An Artistic Tour De Force

Ilana Hammerman
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Ilana Hammerman

A lone man stands on stage and tries to tell his life story, but he is dwarfed by the person on the screen behind him, who silences his attempts to justify his collaboration with the Nazi regime. The stormy dialogue takes place between the characters of Gustaf Gründgens and Klaus Mann in "Meeting Point in Infinite Space," now being staged by the Herzliya Ensemble.

One of the two main protagonists, Klaus Mann, a writer and intellectual (1906-1949 ), was the son of the writer Thomas Mann. He joined the opposition to National Socialism early on and left Germany in March 1933 to escape arrest, shortly after Hitler's rise to power. He moved around and eventually received American citizenship, never living in Germany again. In 1949 he committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.

The 1960 Hamburg production of Faust, which Gründgens staged and Meeting Point in Infinite Space.

The other protagonist, Gründgens, one of the greatest German actors of the 20th century, had been a communist in his youth. In 1934 he became manager of the Royal Theater in Berlin, capital of Nazi Germany, and was Hermann Goering's protege, enjoying a glorious career throughout the Third Reich. After the fall of Nazi Germany, German theater welcomed him back with open arms. In 1960, as director of the Hamburg Theater, he staged one of the most illustrious productions of Goethe's "Faust," a play he also adapted for film. Gründgens himself played Mephistopheles on stage, his favorite role. In 1963 he too died of a sleeping-pill overdose, although it is not clear he intended to kill himself.

Klaus Mann and Gustaf Gründgens had been close friends in their 20s, during the years of the Weimar Republic. Gründgens was even married to Mann's sister, Erika Mann, for a while. Their paths diverged when Mann left Nazi Germany while Gründgens stayed and rose to great renown. In 1936 Mann published his best-known work, "Mephisto," in Holland. The novel tells the story of a great actor and director who sells his soul to the devil, the Nazi regime, in return for a great career. It is a roman a clef, and its hero, Hendrik Hofgen, resembles Gründgens.

The book, displaying astonishing clear-sightedness and foresight, examines not only the murderous nature of Nazi fascism many years before the death camps, but also its mechanisms of repressing ideological opponents, who nevertheless learned to live with it in order to maintain their daily lives, and even build a career, like the great artist Gründgens.

In November 1933, Klaus Mann wrote from his self-exile in Amsterdam: "For a person with any degree of intellectual integrity it must surely be terrible to live in that country. He must obey the whims of power and does not get any respite. It is not enough to declare once and for all: I am a collaborator. He must adapt himself to all of the moves and the twists and the turns and the masks that power cares to wear, to serve its purpose.

"And it is already too late to stand in the breach, he has already sold his soul to the devil. Is this a life?! If our great intellects have lost their way, what will become of others?! God save us from this zoological mutation! ... It is better to be a free man and at freedom's disposal ... It is 1,000 times better that you shall not have a homeland for a while than that you contribute by your silence to the horror that has befallen it."

Gründgens preferred to have a homeland, and especially a career. Many years later he justified his choice thus: "I could not free myself of the thought that someone has to stay in Germany, someone must preserve what was achieved in German theater art. Because we carried on the tradition that Nazism condemned and tried to eradicate. After all, theater is built on tradition to a large degree ... I hear over and over the claim that I supplied the Third Reich with a cultural fig leaf. About this I say again: Every person in Germany, and I think that many professionals abroad as well, knew that the state theater under my direction stood in sharp contrast to the fascist theatrical tendencies."

The story of Klaus Mann and Gustaf Gründgens is one of the best-known vehicles for showing the universal dilemma of the intellectuals' affinity for politics, and for opportunism and moral corruption in times of tyranny. The texts quoted above, which convey something of the story's drama, come from the broad selection of materials that were collected and edited for the current play, by director Doron Tavori and translator and editor Hanan Elstein.

On the evening I saw the play, the large auditorium was empty: There were only about 30 people, filling the front rows. The sight made me heartsick. So great was the sense of loneliness from the numerous empty rows that at first I had trouble concentrating on the stage and on the small figure of Gustaf Gründgens, delicate and slight, who sat down at the edge of a table and began telling his life story. The gigantic lips that appeared on a large video screen and began telling the story of Klaus Mann only increased my embarrassment and discomfort: What a peculiar disparity, what an enigmatic aesthetic mishmash.

The lips belonged to actor Iftach Ofir, who plays Klaus Mann, and soon enough his body appeared on screen as well, captivating my puzzled eyes with its size and intimacy, and filling my ears with his powerful voice, which I could well hear but could barely understand. The figure on the screen was diametrically opposed to the small person on stage, played by Nimrod Bergman, who was equipped with a tiny microphone. Nevertheless, it took me a few moments to adjust in order to hear his voice properly and follow what he was saying, and then to return to the actor on the screen and get accustomed to his size.

After another few minutes, I found myself following the surprising aesthetic choices of the play's creators, utterly engrossed until the end of the lengthy performance. I was riveted despite the unease and awkwardness, or even because of them; after all, they are the very heart of the matter. The constant visual jolt between the two characters is the crux of the dilemma. The artistic idea of combining an actor on screen with an actor on stage is brilliant, and the dramatic abilities that both actors bring - each delivering a virtuoso performance in a manner appropriate to his medium - serves it well.

Even if you do not catch every word (the texts that were chosen are a collage of wheat and chaff, of passing moods and weighty statements, much like life itself ), you are still captive to the dual dramas and the shifting relationships between them.

The two characters live and recount their lives and describe the convoluted bond between them, a bond of attraction and repulsion, of love and hate, a breach that cannot be mended. A breach that became part of history, one little piece of failure and personal devastation among the mass of human and moral devastation of those days.

The play hints at that mass in a highly suggestive manner, as befits a work of art. It does this with a medley of excellent historical clips that appear in the background on the screen, mainly during the first part of the play: images of the leisure life and mundane routine of the decent folks under whose noses the country became fascist. It does this in an even more sophisticated manner through the enormous difference between the play's two parts: the complacence, restraint and relative moderation of the first part gives way to stormy and sweeping theatricality in the last part - a shift that you cannot help but experience as a kind of aesthetic signal for the escalation and lethal calamity that the exiled Klaus Mann foresaw in the mid-1930s.

The bulk of the drama takes place on screen in this part. The ingenious video by Yochai Avrahami now becomes - with its star, Mann (Ofir ) - a raucous, fast-paced and frenetic combination of comedy, grotesquerie, satire and surrealism. It is a real masterpiece, seizing most of the attention while maintaining its conversation with the man on stage, Gründgens (Bergman ). The man who sold his soul to the devil becomes smaller and even more abject under the colorful pictures on the screen that eagerly and humorously tell the rest of his life story, which gradually spirals out of control due to a love story involving a black dancer.

Yes, ultimately the larger-than-life actor Gründgens, the magnificent Mephisto, is dwarfed, along with all his excuses, because the story is told primarily by Mann, who chose the other path in life. And his lesson must prevail on stage, even though it did not win in real life.

The theatrical performance by the cast of the Herzliya production is not a moral parable but rather an artistic event; it is a work whose creators and protagonists are artists, and both are aware of their political context.

"Meeting Point in Infinite Space" began its theater run not long ago and the auditorium at the Herzliya Ensemble may yet fill up.