Plays of Helplessness, and Hope, as the Planet Burns

WEIMAR, Germany — Once again, summer brought with it a barrage of unnatural natural catastrophes: floods, forest fires, droughts, deadly heat waves and mass die-offs of fish and fowl. Much of what climate scientists foretold is coming true. It was against this background that the Kunstfest Weimar, a late summer event that is the largest contemporary arts festival in eastern Germany, took place with an emphasis on climate justice and our collective responsibility to strive for a better world.

Helpless in the face of these environmental calamities, many of us are probably feeling a measure of “solastalgia.” That term was coined in 2004 by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who defined it as “a type of homesickness or melancholia that you feel when you’re at home and your home environment is changing around you in ways that you feel are profoundly negative.” Put more succinctly, it is “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’”

“Solastalgia” is also the name of a new play by Thomas Köck that had its premiere last week at the Kunstfest, held annually since 1990 in this small, culturally rich city and shrewdly curated this year by Rolf C. Hemke. A coproduction between the festival and Schauspiel Frankfurt, “Solastalgia” is an artful and elegant lamentation about the state of our planet. Köck, a young Austrian theater maker, finds an arrestingly poetic register for this meditation on the grief and panic that are common responses to seeing nature perish. Essentially a 70-minute-long monologue that Köck, who also directs the energetic and music-filled production, distributes among three actresses, it is by turns humorous, absurd, surreal and horrifying.

On a simple, semicircular set, the actresses Miriam Schiweck, Katharina Linder and Mateja Meded, in costumes that seem stitched together from garbage, declaim Köck’s fragmented text, which contains ruminations on Germany’s increasingly ravaged forests and a narrative about a former builder for whom solastalgia becomes not only an existential but also a physical malady. Köck’s text is lyrical and poetic, with rhythms and cadences of overlapping dialogue creating musical effects.

For artists who set out to make works about burning issues like climate change, there is always a danger of sliding into righteousness, or sermonizing. Yet there’s a fundamental openness to Köck’s play that prevents it from becoming propagandistic. How ought we mourn the destruction of our habitat? How best do we live with the knowledge that the forests, beaches and oceans we love are vanishing? “Solastalgia” offers few answers, but its barrage of powerful images and incantatory language creates room for poetic and philosophical reflection.

The ecological outrage and anxiety at the core of “Solastalgia” were also central to “Welcome to Paradise Lost,” a musical theater work that might best be described as an immersive environmental agitprop Gesamtkunstwerk. During the performance, the audience follows a cast of actors, singers and musicians through various indoor and outdoor locations in a former electrical power plant on the edge of Weimar’s historic center. Unfortunately, much of “Welcome to Paradise Lost,” adapted from a recent play by Falk Richter, a leading German dramatist, has a hectoring tone that makes it less compelling than the inventive production, directed by Andrea Moses.

Although the direct source material for “Welcome to Paradise Lost” is the Persian verse epic “The Conference of the Birds,” in which winged creatures gather to seek an enlightened sovereign, Richter’s text also nods to Aristophanes and Alfred Hitchcock. In Farid ud-Din Attar’s 12th-century poem, the birds travel through a succession of allegorically named valleys where they are confronted with human vices and stupidities. In Richter’s version, the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg (sung by the young Swedish soprano Ylva Stenberg) guides a chorus of 14 youngsters wearing rubber bird masks on the path of resistance and uprising.

As Greta leads her panicked flock, alarmed over the loss of their habitat, their methods evolve. Impassioned yet peaceful gatherings reminiscent of Fridays for Future give way to the disruptive tactics associated with Extinction Rebellion in an exciting smoke- and flare-filled outdoor scene where the birds plot terroristic revenge on humankind. But for all the undeniable energy of the production and the performances, “Welcome to Paradise Lost” isn’t exactly the climate change opera we’ve been waiting for.

The music by the local composer Jörn Arnecke has moments of arresting lyricism yet is just as often pedestrian. Most crucially, perhaps, the libretto itself, containing numerous outside texts, including Thunberg’s “How dare you” speech to the United Nations, neither hangs together nor gives any sense of a narrative or a poetic progression. It is loopier and more freewheeling than “Solastalgia” but also has the subtlety of a cudgel, thanks to sloganizing and finger wagging.

Shifting registers, the Kunstfest turned from environmental alarm to the scourge of right-wing radicalism in Germany.

“Werwolfkommandos,” a sobering piece of docudrama directed by Marie Schwesinger, is an almost clinical probe into two recent trials that roiled the nation: the first, of a neo-Nazi who in 2019 assassinated Walter Lübcke, a regional official in the city of Kassel; the second, of the German military officer who had posed as a Syrian refugee and was planning a string of assassinations at the time of his arrest in 2017.

Rage-filled yet coolly dispassionate, “Werwolfkommandos” consists largely of verbal reconstructions of the trials. Dressed monochromatically, four steely actors bring sang-froid to the courtroom proceedings. The way the actors keep sifting through the evidence, the arguments and the timelines, and the minutiae of the proceedings becomes infuriating and exasperating, which is, of course, precisely the point. At the end of the production, the house lights go dark, and the actors, their faces uncannily illumined by the glow of their cellphones, recite headlines about right-wing extremism. The night of the premiere, the most recent news item was just three days old.

Right-wing terror has a particular significance in Weimar. You have only to venture 20 minutes outside of the picturesque old city, with its monuments to Goethe and Schiller, to arrive at the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. To travel the six miles between them is to be confronted with the proximity of culture and barbarism that is inscribed in German history.

An installation by the American artist Aura Rosenberg, which is part of the Kunstfest’s program, offers a poetic reflection on Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Concept of History,” which famously interprets a print by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus,” as the emblem of history, unable to turn away from the catastrophes of the past as it is blown into the future.

At the center of Rosenberg’s installation, on view at the Bauhaus Museum Weimar until Oct. 31, is a multilayered video work, “Angel of Paradise,” that literalizes Benjamin’s vision of history as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” in a trippy computer-animated collage. And yet, at the center of the rubble of civilization heaped together onscreen, we find visual echoes of Benjamin’s “spark of hope in the past” that drives us to imagine a brighter tomorrow, despite the calamities of history.

A similar hope courses through the works of artists invited by the Kunstfest Weimar to share their theatrical responses to our deeply imperfect present.

Solastalgia. Directed by Thomas Köck. Sept. 23 through Oct. 21 at Schauspiel Frankfurt.
Welcome to Paradise Lost. Directed by Andrea Moses. Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar. Sept. 18.
Werwolfkommandos. Directed by Marie Schwesinger. Oct. 20 through Nov. 4 at Landungsbrücken Frankfurt.