In a recent New Yorker cartoon by Art Spiegelman, a skeletal man in striped prisoners' pajamas leans against a wall, staring out of hollow eye sockets and clutching a gilded Oscar statuette. Behind him rises a barbed-wire fence and a thin plume of sickly red smoke. Set in fine print above the scene is the chirpy advertising tag line for Life Is Beautiful: "Be a Part of History and the Most Successful Foreign Film of All Time." With economical eloquence, the author of the Maus comics offers us both a critique of Roberto Benigni's acclaimed film and the essence of the debate surrounding it: Whose history are we now a part of?
According to film critic David Denby, who originally panned the film, then went back a few months later to give it a more vigorous thrashing, Life Is Beautiful represents "a benign form of Holocaust denial." The Nazi death camps were a coldly efficient and insanely logical machine, he argues, and are thus inadequately approached through fantasy. To do so disrespects the frightening and very real specter of the Holocaust. The film's success, writes Denby, suggests "that the audience is exhausted by the Holocaust, that it is sick to death with the subject's unending ability to disturb."
Supporters of the film, which includes Hollywood if Benigni's recent Oscar triumph is any evidence, maintain that comedy can redeem the darkest and most shameful moment in human history. For all its unflinching attention to detail, Spielberg's Schindler's List suggests the same--that art and fantasy can make sense of the senseless and find humanity in a place where compassion was in fact extinct. Three generations after the Holocaust, storytellers struggle with the same questions: Who can tell the story, and how can it be told? Do time and distance lend perspective to history? And, perhaps most important, should art be used to exorcise the ghosts of the dead? In the midst of the debate, two new plays dealing with the psychological fallout of the Holocaust look for answers.
In Lebensraum, now at the Jewish Community Center and moving in April to the Hennepin Center for the Arts, playwright Israel Horovitz offers a political fantasy set on the edge of the next century. The play's title, of course, comes from the most insidious ideology of the passing millennium--the Nazi concept of "living space" that served as a Darwinian rationale for the extermination of those competing for space. In Horovitz's play, the chancellor of Germany awakes from a nightmare and stumbles upon what he imagines is a way to atone for the crimes of the past. In a stunning announcement, he invites six million Jews living abroad to "come home" to Germany and promises jobs and housing to the new citizens. Six million living for six million dead, he reasons, and the score will be even.
From the outset, it's apparent that Lebensraum is a play about ideas rather than individuals. Before the play proper begins, three actors (Gregg Bush, Shannon Cooper, and Christian Gaylord) putter about the stage and take directions from an invisible stage manager. The illusion of drame à clef gives way to a staged allegory. Very soon after the chancellor announces his "Project Homecoming" the trajectory of the allegory becomes clear: A dissenting academic is beaten to death in a crowded lecture hall when he stands on a chair and shouts, "Sieg heil!" In Israel a rabbi is strangled by a member of his congregation when he voices support for the German offer. All the while the actors jump between characters and narrative exposition, simultaneously depicting and commenting on the unfolding anarchy.
Eventually, individuals materialize as faces in the debate. An American family emigrates from New England, the father fills the recently vacated job from a disgruntled German stevedore, and the son falls in love with a German girl. Two flamboyantly gay Frenchmen are refused entry into the country because they are less than ideal for public relations purposes. A Buchenwald survivor returns to Berlin in search of vengeance. And a paramilitary Israeli group infiltrates Germany to prepare the newly transplanted Jewish population for the inevitable anti-Semitic backlash.
Lebensraum is an intriguing fantasy but far from perfect drama. Each character receives so little attention that it's barely possible to keep track of all of them, much less comprehend how they fit together. A quibble perhaps, but Horovitz also inserts far too many blatant plugs for the Beastie Boys (of which his son, Adam, is a member). The Rhombus Theatre cast does a fine job with an excessively complicated script, although the Israeli agents seem to have learned English from Boris and Natasha and the actors sometimes sound like they are rolling marbles around in their cheeks when emulating a Boston accent. Nevertheless, the message of Lebensraum comes through clearly: "Art has no answer, only vision and revision...history is written and cannot be changed, only forgive and never forget."
Novelist and playwright Yukio Mishima once wrote that evil, magnified to impossible degrees, becomes miraculous. Perhaps what is persistently irreconcilable about the Holocaust is that it was not one such enormous and abstract evil, but millions of small evils committed by millions of seemingly normal human beings. Here, after all, were people who read philosophy, listened to chamber music, and raised children engaging in a program of inhuman cruelty. The impossible degree of the Holocaust seems to undermine our most sacred concepts of humanity by suggesting that that we can, under the wrong circumstances, become demons.
Such troubling ideas linger at the periphery of Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, now at Park Square Theatre. The scene is the American Zone of Berlin in the chaotic aftermath of the war--a pallid purple sky streaked with light and heaps of pulverized fascist kitsch architecture denote the wasteland. In the midst of the fallen Reich, a bellicose American soldier named Steve (Dave Clements) is holding a kangaroo court for Nazi sympathizers. Playing white whale to Steve's Ahab is Wilhelm Furtwängler (Michael Tezla), a world-famous symphony conductor who is a spitting image of John Gotti. Furtwängler claims to have helped Jewish musicians escape Germany, but he also has the dubious distinction of having been the Führer's birthday entertainment of choice. Thrown into the mix to ensure an acceptable histrionics quotient is a loony war widow (Jodi Kellogg), a comely German fräulein (Meg Higgins), a treacherous Nazi collaborator (Edwin Strout), and another American officer who admires Furtwängler and whines lines like "Yes, I'm a Jew, but I'm also a human being."
Aside from such occasional shrill outbursts, all of the characters in Taking Sides and indeed the setting itself are subservient to the play's narrative conceit, which is a staged debate about the moral responsibility of artists. The uncultured American is haunted by memories of the camps (as in Benigni's film, invoked here only for their psychic weight) and spurred on his course by self-righteous rhetoric and a need to expunge his own guilt. Furtwängler is a supremely arrogant man whose argument that art bears no relation to political, and thus moral, life rings as a self-serving, elitist lie.
So whose side do we take? In the end, Taking Sides offers no answers, only questions. Can we excuse complicity with evil because the lines between right and wrong occasionally become blurred? Doesn't history demand more of us?
Lebensraum runs through April 17 at the Jewish Community Center and the Hennepin Center for the Arts; (612) 377-8330, ext. 311.Taking Sides runs through April 18 at the Park Square Theatre; (651) 291-7005.