'Demjanjuk: a Holocaust cabaret' hits German stage
The scene is familiar: 90-year-old alleged war criminal John Demjanjuk sits silently in his wheelchair, mouth lolling open, covered by a sheet and wearing a baseball cap.This is not the Munich courtroom where Demjanjuk faces charges for helping to murder 27,900 Jews but a stage in Heidelberg, western Germany where a play about his life is wowing critics, despite the awkward issues it raises.
The play, by Canadian-Jewish writer Jonathan Garfinkel, deals mainly with a trial in Jerusalem, where Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in 1988 but later acquitted of being "Ivan the Terrible", a monstrous Nazi death camp guard.
However, the Brecht-inspired production, a raucous, provocative and at times shocking combination of slapstick, song and satire, begins and ends with the Munich trial that has gripped Germany and the wider world since November.
At the crux of the play is the question at the heart of the Demjanjuk trial. Is he a Nazi death camp guard with the blood of thousands on his hands or, as he has always claimed, an innocent family man, the victim of mistaken identity?
As one character says: "How can it be possible that the nicest bloke you could ever hope to meet is, at the same time, a sadistic murderer?"
"The question we all want to know is what is going on in John's head and what did he actually do?" Garfinkel, 36, who spent several days observing the trial in Munich, told AFP.
To illustrate this dichotomy, Garfinkel portrays one character, "John", a man who is utterly devoted to his wife and family and a true baseball-loving believer in the American dream after settling in Cleveland, Ohio after the war.
Daniel Stock (R) plays the role of Ivan the terrible, Natalie Mukherjee (L) plays Rosie Demjanjuk and Klaus Colfalka-Adami plays the accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk on stage during a dress rehearsal of the play "The Demjanjuk Trial" in the southern German city of Heidelberg on 29 March 2010
"John" is tormented -- like Goethe's Faust -- by an evil alter-ego, "Ivan", who tells disgusting anti-Semitic jokes, performs the Hitler salute and simulates the rape of a prisoner of war on stage while groaning "Sieg Heil".
Addressing the audience at the beginning of the play, one character says: "You've come here to have fun, so: why does Volkswagen have so few Jewish customers? Most of them have trouble with the German gas pedals."
Accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk arrives for another session of his trial in a courtroom in Munich on 20 April 2010
This "joke" drew a sharp intake of breath from the audience here. No one laughed. An stony-faced elderly couple left within 10 minutes and two other theatre-goers also departed well before the end.
-- 'It was a bit extreme, especially the Jewish jokes' --
Garfinkel acknowledged his work could upset audiences.
"Using satire with this very sensitive material can be offensive and in some ways, it doesn't make anyone look good," he said.
"It doesn't try to make a hero out of anyone ... it's trying to show the complex layers of truth in this case."
Nevertheless, he admitted that an Israeli theatre had rejected the play, judging it "very offensive to Holocaust survivors."
The play seemed to split the audience down generational lines.
"Basically, I thought it was good," said a 20-year-old student from Heidelberg University, who declined to give his name. "Having said that, it was a bit extreme -- especially the Jewish jokes."
"I think it was harder for the older people in the audience. That's probably why that old couple left."
During a lively audience debate afterwards, some older Germans argued the play bordered on the flippant.
"I think there is a danger it could be seen as a lack of respect for the most disgraceful period in our history," said Siegfried Kristen, a spry 81-year-old retired actor who said he was in Hitler's Waffen SS.
Klaus Colfalka-Adami plays the accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk on stage during a dress rehearsal of the play "The Demjanjuk Trial" in the southern German city of Heidelberg
"When you've lived through that time, I think you have a different opinion. It is still a terrible period in our history and I think it will always be with us," he told AFP.
However, he said it was "extraordinarily important" that people came to see the play and welcomed the debate it prompted.
Critics were largely impressed. "The court scenes take place right in front of the audience, as if they were themselves the judges," said the local Rhein-Neckar daily.
"In a way, they are. They are asked to make a moral judgement on Demjanjuk, on Germany and on their own responsibility. An exciting, magnificent evening at the theatre. Very strong applause."
Garfinkel said Germans were gradually learning to laugh at satirical portrayals of even the most despicable Nazi crimes.
"My agent in Berlin asked me for this play four or five years ago. Back then, he told me that Germans weren't ready for it. Have things changed in Germany in the past five years? I think they have."
"I think films like (Quentin Tarantino's) 'Inglourious Basterds' do show that humour when talking about the Holocaust is acceptable in the right context."
AFP / Richard Carter / Expatica