A Conversation with Michael Sturminger about “Just Call Me God”
“Power is not some thing you get for free.” – Satur Diman Cha
Michael Sturminger meets me shortly before the rehearsals for “Just Call Me God” begin. He has written “Just Call Me God”, which is subtitled “a dictator’s final speech” and he is going to direct this music-theatre production at the Elbphilharmonie in March. The production will star John Malkovich in the leading role of the dictator. Martin Haselböck will this time play the concert organ, instead of conducting his symphony orchestra, as he did in their earlier projects “The Infernal Comedy” and “The Giacomo Variations”. The world premiere co-starring renowned German actress Sophie von Kessel as Caroline will take place on the 8th of March 2017 at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and will be touring ten European cities.
“Have you lost your mind? Who do you think I am? Colonel Kurtz? Marlon fucking Brando? I am Satur Diman Cha!” – Satur Diman Cha
After portraying the serial killer Jack Unterweger and the notorious seducer Giacomo Casanova Sturminger thought a political leader would be the right choice for a third collaboration. The idea for “Just Call Me God” developed in the course of numerous conversations between Sturminger, Haselböck and Malkovich on political leaders and politics in general. Sturminger says “John has always held a great fascination for political history and Martin came up with the organ as the historical instrument of power.” While they toured many countries together with their previous productions, conversations revolved around political leaders like Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong or Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Gaddafi. After a great deal of research Sturminger combined different ideas and ideologies and condensed them into the new play.
“I thought the moment might be right to tell the world what you think.” – Caroline Thomas
The central scene of the play is an unequal duel between dictator Satur Diman Cha and journalist Caroline Thomas, who finds herself taken hostage in the dictator’s deserted palace. The resigning dictator is hiding in the back of the stage of his concert-hall where Caroline and a small detachment of liberation army soldiers encounter the infamous man. She grabs her chance and arranges a final interview. The dictator agrees to give a speech as the Reverend accompanies him on the massive organ of the concert hall.
“The form of the play is different from the ones I have written so far” says Michael Sturminger. The initial idea was to develop the play from a central political speech. But the author realized that he needed a dialogue with an antagonist at eyelevel with the dictator to fuel the dramatic impact for the whole plot. “I did not want to approach this topic in a dry and educational way. Rather than focusing too much on the speech I wanted to create more tension and pressure for my protagonists. This is why they find themselves fighting for their lives.”
“I’ve read my Machiavelli.” – Satur Diman Cha
Rather than showing a parade of the great dictators, Michael Sturminger invented the fictional Satur Diman Cha: “The idea was to create a new character who ‘steals’ and copies from every possible dictator. It was imperative that Satur has great interest in other powerful leaders. He is an highly educated man who has studied them all.” Although some dictators had a greater influence on his dictator than others, Sturminger did not want to focus on a single one. He decided to draw inspiration from many historical originals, piecing together a versatile and very dangerous man.
The main character is of course specifically written for John Malkovich: “It is a great gift for the writer to know the person who will be performing the part. In a way my imagination of John playing the role does most of the writing for me. When I write for theatre or film I usually have specific actors in mind. And they will show me what the characters do. It is important to have a reliable roadmap for your journey when you start writing and it is incredibly helpful to know the people you are travelling with in the story. The better you know your characters, the more you can set them free and they will decide what is going to happen in the next moment and where the journey might lead you, while you are writing.”
In the process of writing Michael Sturminger found out that there was quite some sense of humour to his main character: “I can’t help it. Laughing about things is a possibility of overcoming them.” And he continues: “John has a wonderful sense of humour and he does great impersonations. You can experience that by looking at his projects with Sandro Miller for example. “Of course there is a very brutal side to his character, but it became obvious for me that we will also need to laugh at the comical facet of this man.” It mattered to Malkovich and Sturminger to show that“there is no black and white, political correctness will never find answers to horrifying and at the same time fascinating characters. This makes us aware that we live in grey areas all the time. Our whole political world is a grey area.” John Malkovich as Satur Diman Cha has a lot of charm and Sturminger explains that “many horrible powerful politicians have contradicting characters that make them, in a way, outstanding, otherwise they would hardly ever have gained their positions.”
“My instinct tells me that this game is rigged. No matter how well I play.” – Caroline Thomas
When asked about the dictator’s antagonist, the journalist Caroline Thomas played by Sophie von Kessel, Michael Sturminger says: “it was clear from the beginning that the dictator’s counterpart had to be a woman, and that she had to be a journalist. The media is the day-to-day challenger of the politician, so a journalist was the obvious choice for an opponent.” He describes Caroline as a very challenging role since she constantly finds herself fighting for her life. While the audience empathises with her, she has to go through all kinds of emotions from one moment to the next. “Caroline has to experience the dictator for us. She has to pass through mortal fear, terror, horror, contempt, but also empathy, sympathy and even moments of affection. Sophie von Kessel is the ideal choice for this role because she can portray this wide range of emotion very convincingly.”
“And Burt play some official music please! I don’t care what kind of music, as long as you make it sound important and official. Got the message, Burt?” – Satur Diman Cha
Speaking of the battle between the two characters, Michael Sturminger explains that the organ is integrated as a core element in the story: “Throughout history the organ has always been the instrument of the powerful. It is an instrument that can imitate a whole orchestra but only needs one single person to play it. The organ is a ‘hyper-instrument’. It represents the idea of a single instrument that can impersonate all the others. This reflects the concept of a dictator perfectly.” Martin Haselböck will be playing the organ, and it was he who has drawn attention to the fact that there are many historical photographs of dictators sitting in front of an organ. Sturminger says that he was inspired by this knowledge: “Powerful men were particularly drawn to this instrument, it always functioned as a mighty tool to impress and to scare people.”
Michael Sturminger concludes our conversation by talking about the musical compositions: “The whole atmosphere of the play as much as the sound of the organ will create a certain realistic performance style. But as the play continues electronic effects, patterns and sounds will mix into the original acoustic sound of the organ. In the second half it will dissolve and transform into a more artificial and extreme theatrical form.” Franz Danksagmüller, electronic sound artist and organist, will generate a huge set of sounds on his computer and mix it with the natural sound. Michael Sturminger is thrilled when he describes that “the impact of the huge pipe-organ will be irritatingly strong. Through the magic of Franz’ electronics, Martin’s organ will suddenly sound like an instrument that no one has ever heard before. It will become a hypertrophic, larger-than-life character.”
Michael Sturminger in conversation with Martina Theissl.