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Sex and slaughter on stage

Julian Tompkin
May 28, 2015

The premiere of Johann Kresnik's adaption of the graphic novel "The 120 Days of Sodom" for stage at Berlin's Volksbühne has courted much controversy, with its graphic portrayals of pedophilia, incest and brutal torture.

Theatre premiere of "The 120 Days of Sodom." Copyright: Jörg Carstensen/dpa.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Esch-Kenkel

A graphic story that kicks off with sex, progresses to a full-blown orgy and then torture, and ends with a gruesome mass slaughter replete with horrifying detail - it was clear from the start that it was never going to be pretty.

"After about six minutes, the first breasts are exposed. After eight minutes, the first plastic penis is removed from a pair of suit pants," the "Berliner Morgenpost" newspaper writes of the premiere on Wednesday (27.05.2015) in Berlin, adding wryly that this is "just the beginning."

Indeed, the usually vehemently unapologetic Volksbühne theater in Berlin even carried a recommendation on its website that the world theatre premiere of "The 120 Days of Sodom" was not suitable to an audience under 18 years of age.

Germany's "Stern" magazine referred to the theater and dance performance by Austrian director Johann Kresnik as a "sex and blood orgy," going on to detail scenes played out by the 30 dances and actors in which blood flows freely, mock feces is consumed, a woman is stripped from a burka and raped and a baby is cut from a pregnant woman then diced, grilled and eaten - adding that "some viewers left the theater."

Theatre premiere of "The 120 Days of Sodom." Copyright: Jörg Carstensen/dpa.
'Sex and blood orgy': The Volksbühne took the unique step and advised the production was not suitable for minorsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Esch-Kenkel

Noble origins

The original novel of the same name has only even known controversy since it was first released in 1904. Written by the French nobleman Marquais de Sade during his imprisonment in the Bastille in Paris in 1785, the manuscript was thought lost following the storming of the prison on July 14, 1798.

The work later resurfaced and was printed, immediately earning a reputation as the most shocking work of fiction even committed to paper - largely for its unrestrained depictions of pedophilia, incest and sadomasochistic torture.

The sprawling novel tells the apocalyptic story of four wealthy libertines who, over five months, quarter themselves and 46 sex slaves to a castle - documenting the extreme sexual abuse, orgies, cruel torture and ultimate slaughter that ensue. The victims include eight girls and eight boys, the oldest just 15, plus the daughters of the abusers. The book details in graphic details what de Sade deems as the four categories of sexual passion: simple, complex, criminal and murderous.

In 1975 the heated controversy surrounding the work rekindled with the release of Pier Paolo Pasolini's film adaptation - entitled "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom" - which transposes the setting to the final days of Mussolini's rule in Italy and his alliance with the Nazis. The film remains banned in a number of countries today, and is commonly cited as the most controversial film ever made.

Theatre premiere of "The 120 Days of Sodom." Copyright: Jörg Carstensen/dpa.
The theatrical production draws on both the original manuscript and Pier Paolo Pasolini's film versionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Esch-Kenkel

'Cheap critique of capitalism'

The Volksbühne's theatrical production draws on both the original manuscript and Pasolini's film production, using it to confront what it calls the new "hidden terror" of 21st-century society: consumerism.

The stage is strewn with references to Coca Cola, Nestlé and the NSA, and the victims berated for their submission to the manipulative terror of media, advertising, business, and politics. "Stern" praises the supermarket set design by Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, but goes on to label the show a "cheap critique of capitalism."

The "Berliner Morgenpost" concludes that the cast appeared as relieved as the audience at the show's conclusion, adding that, while the contemporary theater production raised its valid points, "'The 120 Days of Sodom' represents nothing but the dark underbelly of the Enlightenment, the output of a man written from his self-imposed immaturity."