe this is why Sławomir Sierakowski suggests that two separate prefaces are appropriate for Sam-Sandberg’s book. The first one is recommended to “all those who absolutely condemn the terrorism of the RAF because they despise violence and love democracy, the rule of law and individual freedom,” while the second one is addressed to “those who consider the Baader-Meinhof story to be romantic and fascinating.”13 However, in order to avoid the potential inadequacy of both narratives (one being too broad, the other – too narrow), he “crosses” his texts somewhat. It is a reference to the strategy of Teresa’s author, who constructs a subversive portrait of Meinhof at the point of contact of different fragments – documents and fiction, quotes and fantasy – set in motion via editing.

Revolutionary fiction

Obviously, the ambiguity of the concept of the archival closed circuit does not only concern problems with excessive accumulation and attempts at rational information management open to external and internal gestures of contestation. Sven Spieker, an expert in the field, claims that the archive ceased to function solely in production mode, thus establishing a new phenomenon of the archives’ consumption.14 This relates equally to the archive understood as the subject of scientific research as it does to the interest in archives that is noticeable in the area of modern art – the latter is connected both with the idea that a work of art may play the role of an archive, and with the artistic consumption of all kinds of space or (private and state) archival discourses. Paradoxically, as Spieker states, “this consumption is not passive; it’s active, it’s a very creative sort of consumption that can itself be a form of production.”15 An increasing number of signs of the “archival impulse” can also be observed in contemporary Polish theatre.16 The archival theme was taken up by Wojtek Ziemilski in The Files (prepared together with Teatr Ósmego Dnia), and in his Small Narration. In both cases, information found in documents in the Institute of National Remembrance served as a pretext to construct a spectacle, while the very archive (as a specific institution) functioned both as a means of producing knowledge and memory and as a subject of critical investigation. Also the RE// MIX cycle organized by Commune// Warsaw could be considered a peculiar archival game. The author of the concept, Tomasz Plata, explains: “The RE// MIX cycle … consists of new productions that refer to classic works, primarily of theatre and dance, but also literature and film. The prototypes, most of of them rather forgotten, at some point changed the thinking of people who today practice »unconventional« theatre – interdisciplinary, experimental, situated on the boundaries of visual theatre, performance art, visual arts and social activism. They form a unique cultural canon, define taste and style, constitute a self-definition of their own sources and inspirations – they provide points of reference.”17 In this context, however, the archive should not be spoken of as an actual institution, but rather as a repository of cultural memory that can be recreated through an artistic operation. Any documentary inquiry, concerning specific biographies or past events, is characterized by going back to (historical, theatre, visual) archives as modeled systems of memory. The most popular subjects are the ones in which the division into documentary and fiction is not at all obvious, mainly due to the myth-creatingcharacter of the re-constructed phenomena. It is not surprising therefore that in theatre, too, the unceasingly fashionable story of the RAF became a popular object of interest.

Cover of the collection The Red Decade

In the collection of texts about the Red Army Faction published in the modern drama series by the Panga Pank publishing house, there areas many asfive different literary pieces that were directly inspired by the history of the RAF. Apart from the already mentioned Michel Deutsch’s The Red Decade,which gave the title to the entire publication, the selection also includesThree Monologues,by Franca Rame and Dario Fo; The Death of the Squirrel Man,by Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk; Leviathan,by Dea Loher; and Katharina Schmitt’s Knock Out. Each of them depicted the RAF’s history in a different socio-political context and via alternative narrative strategies and theatrical conventions: from Deutsch’s documentary method, through the meta-theatrical confessions of Rame and Fo, and the grotesque and brutal story written by Sikorska-Miszczuk, up to poetical texts by Loher and Schmitt (the last one inspired by a series of Gerhard Richter’s paintings).

In this peculiar archive of violence, what is missing is a virulent and scoffing play by Elfriede Jelinek, Ulrike Maria Stuart, written on the basis of Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart and the life story of the two RAF’s leaders: Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, the queens of German terrorism. “The life-and-death struggle between Elisabeth, who plays the role of the Virgin in the history of England, and the erotically vital Mary, is treated like background for Elfriede Jelinek’s story about an illusion of German military revolution developed by two women in 1968.”18 What makes me mention this text is an incident that took place during the 2007 premiere of the spectacle in Thalia Theater in Hamburg; namely, an interesting confrontation between Jelinek’s “revolutionary fiction” and the keepers of the past (one of the rehearsals was visited by messengers of Bettina Röhl, Meinhof’s daughter), which resulted in the posing of a question about the game that theatre plays with the original story and ways of depicting terror on stage. Although the premiere’s reviewers underlined the parodical tone of the spectacle (in Nicolas Temann’s staging, the queens’ competition for Baader’s affectionwas compared to “vagina monologues”; in one of the scenes, Ulrike and Gudrun posed for film shots inDownfall 2: Last Days in Stammheim, which sneeringly emphasized analogies between the RAF terrorists and Hitler), this did not deter Meinhof’s daughter from threatening the theatre with a personal interests infringement lawsuit. The purpose of the lawsuit did not lie in any removing discreditable details, but in preventing the play from “preserving the myth of the RAF” and “glorifying both women.”19 Jelinek, who agreed to have her drama censored, managed to avoid trial.20 The incident involving Bettina Röhl was decided by a settlement but, according to Adam Krzemiński’s account, right after the premiere of Ulrike Maria Stuart, Germany experienced a heated debate about the amnestygrantedto two terrorists sentenced to life in prison: Brigitte Mohnhaupt and Christian Klar.21 “Who were German terrorists, inquired Jillian Becker, the author of a book on the psychological roots of the Baader-Meinhof group: a 30 years overdue movement of resistance against Hitlerism, or rather, »Hitler’s children«?”22 Similarly to Jelinek, the authors of the texts included in The Red Decade collection take well-defined positions towards the RAF’s history: Deutsch challenges the credulously accepted objectivism of source materials that he used and that are, nevertheless enlisted at the end of his play; Rame gives voice to women who had been excluded from public discourse; Schmitt writes in the initial stage directionsthat her play is not about the RAF but about “the struggle, the fighters’ attractiveness and the boundaries between the struggle and the terror.”23

In view of the above, The Death of the Squirrel Man, by Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, seems to be a special case because, first of all, the ideological position of the author towards the subject is not the most crucial element of the text. Even though she reminds her readers that “the history recounted in the play actually happened” right below the list of characters,and shortly thereafter presents key events of the RAF’s activity, the main object of her interest is the titular Squirrel-Man, “a collective RAF victim, the subject of an experiment, [who] dies once a day over and over again.” However, the author doesn’t aim at creating an emblematic character that would let her build a theatrical parable, but at a type of lens that splits the history of the RAF in the direction of a surrealist grotesque typical of South Park or Monty Python. It’s not a coincidence that the motto of the play is a sentence reappearing in every episode of South Park: “Oh, my God, they killed Kenny. You bastards!”

One might say that the Squirrel Man – inspired by Kenny – sticks to the RAF like a leech.He always shows up where he can find Ulrike (whom he is in love with), and it always ends uprather badly for him, almost like in a horror movie (he is run over by Meinhof, shot by Ensslin in the library, hung with a tie, his throat is cut by broken glass and finally, he is torn into pieces by the bomb). In their relationship, the separation of reality from ideology is two-foldand goes across:on the hand, Meinhof doesn’t take notice of her notorious victim, for whom and in the name of whom she leads the revolution; on the other hand, the Squirrel-Man, whose death is a necessary cost of this political experiment, is fond of the RAF and loves Ulrike without reciprocity – like “every fifth and every tenth German.” “Unfortunately, I am too individual for her. She cares only for humanity in general,” the Squirrel-Man reports on his terrible condition. Sikorska-Miszczuk elaborates on this fatalmistake in a masterly fashion and with a devilish sense of humour. The RAF’s history becomes a story from the moon-maloon, where – according to her version – the Anti-Man was born (personified by Andreas Baader): “a Poet went for a walk when a pot of poetry broke above his head and a cluster of bubbles was formed,” the author writes in her stage directions, which enter into dialogue with the plot.

There is an overwhelming impression that “a cluster of bubbles was formed” in the history of the Red Army Faction too, and that the author not only is aware of this fact, but also that she knows how to cleverly use it and have a lot of fun in the process. Her text sparkles with brilliant, funny wisecracks, absurd theatre games, thematic associations. Sikorska-Miszczuk creates a subversive and ephemeral anti-archive that, according to her own terminology, collects information about Anti-People from the Anti-World – we should point out the multi-variant scene of Baader’s self-presentation – that all lead to morbid variation on the RAF, the ghastly reverse of the “memory” of terror. Baader’s first self-presentation is accompanied by the following stage directions: “this is how it sounded, but there were witnesses who claimed it sounded differently.”24 There might be several tunes of this story. What is important is not even the possibility of multiple variants of memory (linked with its subjectivity), but musical variations that enable the author to provide endless recreations of well-known motifs and topics: little bubbles expanded to the size of a galaxy and built a new universe where, like in a nightmare, familiar and disturbing elements regarding the RAF got mixed together. Wheareas Sem-Sandberg’s narrative is governed by the logic of subversive editing, Sikorska-Miszczuk’s narrative has traces of the strategy of afterimagewhich – as proved by Zbigniew Libera in his POSITIVES – does not have to be related to the field of vision, but may also refer to the field of memory. Inspired by the theory of vision developed by Władysław Strzemiński in relation to research on the rules of vision,Libera showed that the phenomenon of afterimages also exists in a deeper, mental sphere, and concerns memory. “Probably, everyone has a number of images from the field of vision in their imagination or from the collective memory that they remember due to the shock these images caused when they saw them, but at the same time they recall them as the ones they did not want and cannot remember and they try to protect themselves from them,” said the artist, speaking about his impulse to create the Positives series.25 “Positive” is extremely powerful because it forces the viewer to use his or her imagination and to search for its “negative” in his or her own visual memory. In The Death of the Squirrel Man, remembered images overlap and mingle, increasingly subjectivizing the matrix. These are: acoustic afterimages – Ulrike constantly hears German sounds in her head (“squeaking doors of the Deutsche Bank, porcine voices of German policemen, shooting at the German demonstration, crying, sounds of sirens, victorious military marches hummed silently”), which remind her of old German crimes; visions – the one of the Squirrel-Man who tries to talk about it, while he is mortally wounded in his liver, the one “about the plane that flew in through the window,” or the premonition of the Pigeon-Hearted Policeman regarding the current situation in Poland, all of them presenting different variants of terror; and afterimages of mass culture – Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin stylized as Bonnie and Clyde, film scenes of bank robberies, the RAFfashion show. Afterimages also concern archival information about the group’s activity – bank robberies, planting bombs, detentions, hunger strikes and suicides – which undergo poetic transformations.

Sikorska-Miszczuk illuminates the amazing power and vitality of the RAF’s image in the media. One of the examples found in the text is a reference to the fairy tale siblings Hansel and Gretel (in the play, uncle Hans and aunt Greta are telling a tale about the Red Colour) – seemingly innocent, only emphasizing inseparability of the terrorist tandem. In fact, it is an allusion to a photo album entitled Hans und Grete. Die RAF 1967-1977, published in 1998 by an ex-terrorist named Astrid Proll, which contains photographs depicting the RAF members as a group of friendly young people spending time in Parisian cafés in a light-hearted fashion.26 This image, among others, to a large extent preserved the cool-t version of the Red Army Faction. A definitely uncool-t character in the play is the Pigeon-Hearted Policeman who – despite being as kind as the RAF in the above mentioned pictures – is consequently called an idiot by his enemies. Through him, Sikorska-Miszczuk accurately – although in characteristically absurd manner (the Pigeon Heart of the Policeman first changes into the Hole in his Chest, then turns into a New Heart) – shows that terror strengthens the ones against whom it is directed. This is why the subsequent repetitions that are the foundation of her text (the repetitive deaths of the Squirrel-Man, or constantly making a fool of the Pigeon-Hearted Policeman) increasingly makes reality monstrous. In her black comedy, the author does not have mercy on anybody, maybe with the exception of Ulrike – by showing her moments of doubts or decisions using more metaphorical conventions. Despite a different imagery strategy, the “mind trap” – as Sikorska-Miszczuk calls Meinhof’s case in one of her interviews27 – inscribes into a series of afterimages: ideas that transform into their own contradictions

What can we know about the RAF?

The RAF’s phenomenon has become a popular topic not only in the field of writing, but also in stagings. In preparation for an interview entitled How Not To Be Ulrike Meinhof,published in the Polish theatre journal “Dialog,” Łukasz Drewniak investigated and browsed through Polish spectacles of the last few years, focusing on the presence of the Red Army Faction’s main figures. Apart from two stagings of Sikorska-Miszczuk’s TheDeath of the Squirrel Man – directed by Marcin Liber (Usta-Usta Theatre, 2006) and by Natalia Korczakowska (Theatre in Jelenia Góra, 2007) – Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof appeared in a spectacle entitled The Future of the World,prepared by Komuna Otwock, and an episode related to Meinhof was also a part of Jan Klata’s Transfer! Perhaps this theatrical archive of violence is not impressive, but it still seems worth inquiring – paraphrasing Grzegorz Laszuk’s words from the above mentioned interview – why “terror looks great on stage, even though it doesn’t change anything in the world?”28

The problem of the commodification of the RAF was addressed by Natalia Korczakowska, who critically commented on the media and pop-cultural popularity of the group: terrorists fighting capitalism have posthumously become its hostages. Although references to this paradox are embedded in Sikorska-Miszczuk’s text, Korczakowska decided to go one step further. Her staging opened with a fashion show, however it did not show “paper bags over heads” but young, attractive and stylized actors. The presentation of their attributesand high-class modeling was accompanied by – spoken out loud – texts about violence, the beginnings of the RAF, terrorism, and theatre. The scene ended with the presentation of famous brands such as Baader&Meinhof, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault and even TR Warszawa or Volksbühne. This was the first sign of the strong entanglement of terror, philosophy, and theatre in the spectacle.

In the same scene, Lidia Schneider – looking, in her costume, like a clone of Ulrike Meinhof – was running from door to door, turning to the audience with the following words: “I have enough of my own life problems, each word spoken out here changes into a lie. My father-in-law, when he learned about our work, thought that the spectacle would be about the RAF – Royal Air Force. What can we know about the RAF? The only thing we could keep alive is a myth. The myth of the RAF.”29 To disarm this myth, Korczakowska inserted Sikorska-Miszczuk’s play into the debate about violence in theatre, broadly understood. One of the masters of pointing out theatrical oppressions, not only on the level of representation, but also in terms of institutional structure, is surely René Pollesch, whose name appeared in Korczakowska’s gallery of “top brands.” This, however, has not diminished her appreciation for Pollesch’s theatre (Korczakowska was his assistant in the Warsaw spectacle Ragazzo dell’ Europa) which played out so prominently in her production in Jelenia Góra. Adapting the text of The Death of the Squirrel Man quite freely, Korczakowska added extensive fragments of Hannah Arendt’s and Jean Baudrillard’s books to it, as well as quotations from the RAF members’ texts, or actors’ improvisations. It seems that we are dealing with an interesting paradox here: Korczakowska used symbolic violence towards Sikorska-Miszczuk’s play in order to go beyond the story about German terrorists’ violence and reveal oppressive strategies of the theatre itself. As far as the latter is concerned, she was mainly interested in the director’s violence against the actor (encouraging him/her to “play with their guts” in the context of depicting extreme situations and states, using physical violence to make the theatrical image more suggestive, etc.) but also in the problem of representation (how to show violence on stage? How to talk about terrorism?). Discussions related to the condition of theatre and the question of preparing a spectacle about terrorism were repeated a few times in Korczakowska’s performance. Actors seemed to try on their roles; they took the challenge or refused to participate in this undertaking. The person who was most unhappy about the necessity of taking part in the show was of course Ulrike Meinhof (Lidia Schneider), who inefficiently looked for a way out of the situation and the theatre. This allowed Korczakowska to introduce reflections on the problem of guilt and responsibility for violence.

One scene in particular remained in my memory: “We are in the reading-room of the Institute of Sociology in Dahlem, in Berlin, where, assisted by the Squirrel-Man, Ulrike, Baader and the Policeman are having a civilized conversation about violence. The discussion is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Gudrun. From that moment on, everything happens rapidly: Baader screams: ‘Boring!’ and throws himself towards the police gun left on the floor. The policeman tries to disarm him, and throws the gun ahead of himself. It is caught by Gudrun who, amazed to have a gun in her hand, first aims at Baader, then Meinhof, then finally at the Squirrel-Man. She screams, ‘I’m not going to shoot you, Squirrel-Man, because we are making revolution in Germany for the sake of you and your family!’ and shoots him. Fatally wounded, the Squirrel-Man bounces off the window and falls down, covering his liver with his hand. Stop! Now, the whole situation, as if it was a rewound film, slowly goes back to the starting point – the actors precisely repeat the same sequence of the movements and gestures. After a while, the same scene starts again. Gudrun enters, Baader screams, ‘Boring!’…”.30 This was an absolutely hypnotic situation. Not because the actors perfectly played this moment, or because Korczakowska directed the scene as if it was bloodcurdling action film, though that was also the case. But the fundamental reason why this image still seems important today was that the viewers were confronted with the unknown: how did it happen that people who condemned the crimes of the Nazis seized weapons themselves? The allusion to the rewound film tape and the attention to detail is extremely crucial in this case. Walter Benjamin analysed similar phenomena in reference to notions of memory and our understanding of history (according to the rule “to see means to know”). Slow motion in a film or zoom in photography allows to really see the recorded material by making visible what has remained optically unconscious. Analogically editing, afterimage, or slow motion as dramaturgic or theatrical strategies could enable the re-usage of archival materials – not in order to consume them mindlessly, but to place them in a productive and critical context.