Book by Elfriede Jelinek: risk pathos and triviality

Attention for Elfriede Jelinek: The film “Let the language off the leash” brings the author closer again. Her new book challenges.

Portrait of Elfriede Jelinek from 1998

The text as installation and intervention: Elfriede Jelinek 1998 in Vienna Photo: SKATA/imago

This enthusiasm can be shared. The documentary “Let the language off the leash” has been running in cinemas for a few days, and a grateful tweet has reached social media that this film exists, broadcast from the cinema right after the credits. You really want to join this chorus right away. In fact, this film not only brings Elfriede Jelinek (again) close to you. It is also a fine example of how fruitful use can be made of literature that is not exactly simple.

How did the filmmaker Claudia Müller, dramaturgically supported by Brigitte Landes, do it? One point is: With archive material she confidently outlines the life of Elfriede Jelinek, as far as the author herself addresses it in her literature. There is this challenging origin.

The mother is ambitious, Catholic, cold – “rock hard”, says Elfriede Jelinek in the film – who wants to drill her daughter into a musical genius in 16-hour days. The father, on the other hand, was active in public, Jewish, later withdrawing from his daughter because of her mental illness. She “saved herself into language because it was the only art form that my mother didn’t encourage,” says Elfriede Jelinek.

For a long time, she gave information about her literary career in interviews, just as coolly and analytically well thought-out as she did about this parental constellation. The documentation convincingly cuts key milestones together.

Glamor and Icon

“We are decoys baby!”, her “Poproman”, as Elfriede Jelinek puts it. The insane hype surrounding the novel Lust, this attempt to write female porn, or rather: the linguistic analysis of the impossibility of writing female porn because the language of sexual desire is male-dominated. The 2004 Nobel Prize, which Elfriede Jelinek was unable to accept in person due to a “generalized anxiety disorder”, according to her self-diagnosis.

In all of this, it becomes clear how much glamor this author radiated, what an icon she was, partly to her own amazement and also overwhelmed. Above all, however, the film always makes it clear what texts mean for this author.

Because there is another point: the film goes far beyond the biographical approach. On the audio track, he lets the texts speak for themselves, in the voices of readers such as Sandra Hüller, Sophie Rois, Ilse Ritter, Martin Wuttke, Maren Kroymann and Stefanie Reinsperger. It becomes clear how collaged these texts are, not calling for identification, but composed of sayings, associations and different voice registers like language installations.

feminist perspective

At the same time, these texts are deliberately used political interventions. Elfriede Jelinek first intensified the language experiments of the Vienna School from a feminist perspective and then also from a historical-political perspective, against the repression of the Nazi past in Austria. All of this is staged without voiceovers, just by confronting the archive material with the texts.

Only towards the end does the film get stuck on this unspeakable accusation that Elfriede Jelinek has defiled her. But maybe Austria hasn’t deserved anything else up to now than clearly its reactionary sides to be advised.

A highlight, on the other hand, are scenes from the Burgtheater production of Jelinek’s “Ein Sportstück”, in which the Director Einar Schleef 1998 added a lot of theatrical pathos to the pathos of these texts. In an interview scene you can see Elfriede Jelinek’s grief over the death of Einar Schleef. At the same time she says: “If you risk pathos, you also have to risk triviality.”

Inspired by the film

Texts as installations and interventions, always sharply confronting pathos and triviality – perhaps despite some dark moments this film makes you so happy because it makes these texts shimmer so plausibly.

But anyone who, inspired by the film, reaches for the new book by Elfriede Jelinek, “Indication of the Person” it says, will be slowed down again quite a bit at first. The book is by no means the “life balance” that Rowohlt-Verlag wants to sell it as.

In fact, the title of the documentary basically fits this new text wonderfully: Based on a tax evasion case against her (which was later dropped), she goes through various news situations of the past years with wild associations and leaves the language a bit the leash. Other major tax cases occur, Boris Becker, Cum-Ex, from there the topics meander, Corona, also refugees across the Mediterranean, also Nazi grandchildren and much more.

Boris Becker’s toilet flush

And between many, many jokes – “The toilet paper is also running out. Unfortunately not with me” – information flashes about her Jewish ancestors who were killed, for example her aunt who was killed in Auschwitz and her “great-uncle” Herschel Jellinek (actually still with a double l). As relaxed as this language is, it is always about very specific cases and points.

The active reader is challenged here. In fact, with this book, you have to do it exactly like the documentary did as a whole. You have to contextualize the text, which means constantly turning on the search engines on the Internet, which can always be great fun. For example, I caught myself googling “Boris Becker and flushing the toilet” because that played a role in his tax process.

The tension between the trivial and the real dead sometimes comes as a shock. And you have to make this language sound, read it aloud from time to time in order to get on the track of the required vocal range and the musicality of these sentences.

The theater director Jossi Wieler will do the same. In mid-December the text will be premiered at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, divided among four actors. But you can also train your inner voice by reading the text at home.

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