Milo Rau was born at Bern in Switzerland in 1977. After passing his baccalaureate, he studied German language and literature, Romance languages and literatures, and sociology in Zurich, Berlin and Paris, where he attended the Sorbonne. While he was still a student, he also worked as a journalist for various newspapers and periodicals. Since 2001, he has written mainly for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Following his university career, which Milo Rau completed in 2002 with a study of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, he was initially employed as an author and director at various independent, municipal and state theatres in the German-speaking countries, including the Staatsschauspiel Dresden, the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin and the Theaterhaus Gessnerallee in Zurich. Rau created many of his projects in collaboration with his directorial colleague Simone Eisenring.
Rau made his breakthrough in 2009, when he established reenactment as a format for political theatre: The Last Days of the Ceauşescus, a piece created in 2009, was invited to the Festival d`Avignon. This was followed by Hate Radio, which reenacted an hour of broadcasting by RTLM, a Rwandan radio station implicated in the genocide of 1994. Hate Radio was showcased at both Radikal jung, the young directors' festival held in Munich, and the Berlin Theatertreffen.
Apart from his artistic activities, Milo Rau has continued to work as a journalist, researcher and lecturer through to the present day. In 2007, he founded the International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM), which has dedicated itself to promoting fruitful dialogue between academic theory and artistic praxis.
In 2009, The Last Days of the Ceauşescus enriched the German-language theatre with a new political format: reenactment – the artistic reconstruction of real historic events, a technique that had been fashionable in the visual arts for a long time. Milo Rau collaborated with his fellow director Simone Eisenring to translate the methodology of ‘reenactment’ effectively onto the stage. Basing the play on an original video recording, Rau reenacted the trial of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989. The piece sparked considerable controversy. Although some critics recognised the artist’s immense potential as an innovator, others appeared to be uneasy at the work’s aesthetic realism, a mode that was particularly unusual on the independent theatre scene. At a fundamental level, some commentators asked themselves what was to be gained from a performance if it purportedly did nothing more than reproduce a trial that had been documented on film as faithfully to the original as possible.
However, this objection is rooted in a misunderstanding. Regardless of the fact that, for example, the video that documents the Ceauşescu trial merely depicts a small section of the room, and Milo Rau therefore had to reconstruct many details himself by carrying out exhaustive research, he is sure of what he is doing: ‘At the moment when something is put onto the stage and therefore becomes an artistic event that can be watched repeatedly, we become aware, strangely enough, that it has not been processed in any way.’ And it is precisely the desire to ‘approach this traumatic core’ that is one of the essential driving forces behind his work.
At the same time, the central component of his art is not actuality, but truth, a point on which Milo Rau likes to cite the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. He explains, ‘It is not a question of truth in the technical sense, but truth, re-petition, in the Kierkegaardian sense; the recreation of a situation, an emotional response, not a factually accurate reproduction of every nuance.’ The director’s background in the humanities and social sciences comes through clearly in these words. Indeed, he once wrote a dissertation about the ‘aesthetics of reenactment’. To the present, the cross-fertilisation between theory and praxis forms the most important driving force behind Rau’s work. In 2007, the director founded not an independent theatre group, but the International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM), a body intended to undertake academically founded work that deepens, and reflects theoretically on, the interchange of ideas about reenactment between theatre, visual art, film and research.
The concrete implications of theorems like those put forward by Eisenstein and Kierkegaard for aesthetic praxis are illustrated perfectly by Rau’s 2011 production Hate Radio. Using actors from Rwanda, the director recreated an hour of broadcasting on the Rwandan radio station RTLM, which has gone down in history as one of the most cynical propaganda instruments deployed during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, all framed by reports from the perspective of the victims. The four presenters were played by performers whose own families had suffered in the genocide. Their calls to commit bestial murder were interspersed with pop songs, slangy jokes and crude pseudotheorising about racial differences. Nevertheless, Hate Radio did not reproduce an hour of output that had actually been broadcast down to the last detail, but assembled original material from RTLM, texts from extremist publications and witness statements into a complex mosaic that deliberately explored contradictory signifiers with the aim of productively disconcerting the audience. Many of the passing remarks made by the presenters as they incited their listeners to genocide had classic left-wing connotations. One presenter wore a T-shirt printed with Nelson Mandela’s face under her training jacket.
Whereas other forms of political theatre analyse trials and attempt to fit them into orderly categories, Rau consciously rejects any attempt to explain. Reenactment only ever shows what happened – even when this is done in accordance with an intelligently thought through concept. ‘The effect of an analytical approach is always one with which we are already familiar,’ Rau says, distancing himself from methods that focus on interpretation. By contrast, the power of reenactment lies in ‘making it possible for people to experience something very remote from their own lives in a fashion that is highly complex, although it appears quite naïve, and reveals directly how we are totally involved in events, making it clear history is not a thing of the past.’ For Milo Rau, this is a ‘cathartic experience’. His work is always preceded by very extensive research. He spent two whole years preparing Hate Radio and carried out about 50 interviews with contemporary witnesses in Rwanda alone – most of them conducted over five or six hours. ‘You could say I have to detect the trace of authenticity in everything I use,’ Rau explains. ‘Otherwise, I don’t get anywhere near the temperature of a story.’
Although, with theatrical reenactment, the director has created a genuinely successful format – The Last Days of the Ceauşescus was invited to the Festival d'Avignon, while Hate Radio visited both the Radikal jung young directors festival in Munich and the renowned Berlin Theatertreffen in 2012 –, Rau does not limit himself to aesthetic recreations, but seeks an adequate form for each subject time after time. Breivik’s Explanation, a performance at the Theaterdiscounter in Berlin, was a reading of the defence statement delivered by the Norwegian far-right terrorist and mass murderer Anders Breivik in April 2012 before the court that tried him in Oslo, for which it sat in closed session. The piece was distanced as far as possible conceptually from any idea of somebody playing Breivik, and therefore from the classic model of reenactment. Rau had the speech read by the German-Turkish actress Sascha Ö. Soydan: slowly, matter-of-factly, chewing gum. Thanks to these alienating elements, Breivik was not just de-demonised, but totally de-theatricalised: Rau and Soydan stripped away the familiar media images layer by layer to reveal the architecture of a racist conceptual edifice, which displayed a shocking affinity with other, more or less well established right-wing nationalist discourses.
Certainly, of the figures in political theatre who are successfully using explosive topics and concepts to productively challenge both audiences and institutions, Milo Rau is the one who is having the biggest public impact at present and, in the best possible sense, polarising opinion most sharply. Breivik’s Explanation, for instance, had provoked a theatrical scandal before it even opened. The Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar, which had wanted to stage a preview performance of the production before its Berlin premiere, disassociated itself from the project at short notice, forcing Rau to find a private cinema where the work could be seen. To date, however, the director, who was born at Bern in 1977, has faced the fiercest reactions to his work in his homeland, Switzerland. When Rau was planning a theatrical project about a Kosovo Albanian who murdered one of his daughter’s teachers in 1999 at St. Gallen, a case that was to be of immense significance for Swiss policy towards foreign residents, he, his family and the theatre received over a hundred death threats in the course of a few days – partly as a consequence of unfounded and incorrect claims in the press. Rau’s parents had to move house. The production was cancelled and could only be put on a year later in a modified form.
The Civil Wars
2014 Zürcher Theater Spektakel
You will not like what comes after America
# 1: Breiviks Statement
2012 Theaterdiscounter Berlin
2011 Kunsthaus Bregenz / Memorial Centre Kigali / Theater Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin
City of Change
2010 Theater St. Gallen
Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus (i.e. „The Last Days of the Ceausescus“)
2009 Teatrul Odeon Bukarest / Theater Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin
2007 Theaterhaus Gessnerallee Zürich / Ballhaus Ost, Berlin
„Out of focus“
2006 Maxim Gorki Theater (Studio), Berlin