Two million Jews and tens of thousands of other prisoners were tortured and killed at Auschwitz. Because the numbers are so staggering, it is excruciatingly difficult to absorb the fact that each of those millions died an individual death, that each was murdered and that for each murder, there was a murderer. The Investigation, by Peter Weiss, is important precisely because it helps the viewer process that data. And the stunning production at the Guild Theatre in Boulder rivets attention on those lost individuals through those who survived to accuse their killers.
The play was written just after the famous trial of second-string Nazi war criminals conducted from 1963 to 1965 (The Republic of Germany vs. Robert Carl Ludwig Mulka and Others), and all of its dialogue is taken from direct testimony. Weiss pared back the words of both the victims and the perpetrators to the essential horror, and director Jeremy Cole's spartan approach likewise eschews all excess: a bare black stage, with all the actors barefoot and dressed in identical white costumes (vaguely resembling hospital uniforms), and all ten on stage throughout the action.
Cole, however, spares us nothing emotionally. His ingenious staging, particularly the way he balances each actor's performance against the others in the purest ensemble style, is calculated not to overwhelm but to elicit empathy and to give us time to think. And Cole goes further: He has cast his horrendous tale gender-blind--women sometimes take men's roles and men sometimes take women's. When a perpetrator or a victim speaks, you must wait for a bit before you know if it is a man or a woman speaking. The effect is devastating, because the usual stereotypes about male aggression and female victimization undergo a strange transformation: Vulnerability is pan-human. The male victim is no less manly for having been victimized and, of course, no more defenseless than the female. Nor is the female victim seen to be weaker or more subject to fear than the male. Both male and female have been violated.
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As for the perpetrators, they consistently either deny having committed the crimes of which they are accused or, worse yet, see nothing wrong in what they did. Their lack of remorse demonstrates what it means when men surrender all conscience. Yet playwright Weiss succeeds in bringing the murderers down from monster to human size: Evil is also pan-human.
Weiss lets the accused retain their actual names while the victims go nameless--just as they did in the camps. In some cases, director Cole allows the accused to stand, while all the other actors lie or sit on the stage. One moment the ensemble are witnesses at the trial, laughing derisively at the defendants' lies or justifications, and the next they become victims in the camps. Gradually we see how Cole's choice of a black stage and white costumes--relieved only by the flesh tones of the actors--helps create the illusion of fluid movement backward and forward in time.
The play is divided into sections called "songs," the titles of which are projected onto the actors' white shirts as they stand together at the front of the stage. "The Song of the Platform" opens the production with the testimony of a man who ran the railroad cattle cars into the camp. And one of the central points of the play is the complicity of thousands of ordinary people in the concentration-camp murders (a point also driven home in the nine-hour 1985 documentary Shoah). Those ordinary blokes who were just doing their jobs are guilty, too. The Nazis couldn't have done it all by themselves.
By the time we get to the last section, "The Song of the Fire Ovens," we have become fully acquainted with the workings of the camp, the methods of "interrogation," the sadism of even lesser officials and the methods of extermination and punishment. It's familiar territory for many of us, but Weiss, Cole and the exceptional ensemble cast make us consider the universal implications once more. Officially sanctioned torture and murder continues in several corners of the world, and human beings continue to abdicate their humanity in the name of ideology. At the bottom of such ideology is simple human evil--greed, bloodlust and hate. And the justification is eternally "duty.