Can the Holocaust still shock us?

Twenty-five years ago German theatres refused to stage 'An die Musik' because it told shocking and uncomfortable truths about the Nazi era and the Holocaust. But does it still pack a dramatic punch today?
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The Independent Culture

In 1975, the milestone production was too sensitive for the Germans to see it. Now, when it came to the charming East German town of Weimar, nobody batted an eyelid. There could hardly be a more appropriate setting for the theatrical fireworks of An die Musik, which mingles Schubert and the concentration camps. On one hand, Goethe and Schiller, the giants of German literature, lived in Weimar. The town, which was honoured as European City of Culture for 1999, oozes Classicism from every pore.

In 1975, the milestone production was too sensitive for the Germans to see it. Now, when it came to the charming East German town of Weimar, nobody batted an eyelid. There could hardly be a more appropriate setting for the theatrical fireworks of An die Musik, which mingles Schubert and the concentration camps. On one hand, Goethe and Schiller, the giants of German literature, lived in Weimar. The town, which was honoured as European City of Culture for 1999, oozes Classicism from every pore.

But there is a second Weimar, too. Above all, the magnificent beech forest on the Ettersberg hill that overlooks Weimar has gone down in the annals of vile history. The German word for "beech forest" is Buchenwald, one of Hitler's most notorious camps; though it was not an extermination camp, more than 50,000 died at Buchenwald between 1937 and 1945.

This unhappy juxtaposition suggests that there would have been a particular frisson when An die Musik, a production first created by the Pip Simmons Theatre Group in 1975, arrived in Weimar. The title of the play, which opens at the Tricycle Theatre in London tonight, refers to the Schubert song which death-camp inmates are forced to play, along with works by Liszt and Beethoven, before being herded naked into the gas chambers. Everything is raw. As the programme notes point out, "No detachment is allowed".

The first part, "Anne Frank's Dream", is a surreal version of her life in the secret annexe where she and her family hid in Amsterdam, described as "an obscene, social beggars' banquet". The second part is based on the experiences of the orchestra at Auschwitz - in effect, "play or die", a grim story that was retold (with Vanessa Redgrave) in the television movie Playing for Time.

The new production is loyal to the values of the performances a quarter of a century ago, when An die Musik shocked theatrical London. The Sunday Telegraph said that it was "far and away the most important theatrical event in London". The Observer critic described it as "unequivocally my most terrifying theatrical experience". Meanwhile, The Sunday Times wrote of the production's "overwhelming, harrowing, degrading and obscene" power. The performance certainly did not please everybody; but it left nobody unmoved. Thirty years after the end of the Second World War, one reviewer asked only if it was too early. "Is the time ripe?"

If 1975 was too early, it might seem that 25 years later must be a more appropriate time for such a production to be staged. The renewal of far-right violence persuaded the 56-year-old Simmons, who fizzles with energy and fiery indignation, that the old production should be dusted off; the new production is by actors from the State Jewish Theatre of Bucharest, which adds to the obvious relevance. For Simmons, whose wife is Swedish, the issue is simple. "In my daughter's Swedish classroom, 14-year-old boys hold up their right arms and shout ' Sieg Heil'. Heavy-metal bands celebrate racism and Satan. The right wing grows apace and unchecked."

He complains of the "obscene and sentimentalist" understanding of the Holocaust via Hollywood. Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List is "trivialising and sentimentalising"; he "detests" Roberto Benigni and his Life is Beautiful.

Certainly, the dark and surreal An die Musik - full of dream-like sequences, pervaded by sadistic, animal humiliation - has nothing sentimental about it. On the contrary, it seeks to hold the audience in a remorseless grip (though Simmons insists that the form of the production is "not self-consciously theatrical"). It remains to be seen how audiences in Britain will react to this assault on the senses, in a style that sometimes seems deep-frozen since 1975.

At the E-werk theatre in Weimar, a strange paradox becomes apparent. Twenty-five years ago, German theatres refused to stage the production because it spoke such uncomfortable truths. The remorseless tone of An die Musik was too much for many to stomach. They shied away.

Now talk of the Holocaust is everywhere - and not all of it is Hollywoodised. Scarcely a week goes by without the publication of another book, programme or play about the Holocaust, in Germany even more than the UK. The importance of the Holocaust is central to Germany's self-perception. Thus, the title-page inscription on the programme for Weimar's year as City of Culture declared simply: "Between us and Weimar lies Buchenwald." The Buchenwald museum has a section called In the Midst of the German People, including such simple items as a public bus timetable (1330 dep. Main Station, 1400 arr. Buchenwald Concentration Camp). In other words, this was not just Hitler's private lunacy; everybody knew.

Weimar's main theatre recently staged Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, about the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler and his relationship with the Nazis. The implicit question is: how far is it possible to compromise with evil? Thus, the taboos are dead. Yet in some respects, theatre flourishes because of taboos; remove them, and dramatic tension is destroyed. The audience in the E-werk theatre seemed bemused rather than emotionally stunned at the end of An die Musik.

Bernd Kauffmann, the Weimar festival director who helped bring An die Musik to Weimar, seems wary, and implies that this performance has passed its sell-by date: "The piece has fallen out of its time." He believes it is important that the production has been performed. "It doesn't matter what it's like. It had to come here." But, he adds, "It didn't touch me."

Even Simmons himself sounds ambivalent about the revival, and the dangers of what he calls "passé avant-gardeism". Equally, however, he feels moved by the need to speak out. "I swore at the time I'd never do it again because I disliked it so much. It's an abysmal thing to dwell on and to live with." He was, he says, "persuaded by events" to change his mind.

The praiseworthy motivation behind the staging of the production can be inhibiting in passing judgement. To imply artistic weakness can seem amoral or even immoral. In the case of a conventional theatre production, if an audience remains unmoved, we are inclined to blame the author, the director, the cast or all three. When a play is set in Auschwitz, however, that is scarcely an option. If an audience remains unmoved, we feel guilt at our perceived lack of sensitivity or shame. Criticism or no, reactions in Weimar notably lack the sense of shock that seems to permeate European reviews from 25 years ago, where phrases like "jangling of nerves", "capacity to disturb" and "catharsis" abound. Instead, there is much talk of the audience's "confusion" and "perplexity" and (least nerve-jangling of all) the production's "good intentions". One review concludes that this "is not a theatrical evening but a demonstration". Little hint of a frisson there.

Simmons is undoubtedly right that, between 1975 and 2000, some of the problems of far-right extremism have stayed the same. It is unclear whether the theatrical responses can, however, afford to stay equally unchanging. Simmons hopes the performance treads a middle path between the then and now. "It will be the same - and it will be new."

 

'An die Musik' is at the Tricycle Theatre, London (020-7328 1000), from 11 Sept to7 Oct, and then on tour (Reading, Coventry, Cardiff and Swansea) until 21 Oct

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