Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Theatertreffen: Die letzten Zeugen (The Final Witnesses)

Only in Germany.

This was my thought for most of the duration of Die letzten Zeugen - a 2.5 hour long performance about the Holocaust, followed by 1.5 hours of forums with the survivors. Only in Germany, I thought, would this be on a stage and called theatre. Anywhere else, it's a lecture.

Actually, this play, performed in Berlin as part of the jury-selected section of Theatertreffen, is not German - it's Austrian. The stories of seven Holocaust survivors from Vienna, sent to the camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, are told by actors, while the survivors sit in the background listening (again) to their stories. Director Matthias Hartmann has placed emphasis squarely on the stories themselves, removing almost anything that might be considered direction, save for a solitary writer sitting centre-stage who transcribes as the actors speak. There's an oddly formal process, too, for when the actor's story finished and they exit the stage, escorted by the actor who voiced them.

Anywhere else, and on any other topic, such earnestness would be considered parody. Here, it serves as a kind of respectfully light touch, privileging  the dignity of the survivors over the audience's comfort or attention span. The moments are not crafted, but given the full stage, save for some supporting projections, to breathe.

The exceptions to this are few, but interesting and worth noting because they interrupt the persistent neutrality of the piece (important for reasons I'll explain later). There's a kind of strange, haunting organ chord that rings out every now and again, presumably to mark the beginning of the next chapter. There's some textual editing - sometimes a voice will cut in after only a short moment - presumably with the intention of maintaining, or creating, momentum. The actors wear different shades of grey, and the whole stage rings with a kind of historical reverence. A camera changes from one survivor to another, never moving, rather providing a series of still images, seamlessly blending with photographs of the camps, and of Vienna.

When the survivors themselves come to the front of the stage to read their statements, it's a moment that should be more shocking, for some reason, than what it is. By this time, we know who they are. We want to hear from them directly. The survivors each seem to move with a persistent stagger. It's a metaphor in itself. They struggle, to varying degrees, to speak, and perform their statement with varying levels of enjoyment and/or accidental stagecraft. And then they are led away.

I have a lot of political thoughts about Die letzten Zeugen, which I read as a political work. These thoughts centre around what foreigners refer to as the persistent 'self-flagellation' of former Nazi Germany. I'll save my thoughts on this, except to say there is no way a piece of theatre like that could exist in Australia with regard to the various tragic  crimes against humanity that occurred against the Indigenous populations, the massacres, slaughters, removal of children from their parents, or in America with the Native Americans, or the UK approaching it's colonialism so directly, or even the Atlantic Slave Trade and the horrible treatment of humans as cattle. These things are not even spoken about, let alone for 2.5 hours with a 1.5 hour forum. The rest of the world seems dedicated to forgetting its past atrocities.

All of which may mean nothing. But it does raise a question that's almost never asked in any sensible way - why this narrative, amongst all those others? Why, for example, does the Holocaust seem to carry more resonance for Australia than the merciless and systematic slaughter of it's own people?

To its credit, Die letzten Zeugen displays its own consciousness of this question. All of the actors are Jewish, save one -a Roma woman, Ceija Stojka, who died before the show could be mounted. She is, nevertheless, represented by a floral shawl draped over her chair, filmed, just as the others, as her story is read. It's hard to tell whether the metaphor is an accident or not - but it's a moment that lifts the play into another plane. It not only hints at an lingering of a history beyond the survival of its direct witnesses, it points to the future creation of new histories, ones which have, until now, been ignored.

Die letzten Zeugen
Haus der Berliner Festspiele
Burgtheater, Wien

Staged by Matthias Hartmann
Stage design Volker Hintermeier
Costume design Lejla Ganic
Lighting design Peter Bandl
Video Moritz Grewenig, Anna Bertsch, Florian Gruber, Markus Lubej
Dramaturgy Andreas Erdmann

Lucia Heilman
Vilma Neuwirth
Suzanne-Lucienne Rabinovici
Marko Feingold
Rudolf Gelbard
Ari Rath

Mavie Hörbiger
Dörte Lyssewski
Peter Knaack
Daniel Sträßer

 Image: Reinhard Werner / Burgtheater  

No offence is intended to the victims of the Holocaust or their families.

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