The Investigation by Peter Weiss – review

Published in Edfringereview

The eponymous investigation of Peter Weiss’s “documentary drama” (“with dance”, adds the press release) is a Frankfurt war crimes trial. But what does a “documentary drama” entail? How does such a creature differ from an historical drama? Is it an attempt to stage history or use history as a stage? For sure, the latter would have made for a better play, but this was deliberately and defiantly the former. There is a school assembly feel as witnesses bear testimony to the horrors of the camps, reeling off statistics as if reading from a history textbook: 3.3 million dead in the gas chambers, 500 000 dead in the ghettos, 700 calories a day in Buchenwald. But I suppose that was the point. I neither noted down nor knew in advance those facts: they stuck in the mind. Oddly it was the most banal of them which distilled the most evil (I winced at the mention of potato peel soup) – perhaps I finally know what Hannah Arendt meant by the ‘banality of evil’.

But if Peter Weiss is a history teacher, he is one with all the narrative flair of a Simon Schama or David Starkey (to say nothing of the camp gusto). Using drama to convey knowledge is a difficult task but the script frames the facts and details in convincing stories – a Jewish doctor who is forced to collaborate, or the psychological effect on survivors as they try to re-integrate into post-war German society. Moreover, there needn’t be a drama-history dichotomy; like all good drama, good history casts light on moral issues from all perspectives. The collaborators’ qualms and the redeeming guilt of Nazi criminals provide a perspective all too absent from popular history and fiction, which do no justice to the moral complexity of a situation where, say, Josef Mengele affectionately has sandpits built for children who wear jumpers knitted by his wife, even as he prepares to murder them.

But most originally, the incorporation of physical theatre brings to life the horrors, brings to life the death. Original, because the choreography consisted not merely of the morbid miming of the acts described, but also more nuanced narratives told through dance: the performers’ movements slow down and descend to the floor representing, perhaps, the decline of civilisation; children play clapping games while a skipping rope turns to a hangman’s noose – a potent and poignant evocation of Germany’s lost innocence, as well as a welcome influence of the symbolist theatre of the likes of Maurice Maeterlinck (or indeed late Chekhov).

Influences loom large in this play, but so deftly are they incorporated and so lightly are they worn that one might easily miss them. The Investigation is engaged in a highly-literate conversation with past representations of the Holocaust; a girl wears a dashing red coat as she is led to the slaughter, reminiscent of the famous girl-in-the-red-coat from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; a pitch-perfect piano score evokes the minor-key piano music that has become a quintessential feature of Holocaust films from Europa Europa to, of course, The Pianist; and the closing (and only) song in which all cast members join in recalls unmistakeably the eerie solemnity of Tomorrow Belongs To Me from the musical Cabaret.

But this conversation with the past goes much further. Didacticism has gone out of fashion (and this, make no mistake, was didactic – right down to the chalkboards at the back on which cast members occasionally noted down harrowing details). But there is a long tradition of plays whose primary purpose was to convey knowledge, such as medieval mystery and miracle plays or the passion plays, characteristically marked by antisemitism. Is this a Jewish rejoinder? There are hundreds of “revivals” in Edinburgh: revivals of plays. This flaunts a whole lot more chutzpah: a revival of a genre.