The Times: Inspired Poetic View of a Ghastly Crime: 20 October 1965

The Arts

From Our Special Correspondent-BERLIN, OCT. 19

The willfully planned and demoniacally organized extermination of five million human lives in the infamous wartime concentration camp in Auschwitz was so monstrous an undertaking that the ordinary human mind is quite incapable of grasping its enormity.

The facts, however, are there, cold and incontrovertible. They have been recorded in numerous official and unofficial publications. They were brought into the public eye once more at the 18-month-long Frankfurt trial which ended last summer. They are the material of Peter Weiss's drama, entitled The Investigation, which its author has deliberately called "an Oratorium in 11 Cantos ", because no poet, not even the divinely inspired descendant of a Homer or a Sophocles, can hope to encompass the theme and reduce its dimensions in order to fit them into the framework of the four walls of a playhouse.

Producing the work at the Freie Volksbtihne, Berlin, tonight, Piscator well knew that the only way to tame this indomitable material was to treat it formally as the stuff of a religious experience. Weiss's condensation of the trial report is an inspired poetic view of a ghastly crime for which no man-made legal machinery adequate or comprehensive enough exists.

If the murderer of a child deserves such and such a punishment, what are the just deserts of a man who with his own hands strangled or smashed to pulp a dozen children? Or killed 500 victims? Or 50,000 such?

The sentences at Frankfurt (which in no way figure in Weiss's play, though they were read out at the end of the public reading given simultaneously under the auspices of the Academy of Arts in east Berlin as a reflection of this very inadequacy) were not even token sentences.

Piscator sees the text as a Requiem for the Dead and has punctuated it through- out its divisions and subdivisions, during which the investigation into what happened takes place, with ear-splitting recorded electronic music, supported by solo voices and choir, specially com- posed by Luigi Nono. Manfred Wekwerth and Lothar Bellag (the latter replacing Erich Engel, whom illness had laid low) do almost the same thing, with, however, music selected from the works of Paul Dessau. Both scores have the effect of stunning the senses. Piscator stages the work in the theatre's regular repertoire where it will run for two months.

The east Berliners preferred not to rush things and chose a different method. The text was distributed among professional actors and members of the Academy of Arts, many of them, like Alexander Abusch, the Cultural Minister, former inmates of the camp. This had the unforeseen effect of inviting one to distinguish between the two, and this it was, unfortunately, all too easy to do. It was, however, truly heartbreaking to hear Helene Weigel or Georgia Peet reading the lines allotted to them as two of the nine anonymous witnesses called on to retell events of such horror that the worst atrocity imagined by an Elizabethan or Jacobean playwright paled into an act of schoolboy truculence by comparison. Angelika Hurwitz and Hilde Krahl were their opposite numbers on the western side.

Though one is numbed by the incredibility of the facts, one is left even more aghast by two elements in the drama that Weiss brings to the fore.

First, there is the unbelievable stubbornness of the 18 accused. Denial is heaped upon denial; the doctors and the others seek to shelter behind one another and behind authority; never has the buck been passed by so many men so frequently though with so little effect. Did these human monsters really think that their impudent denials and their blind refusal to recall the squalid past would persuade the court to let them off scot free?

Secondly, there is the perfectly well-established point that the able-bodied were sent to Auschwitz to be financially exploited as slave-labour for large German industrial concerns (they are named in the trial report and in the play, so let us not be squeamish about naming them here), concerns like I.G. Farben, Siemens, Krupps, and the Buna-Werke (to say nothing of Topf and Sohne, who built the gas ovens and whose current advertisement, in the words of one witness, offers for sale an incinerator "perfected in the light of considerable experience"). Have these concerns, one is asked by Weiss to reflect, paid the penalty of their murderous and inhuman traffic?

A word of praise should go to Hans- Ulrich Schmuickle for the sobering effect of the grey-monochrome setting at the Freie Volksbulhne and another to all the company for their disciplined performances in the service of the author's and the director's humanist conception. The experiment of staging the reading in the east Berlin Volkskammer against the background of a huge map of the camp is more disputable. The Investigation is also to be regularly performed at the east Berlin Volksbuihne in November. It is an experience which the younger generation of Germans should not be allowed to miss. Inspired Poetic View of a Ghastly Crime