If you want an insight into the problems of engaging a new generation in the scale and horror of the Holocaust, hang around for the after-show talk at Kamp.
Following an hour of bruising performance by Dutch theatre company Hotel Modern at the Adelaide Festival – featuring beatings, gassings, hangings, electrocutions and cremations of tiny wire puppets – the audience is invited to get a closer look at the sets and speak to the puppeteers.
Two Australians aged around 20 could be overheard giggling as they discussed their reaction to a scene in which an SS guard in a watchtower aims his gun at the hordes of emaciated prisoners below.
“I thought he was going to shoot them!” one said, disappointed at the lack of a mass gun-down.
“I thought they were going to set fire to them!” said the other.
They then walked to the opposite side of the theatre to snap their Facebook pictures. “Oh, yeah, I definitely want to see the gas chambers”, the girl enthused with a broad smile.
One Adelaide local described the exchange to me as the result of “the tyranny of distance” – a vast geographical separation from the death camps of Europe making the unimaginable even more unimaginable. Another suggested it was down to a desensitisation to violence among today’s teens.
But we’ve already had Hollywood Holocaust blockbusters. We’ve had a Holocaust graphic novel. We’ve had a Holocaust musical. Now we have a Holocaust puppet show. It makes you wonder what these people would need to jolt them into even a modicum of understanding of humanity’s darkest hour – a ‘death camp experience weekend’ where they can try on the striped pyjamas for themselves? Is there any point in even trying?
The disheartening thing is that the makers of Kamp have clearly tried extremely hard. I interviewed one of Kamp’s three puppeteers, Trudi Klever, before last night’s Australian premiere and despite having worked on this production for several years, her emotions when talking about “the machinery of death” are still raw.
Trudi Klever and Maartje Van Den Brink operating the puppets in Hotel Modern’s Kamp (Photo: Tony Lewis)
She explains the many elements of the concentration camps that the company left out because “we were not searching for the gruesome detail. We wanted it to be fascinating in its existence, not in its horror.”
But there’s no controlling what happens to your art once you’ve performed it, and it was clear the horror was all for some audience members (who had spent £40 each to get a ticket for the sold-out performance).
“This show is an idea of my colleague and friend, Pauline Kalker,” Klever explains. “Her grandfather died in Sobibor, in a camp. They never had a grave to go to, never had a place where they could grieve or show their respect.
“So Pauline said, ‘I would like to create a place where I can go to remember him. I would like to take the killing machine concentration camps that the Germans made as a starting point to tell my story, to be able to grasp what happened there’.
“And since they are theatre-makers, she said, ‘I want to do a theatrical performance’.”
Watching the show, you can tell it was meticulously researched. Resembling Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kamp was inspired by the experiences of prisoners at various death camps across Europe – and by the testimonies of the likes of Primo Levi.
Many survivors and their descendants have seen the show and, intriguingly, none has complained about its existence. But many others have.
“People who witnessed this either from very close or have been in the camps… they thank us. They are absolutely thankful that we tell their story,” says Klever. “And there are also survivors who say that they don’t want to talk about it and they start talking a little after they’ve seen the performance.”
But what can you do about those for whom the death camps are nothing more than fodder for their ghoulish fascination with violent episodes from history?
The Guardian‘s culture editor, Alex Needham, found himself having a conversation with an audience member who complained the show “contained every cliché of the Holocaust”,leading him to ask what he was expecting, “the Nazis as the good guys?”
Klever feels the advantage of using puppets made out of wire, cloth and clay is there is room for “your own ideas, room for your own experience, room for your own grief and your own misunderstanding”.
Kamp is a major technical and creative achievement. The Dutch artists have effectively created a model village of Auschwitz, with light-up ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate, the prisoners’ orchestra (designed to preserve the illusion that this was a mere transit camp), gallows, cans of Zyklon B and row upon row of clay figures.
Each person is given an individual face, each with a sunken expression of despair. Tiny hand-held cameras turn the action on the floor into a live animation on the screen behind as we are led through a day and night in hell on Earth.
Tiny hand-held cameras turn the action on the floor into a live animation behind (Photo: Tony Lewis)
Klever, a trained artist and actress, tells me: “Wherever in the world they come from, you see by their reaction what they know of it.
“If people are not taught in some way about what happened during the Second World War, then it is very difficult for them to understand. And they’d rather look at it as a nice performance and as technically very nice to look at, you know, there’s lots of things to see.”
So does Hotel Modern feel the need to educate its audience? “It’s not so much about education, it’s about contemplation. It’s about people seeing the plague called mankind, what people do to each other every day. Our Kamp performance is only one fraction of history.
“We left out the screaming. And we also left out conversation, because you don’t want to be that specific. You want to be more like a camera hoovering over the terrain and like God, like we’re all a bit of God seeing what goes on down there.”
Many will wonder whether the Holocaust should be reduced to a puppet show. Others will marvel at a startling and haunting production that aims to convey a depravity beyond human comprehension.
Klever concludes: “Some have said that you shouldn’t go about this subject like we do. I just suggest that they should come down and look for themselves.”
– Kamp is showing at the Adelaide Festival until March 17.