Notes From Berlin (Part I)

A scene from "Jeder Stirbt Fur Sich Allein"

A scene from “Jeder Stirbt Fur Sich Allein”

Monday evening we went to see Luk Perceval’s Jeder Stirbt Fur Sich Allein, a staged adaptation of the Hans Fallada novel Everyone Dies Alone, produced by Hamburg’s Thalia Theater and presented at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Clocking in at four hours and twenty minutes, Everyone Dies Alone set the bar for sheer duration of epic German state theater on this trip, exceeded only by the production of Sebastian Hartmann’s Krieg Und Frieden that clocked in at a little over five hours. But Krieg Und Frieden was worth it (more on that later) while Everyone Dies Alone felt like a cruel exercise in obviousness and tedium.

Hans Fallada was a moderately successful German author prior to World War II who remained in the country throughout the Nazi era. While the details of his life seem to be in some dispute, it appears that he was ambivalent about his resistance to the regime, falling in and out of favor with the Nazis at different times and winning praise from master propagandist Joseph Goebbels for his novel Wolf unter Wölfen (Wolf Among Wolves)This interest subsequently led Goebbels to commission a pro-Nazi novel: Der eiserne Gustav (Iron Gustav).

Fallada subsequently fell out of favor again, was committed to a mental institution and released in the last days of the Nazi regime, destitute, broken and drug addicted. Written over 24 days in a morphine haze, Every Man Dies Aloneis “an anti-fascist novel based on the true story of a German couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who were executed for producing and distributing anti-fascist material in Berlin during the war.” (Wikipedia). Fallada died nearly penniless and mostly obscure just days before it was published in 1947, the first anti-Nazi novel to be published in Germany after the war. Well-received and regarded in Germany it was less well known outside the country.

Published in the U.S. by Melville House in 2009 as Every Man Dies Alone, Fallada’s novel won significant international acclaim. NPR’s John Powers said, “…this story of ordinary resistance to Nazism is at once a riveting page turner and a memorable portrait of wartime Berlin….” and Primo Levi is quoted as saying it is “The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.”

Director Luk Perceval, under the misapprehension that Every Man Dies Alone continued to be well-known and much-discussed in the UK and USA, apparently felt that the story had wider resonance and merited a stage interpretation. One can imagine that, given the subject matter and Fallada’s complicated history, a German audience would find the material compelling and there is no doubt that the story strikes at the very core conflict of contemporary German identity. From what I understand the production received excellent reviews in the German press, but I was decidedly underwhelmed.

My thoughts on being a Jew visiting Germany for the first time are too many and too complex to be articulated here briefly; I will meditate more expansively on this in a subsequent essay. But Perceval’s Every Man Dies Alone disappointed me on two distinct levels, the first and foremost that it was shallow, facile theater.

When I was at Northwestern University in the late 1980’s the performance studies program was jokingly called The Department of Reading Out Loud. From Frank Galati to Paul Edwards to Mary Zimmerman (who was a grad student at the time), there was no shortage of staged adaptations of literature. By 2013 the presentational staging of literary works is familiar and well-worn territory, though it remains difficult to do well. Elevator Repair Service achieved a genre-defining moment with Gatz and nobody, including ERS, has done anything to rival it since.

Perceval’s Every Man Dies Alone did nothing to improve or innovate the form. Using the most familiar and obvious staging techniques, and working from what seemed to be a turgid and largely unedited script, the play most accurately resembled the experience of reading a homework assignment the night before an exam. If I wanted to read a novel, I would read a novel.

Complete with actors shouting their lines with an inflated sense of self-importance, Perceval – who is not German, but Belgian – delivered a production that reinforced the worst stereotypes of German theater with none of its many merits. The overarching aesthetic impact was one of being clubbed repeatedly over the head with a blunt object. Had the production been in English it would not have been out of place as a thesis project at the graduate directing program of an elite American university or as the pet project of the Artistic Director of a well-funded American regional theater. This is not a compliment.

Having been honored with an invitation to Theatertreffen to see the most remarkable theater from German stages of the past year, having seen Thalheimer’s powerful staging of Medea and Fritsch’s flawed but extravagantly daring experiment Murmel, Murmel, I was deeply disappointed. I had been repeatedly informed of Perceval’s talent and imagination as a director, but here it was not in evidence.

My second objection to the piece is one that I have about much Nazi-themed art in general. There is no need for me to recapitulate Arendt and Adorno, but if we think we can convey the scope of the Nazi horror through comprehensible narratives, we are de facto reducing the collective hypnosis of an entire nation through psychic terror on a mythological scale to a single person’s inadequate moral struggle.

Even within the limits of conventional narrative, Every Man Dies Alone is the opposite of insightful. It is psychically comforting, even palliative, to see a story of resistance, no matter how futile. Through empathy with the lead characters, this narrative reinforces the desire of the individual spectator to imagine that he would have behaved differently, that he too would have struggled to maintain a shred of moral outrage and resistance in the face of evil. But it is an indulgent fantasy since most people did not, or would not, or could not resist the Nazi government.

It seems to me, now, after this long and bloody 20th Century and its international legacy of genocide, the more pressing concern is not to retrospectively reaffirm our belief in individual acts of meaningless resistance but rather to undertake a rigorous examination of complicity. In this extraordinary global moment of political and economic transition, how do we as individuals, and collectively as a society, succumb to group-think? How do we, in the name of homeland security and economic stability, incrementally give up our civil rights and individual liberties until we are living in a fascist sea of amoral brutality and genocide? How are we enticed or compelled to incrementally abandon our humanity and become complicit in acts of barbarity and senseless destruction? Germany inherits a difficult but essential position of responsibility in leading that conversation.­

Perceval’s production of Every Man Dies Alone doesn’t tackle these questions, which is not his fault but that of the text. Perceval’s fault lies in choosing to stage the work in a manner faithful to the original source without truly investigating the contemporary implications and resonance of the novel. That instinct, and the rather facile notion that love is, somehow, redemptive in the face of fascism and genocide, is as much a capitulation to the quotidian as Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautifuland in that capitulation failed to live up to the epic demands of the subject and the intellectual rigor of the German stage.

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