Notes From Berlin (Part I)

Napoleon in "Krieg und Frieden"

Napoleon in “Krieg und Frieden”

I knew nothing about the production at all and was prepared for a struggle. Even as I entered the theater I was bracing myself for a heroic act of endurance. At five hours, ten minutes long with two intervals, Krieg und Frieden trumped Everyone Dies Alone by almost an hour and at 1500 pages under the best of circumstances, Tolstoy trumped Fallada by about 1000 pages. I can be excused for never having read Fallada, but War and Peace is a classic, one I certainly should have read by now, one that I imagined all German students reading in high school. There was no chance that I was going to be able to follow this epic staging of a Russian masterpiece, performed in German and translated into English supertitles. After the faithful staged representation and declamatory acting of Everyone Dies Alone, I thought I knew what to expect from War and Peace. I suppose I should have read the website more closely, which describes the production thusly:

Sebastian Hartmann and his cast find an intelligent and original answer to the challenge of Tolstoy’s epic work of world literature….

This adaptation from Leipzig follows neither the rampant trend for Reader’s Digest renditions nor the discursive method of breaking up material in the style of Frank Castorf. Instead of presenting linear plots, it is structured by motifs, condensing recurrent topoi into essential scenes with strong images, and it is only logical that they end up dealing with the ultimate issues. “I”, “Death” or “Faith” are appropriately complex titles of some units of meaning from this five-hour performance, which takes place on a highly symbolic, tilting and lifting stage platform…..

the big, mechanical platform

the big, mechanical platform

I started to pay attention before the play even started, when director Hartmann walked onstage to announce that one of the actresses had injured herself the previous evening and was being played by an understudy. He asked us to be supportive of her as she undertook the role. This was curious, I wondered if it was part of the performance or not. It was not, but it may as well have been. As I recall – and I admit my memory is a bit fuzzy – the lights went down and composer/musician Sascha Ring (aka Apparat) took the stage with his band. (See the Pitchfork review of the soundtrack here.) At the same time the cast, clad in classic Russian costume, took their places in a row of seats below the apron of the stage, facing the audience from the orchestra pit. A familiar gimmick, but beautifully staged. They are the audience, watching the real audience while watching the musicians play moody, atmospheric art rock as if at a 19th century Russian opera. It shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it did.

The first scene rapidly gave way to a series of seemingly disconnected fragments of text and movement, little snippets of story that suggested Tolstoy while never cohering. Unsure what to expect I kept waiting for the performance to resolve into a narrative and found myself frustrated. Shouting and overacting, philosophizing, heavy-handed symbolism. I was about to give up but towards the end of the first act the massive mechanical lift that was the centerpiece of the set shifted position – yet again – with the downstage left corner raised like the prow of a ship moving confidently into the unknown, the only certainty being tragedy and death. One of the older actors struck a noble pose and spoke a speech in stately, rigorous tones that seemed to suggest noble resignation to his fate as the captain of a doomed ship. I don’t recall the exact text but I remember being very moved by the power of the stage image alone, impressed by the tonal shift from sound and fury to hushed, ominous, resigned dignity.

I came back after the interval and gave myself over to the production. I realized with some relief that there was not going to be a narrative and I could stop looking. There was not going to be a story, or characters in the traditional sense. It was as if the first act dispensed with all the stereotypical surface tropes of Epic German State theater and dove in under the hood saying, “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s see what this baby can really do!”

the massive projections

the massive video screens

Over the course of the next four hours I marveled at this astonishing accomplishment. The sheer scale of the production is enough to do humble the most ambitious American director: a custom-designed, fully dynamic, mechanical platform/lift that is bigger than most stages, huge epic hi-tech video and lighting design, blisteringly loud hi-definition audio, luxurious costumes, rock star musicians, famous actresses. The only thing even comparable to Krieg und Frieden‘sstagingis maybe LePage’s colossal set for Das Rheingold at The Met. But Wagner is a known quantity and a guaranteed hit, and from what I hear LePage stuck pretty closely to the script on that one. Krieg und Frieden is a whole new thing and Hartmann is a relative newcomer. I doubt anyone in the States would sink this much into a guaranteed hit jukebox musical on Broadway, much less a five-hour imagistic multimedia montage remix riff on Tolstoy.

But more even then the technical accomplishment was the theatrical ambition and its realization. Hartmann literally used every single theatrical device you could possibly imagine: direct address, breaking the fourth wall, meta-commentary, audience interaction, you name it. And it shouldn’t have worked but somehow it did. More than once I found myself thinking this thing was just going to go completely off the rails into self-indulgent disaster, but somehow Hartmann’s sheer willingness to push the form to the edge of complete failure – like pushing an automobile’s engine beyond what it has been tested to withstand – made this epic ride a total thrill. And his stellar team of actors, musicians, designers and technicians managed to more than deliver what was needed.

Krieg und Frieden takes Tolstoy’s proposition to create an iconic work of art so epic as to sufficiently engage with the biggest, most perpetually perplexing questions and seemingly intractable problems of human existence and meets the challenge. Using Tolstoy’s narrative and characters as raw material, Hartmann constructs an elaborate, interlocking multimedia remix fever dream of a production. Imagine being bed-ridden with the flu with only a copy of War and Peace, a CD by The National and a television set stuck on a channel that only shows David Lynch films. Imagine you are robotripping and fitfully shifting between sleep and wake, unable to tell what is real and what is fiction; a hallucination of an epic battle in St. Petersburg blends into a werewolf manually pleasuring a female midget Napoleon.

The final act begins with an extended absurd quasi-Symbolist comic scene with bizarrely costumed characters representing ideas clowning around, it becomes “meta” as it falls apart and they acknowledge that it isn’t working. They seem to be referencing both the scene itself and the entire premise of Tolstoy’s endeavor to reconcile these issues of war and peace through dialectics. As I recall it’s at this point that Heike Makatsch emerges from the ensemble and delivers a monologue in direct address that, basically, explains all the fundamental ideas under the play. It is not unlike the concluding monologue in Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan but, instead of concluding the play, another actor takes over and asks the audience what they think, and the ensemble talks with the audience for a few minutes.

Heike Makatsch

Heike Makatsch

The whole thing is crazy and over the top and seems destined to fail but somehow it works. To continue the car metaphor, it is as if they gave Hartmann the keys to the Batmobile and, knowing he might not get to drive it again, he wanted to use every possible device available to him. It should be Frankenstein’s monster, a shambling patchwork disaster, but somehow the show cohered astonishingly well. The only disappointment was a mostly unnecessary and overly-long concluding video sequence. The visual effect of the projected video in the re-darkened theater was interesting for a few minutes but rapidly became boring. And the production quality of the animation was so far below the aesthetic values of the rest of the show that it looked amateurish in comparison, like an afterthought to be added on, but the budget was already spent elsewhere.

Still, Krieg und Frieden was an incredible accomplishment and in relation to other large scale work that I have seen, I would put this on the “greatest hits” shelf alongside Mnouchkine’s Les Éphémères, Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz and even Einstein On The Beach. I’m curious to see what Hartmann can do next.

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