The “banality of evil” is perhaps Hannah Arendt’s most well-known turn of phrase. Reporting from the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, the German-American political theorist was struck by the Nazi functionary’s plainness, his lack of imagination. The slight, bland, bespectacled administrator in the dock seemed singularly ill-fashioned for the role of monster and villain in which he had been cast, though it was beyond dispute that as a key organiser of the Holocaust, Eichmann’s command of logistics had been put to monstrous and villainous use by the SS. As the muted crowd filed out of Hate Radio at The Arches after the best part of two unremitting hours, Arendt’s phrase kept bouncing around inside my skull.
Hate Radio opens a bleak window into the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which at least half a million people were murdered by machete-wielding Hutu militias. The Tutsi minority bore the brunt of this onslaught, men women and children finding themselves targeted for torture, rape and death by government-backed militias and by former neighbours and acquaintances.
In Hate Radio, the Berlin and Zurich based International Institute of Professional Murder explore the complicity of the Radio Television Libre Des Milles Collines (RTLM) in these crimes. Introduced by and concluding with affecting and often gruesome testimony of survivors of the genocide, the main body of the performance depicts an RTLM show, reconstructed from transcripts of material broadcast at the time.
Given the subject matter, it is almost a statutory requirement to describe the production as “harrowing”, but that wouldn’t be quite right. The atmosphere of the glass box of the RTML recording studio is boisterous, a clutter of empty beer bottles and snatches of paper. Its airwaves crackle with American hits from ’90s. Its shockjocks caper, crack jokes, dance to the music, field calls from ordinary punters who want to say hello to their grannies – and propound the most poisonous racial hate imaginable. Gloating roll calls of the deceased muddle with open vilification and incitement to root out and destroy the Tutsi “cockroaches,” who have dark and tyrannical designs on the liberty of the nation. Democratic theory, Machiavelli and French Resistance against Nazism prayed in aid to justify the extermination.
Despite the unpleasantness of the ideas being articulated, and the horror of their consequences, the effect of the broadcast is not a strongly emotional one. This too is disturbing. We never leave the irresponsible, playful, hateful atmosphere of the studio. The external world and its suffering humanity feels entirely remote. After an hour of denunciations, self-serving historical revisionism and misplaced victim fantasies delivered in the lurid, boisterous style of the sports reporter – the effect is numbing, distancing, repetitive.
The testimonials of survivors which top and tail the performance throw the capering void in the middle of the show into sharp relief. As Arendt recognised, in contrast with the beguiling badness of a Richard III, the villains of real life are more often than not ordinary, unimaginative, bleakly unempathetic with none of the literary villain’s black glamour. Hate Radio stages this banality more effectively than anything else I have seen. It does so by being a resolutely undramatic, grinding, even dull watch. I leave flat, and uneasy. A remarkable, troubling piece.