A Story About Nazis, Human Rights and Above All, One Courageous Mother

On the stage of Israel's national theater, Gila Almagor excels as mother of Hitler’s pre-Nazi era tormentor, lawyer Hans Litten, in ‘Taken at Midnight.’

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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A scene from ‘Taken at Midnight.’  All Photos by Gerard Alon
A scene from ‘Taken at Midnight.’ All Photos by Gerard Alon
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

“Taken at Midnight” is a play that must be seen, mainly because of the story it tells, which is based on events that occurred in the early part of Nazi-era Germany: In 1931, lawyer Hans Litten (who at one point converted to Judaism as an act of rebellion against his Jewish-born father who’d converted to Christianity, but subsequently gave up Judaism) was prosecuting four criminals from the Nazi party’s Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitary group. He subpoenaed Hitler to testify in the case and made a laughing stock of him. The day after the Reichstag fire in 1933, Litten was arrested along with other opponents of the new German regime.

His mother waged a tenacious but ultimately doomed battle to save him. This is her story.

In one sense, it’s an internal Nazi story: not about what the Nazis did to the Jews, but primarily what they did to the German people, and to anyone who tried – zealously, naively, and in the name of such silly notions as “human rights,” “freedom of expression” and “democracy” – to prevent the civilized nation from descending into the tyranny that would endanger itself and other nations. And it’s also the story of those who stood idly by, in and out of Germany. But most of all, it is the story of one courageous mother.

The play was written by Mark Hayhurst. I saw it in London a few months ago, with Penelope Wilton in the lead role. I thought then, and I still think, that Hayhurst was too faithful to his story, that he took too little creative liberty, and thus the play remains somewhat one-dimensional, built as it is upon a single character that’s not so well-written, and is in a large part narrative rather than dramatic. And I thought then, and I still think, that it totally doesn’t matter, and that this is a play that must be performed and seen, because of its true story, which is much more significant if we wish to understand what it can tell us – not about those days, there, but about the present time, here.

The currently running Habima production faithfully replicates the style and spirit of the play. Period video clips underscored the documentary aspect, and the cast all does a worthy job, particularly Michael Koresh as Litten’s pathetically loyal German-Jewish father; Ido Bartal as the Gestapo officer whose manners are maddening; and Ran Danker as Hans Litten, who tried to preserve his human dignity, refused to surrender, and paid the price.

But the one who really shoulders the burden of the entire play – and it’s a heavy load in terms of the amount of text as well as time onstage – is Gila Almagor, in the lead role. In a sense, this is the type of role that seems made for her, given her stature in Israeli theater and culture generally. But this is precisely why it could also become a trap for her. To her credit (and I presume that some of the credit must also go to the director, Moshe Kepten), I must say that she particularly impresses here with her restraint, focused irony and avoidance of over-emoting.

Everyone does their best here to serve the play and the story. Theatrically speaking, I can’t say I found the result “good,” but it is certainly interesting and important, and Almagor gives a very impressive performance. Even before the play began, I knew that despite its limitations, she would make something excellent out of it, and I was not disappointed. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised.

Habima Theater presents “Taken at Midnight” by Mark Hayhurst; Translated by Dori Parnes; Director: Moshe Kepten.

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