The first German theatre version sold out in the northern city of Hamburg, while in Dresden, birthplace of the Islamophobic PEGIDA street movement, a play premiered last weekend, with a third adaptation planned for Berlin in late April.
“It seems like it's a very timely story because everybody, each in their own way, picks up on a point of the topic that concerns them,” actor Edgar Selge, who plays the central character Francois in Hamburg's Deutsches Schauspielhaus theatre, told AFP.
In the monologue play, Selge stands on stage for nearly three hours, embodying an opportunistic and spineless academic, a loner who is slowly seduced by a new life under Islam and becomes a political force who rises to the French presidency.
Selge said that Houellebecq, through this central character, “asks us provocatively: what values do you have in your culture that really mean anything to you?”
The influential weekly Die Zeit said that “'Submission' describes how a pre-modern Muslim ideology turns Western society upside down, how women are denied their rights, how acceptance fades for the central values of the West.
“Does that remind you of anything?” it asked.
“Perhaps of the voices that, since New Year's Eve at the latest, see the refugees as agents of a culture war between the Islamic and Western worlds?”
Germany was shocked by the chaotic scenes on New Year's Eve in Cologne when a crowd of mostly North African men sexually assaulted or robbed hundreds of women, scenes that heightened fears about Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.
'Finger in the wound’
Dresden-born PEGIDA — short for European Patriots against the Islamisation of the Occident — and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party have seized on the events, railing against “sex jihadists” and “rapefugees”.
“I think it's almost impossible to watch this piece in Dresden without thinking of PEGIDA or the AFD,” said director Malte C. Lachmann, who has staged the play in the Baroque capital of Saxony state.
But Lachmann insists that “Submission” is “absolutely not Islamophobic”, as some critics charged in France, but rather that it “really puts the finger into the wound” of modern Western civilisation.
“'Submission' is not really about Islam, it's about us in the West and our torments,” Lachmann told AFP.
Selge agrees, judging that Houellebecq “very accurately captures the detachment and opportunism of our liberal-bourgeois culture”.
“You really need someone who studies how much we value notions that are supposed to mean something to us — like emancipation, democracy, separation of powers, humanism, atheism, a sense of responsibility for the Third World – and he concludes: these are all just phrases, just paper tigers.
“And he challenges us to fill them with new meaning, or to just find new ones.”
The only time Selge said he had doubts about the play was after the bloody carnage of the Islamic State group attacks that hit the Paris Bataclan theatre and other targets on November 13.
At the time, “I thought that reality has just caught up with us,” he said. “But in the meantime I have arrived at a new conclusion.
“I think that because the Bataclan attack and Cologne happened — and these are two very different things — and because that paralyses us, and we don't know how to deal with it, it's important that theatre provides a space where we can distance ourselves from it, where we can deal with these problems in a playful, even humorous way.”
Lachmann agreed that “it is the essential duty of theatre to confront the world in which we live”.
The main message for Selge is the need to invest more in democracy, which in the novel is threatened by a triumphant yet peaceful Islam, as well as by the selfish detachment of Francois.
“If we don't start to massively pump money into education and integration, then we can foresee that this society as we know it will go to hell,” he said, voicing support for the liberal refugee policy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I support her position, but you have to work so that it gains the acceptance of the population. And of course just having this position is not enough, it also has to be financed.”
In an opinion poll published last week, 59 percent of Germans said they are not satisfied with Merkel's path in the refugee crisis.