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‘It caused a real shitstorm’: meet the man who skewered Trump at last year’s Karneval

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‘It caused a real shitstorm’: meet the man who skewered Trump at last year’s Karneval
Photo: DPA
10:21 CET+01:00
Jacques Tilly is well known in Germany for building the country’s most biting carnival floats. Last year his takedown of Donald Trump brought him to international attention. He tells The Local why Karneval is about telling truth to power.

A defining feature of the Rosenmontag parade in Düsseldorf are the satirical floats, commenting on current political events in a witty and often wickedly cruel manner. Tilly is the man behind these creations.

He found his way into the trade when he needed extra money as a student and began helping to build floats. He hasn’t looked back since.

Over the years his floats have ruffled many a feather. During the 1990s, when the designs were typically published beforehand, he was sometimes even censored. Since the year 2000 he has maintained a strict policy of secrecy to protect his artistic freedom.

Last year, his floats mocking the Trump presidency made a particularly large splash and his depiction of Theresa May taking the Brexit bullet even made its way to the Unite for Europe March in London. The Local met him at his home in Düsseldorf to talk Carnival, Trump and the limits of satire.

The Local: Has political satire always been part of Carnival, and why?

Tilly: Carnival is the celebration of the “Narr” (jester or fool), whose purpose it was in the olden days, at the courts of the kings and nobility, to tell the truth, and most importantly without being punished. That’s why politics has a significant role in Carnival. And of course Carnival in the Rhineland, especially, has always been very political as it developed in its current form during the time of the French and Prussian occupations.

Since the year 2000 you no longer show the designs of the political floats in advance, does this mean you have complete freedom in your creations?

The Düsseldorf Carnival Committee holds the responsibility for the parade, not me. They have the last say as to what floats can go ahead. However we share the same mind-set and so far they have always supported my ideas. They want satire that bites, and if they have any complaints it’s that it doesn’t bite hard enough.

Jacques Tilly. Photo: DPA

Nevertheless, have you ever gotten in trouble for any of the floats afterwards?

During the times the designs were published in advance, there were always objections and complaints. Now thankfully people can only get annoyed when it’s too late.

There was an especially large backlash in 2017, when I’d made a strong statement against right-wing populism, that caused a real shitstorm of hate and insults, but that’s okay. The floats should polarize and cause strong reactions and emotions, only violence is a red line, but luckily there have been no instances of that so far.

Should and can there be limits in satire? What are your personal no go areas?

Satire has to be very free in what it can do, but of course it has to keep to restrictions set by the law, i.e. it shouldn’t defame or violate personality rights; there can be no exceptions for satirists here. Otherwise I have my own moral compass, which lets me know what’s okay and what’s not, for example I wouldn’t make fun of victims, for example of terrorism or such tragedies as the Love Parade disaster.

In these modern times the news can change very quickly, how do you keep up with that?

Topicality is very important for the Rosenmontag parade, the floats have to have an impact on that particular day and shouldn’t be outdated, which can be a challenge. The trick is to start construction relatively late, only a few weeks in advance [Tilly also creates purely decorative floats for the different Carnival societies, which are completed earlier], and to work fast. If necessary we can put together a new float in as little as a day and so still react to the events happening up until the day of the parade.

Photo: DPA

Your floats on Trump last year resonated especially strongly with our readers. What do you make of Trump, a gift for every satirist?

On one hand he makes work for satirists, because he’s easy game through his idiocy, on the other hand he also takes it away, because his actions and utterances are already so ridiculous in themselves that you don’t have to add much - reality is basically overtaking satire. Also he is very one dimensional which means that there’s only so much you can say about him before people tire of the subject.

Were there negative reactions in the US to the Trump floats?

There were many strong negative reactions online, especially from alt-right pages saying things like "lets nuke Germany." Also, some of the floats were misunderstood: they saw Trump being beheaded as the language of Isis, however in that particular float the Statue of Liberty holds the constitution, so what it is trying to say is that Trump should be brought down with the means of the constitution - not with violence.

One of the more controversial floats showed Trump, Le Pen and Wilders lined up next to Hitler, with the heading “Blond ist das neue Braun” (blond is the new brown), what would you say to people who argue that you are putting these politicians on the same level as Hitler?

Comparing is not the same as equating: there’s a big difference. Of course neither Le Pen, Wilders nor even Trump are the same as Hitler. The point that is being made is that right-wing populism makes use of ideas and concepts which are similar to the ones that were being used 80 years ago in Germany.

There are clearly parallels to be seen: in the rejection of modern freedoms and liberalism, such as the progress made for the rights of women and homosexuals. However you can’t expect too much of a Carnival float - its foremost purpose is to make a polemical point and shouldn’t necessarily be taken entirely at face value.

Photo: DPA

Can you give any hints as to what topics will appear at the parade this year? Will Brexit be featured?

There are many dubious figures in positions of power throughout the world, to a great extent many are the same as in 2017, not much has changed here. And as always this is the dominating topic: that the free world is under threat through authoritarian ways of thinking and that human rights have to be defended.

I think Brexit is a topic that will be discussed for many years to come, because it is a very important subject for the EU as a whole and it is yet to be seen what the consequences are for Britain. As a subject it remains topical and remains relevant for the Rosenmontag parade, although if it will be featured this year I can’t say.

Recent headlines claim that the parade in Cologne will be more political this year, what’s your take on this? Are they catching up with Düsseldorf?

That Cologne is trying to be more political is something I hear every year. But having political floats in the parade is not what’s significant, but whether they manage to discuss the subject matter in an edgy and provocative way. However Cologne has its own traditions concerning their parade - they usually focus more on local politics and therefore cater to a local audience. This is also true for Düsseldorf to some extent, but we also reflect global politics and this is why the images from our parade have a global impact.

And finally, will you be celebrating Carnival and how?

I would like to celebrate Carnival but whilst others are celebrating I have to work. Even Rose Monday for me is still a work day and the day after that the floats are taken apart (the political floats are typically destroyed after the parade, with rare exceptions such as in the case of 2017’s Brexit float). On Ash Wednesday I finally get to have a day off, but then unfortunately Carnival is over.

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