Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Germania calling

Theatre byDavid Jays

Holocaust denial will only grow more plausible with the ageing of survivors and the dismal erasure of time. Facts will be disputed, and even a film as well-meaning as Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful implicitly massages the horrors of genocide into poignancy. Esther Vilar's play Speer examines a figure who, in trying to assess his own tainted past, subjected it to inevitable, equivocating metamorphosis. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, armaments minister and eventually second-in-command, was the only leading Nazi to accept guilt at the Nuremberg trials. He spent the rest of his life fencing in the half-light of denial, the possibility of repentance and explication.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, who also directs, is excellently cast as Speer. In his most celebrated film roles (Mephisto, Colonel Redl ), the actor dances cheek-to-cheek with opportunism, reputation and connivance. Vilar imagines Speer invited to East Berlin for a lecture in 1980, the year before his death. Bauer (Sven Eric Bechtolf), a state official, returns him to the workroom where he designed the reconstruction of Berlin as the towering city of Germania. Amid a dereliction of planks and unshaded light bulbs, Speer's host presents a model of the gargantuan domed assembly hall that would have dominated his new city. Glaring white, in- humanly pristine and so large that people seem superfluous, it exemplifies the architect's icy disregard. Germania was to be built on a scale ludicrous in a single state, but tailored to global domination. "For the capital of the world," Speer explains, "one needs the world."

Speer looks beyond architecture. While dogs of retribution yap at the doors, the men play cat-and-mouse. What lies behind Bauer's needling questions and professional deference? And what is the tightly poised Speer, still standing to attention, guarding now? His own rebuilt reputation, perhaps? The plot provides a denouement of cheap reversals, and Speer makes better discussion than drama. Though details chime with Gitta Sereny's study of Speer's battle with truth (and her own battle with his charm), Vilar takes a harsher line. Her Speer will acknowledge any number of faults so long as he can shuck the big one, complicity in genocide, but neither his ignorance nor subsequent public repentance seem to convince her as they did Sereny.

Brandauer makes an elegant Speer, his narrow eyes embedded in plush flesh. Expression seeps guardedly over his face, he sits with hands folded perfectly, and even the actor's subdued inflections contribute to the character's unreadability. This Speer is all containment, though occas-ionally something more sneaks out, as in a gradual smile when sipping champagne, the slyly sensuous finger tracing his lips. He comes to life only when recreating his projected metropolis with planks and sacks, hands busy, cheeks bulging with pleasure.

Challenged about the Jews, the amiable mask crumbles, then closes down. When he bellows, hoarsely, "I was not an anti-Semite!", Brandauer's hand marks the beat of his denial, as if conducting his own exculpation. During the play, Speer variously describes himself as Hitler's manager, the functional equivalent of a taxi driver, while as architect, he insists, "I was his toymaker". "This is where you both came to play," Bauer proposes. It is significant that Vilar imagines Speer lecturing on architecture, for she shows his grotesque revisioning of Berlin replaced with the painstaking reconstruction of his own reputation.

She also suggests parallels between the totalitarian Germanies, Nazi and communist, until it becomes almost credible that Honecker's bankrupt GDR might implore the inspired pragmatist to pull them from the mire, and Brandauer grows sleek in expectation. But eliding these grandiose, contemptuous ideologies proves too much for the play's shaky structure, and Speer is most incisive when returning to the protagonist's bleached evasions.

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