Think About It: Two German-Israeli co-productions

Two German-Israeli co-productions at the Cameri and Habimah theaters

Habimah Theater 300 (photo credit: Yoni Cohen)
Habimah Theater 300
(photo credit: Yoni Cohen)
In the past two months both the Cameri and Habimah theaters put on original plays, each with the participation of three actors – two women and one man – in collaboration with German theaters, the Cameri with the Schauspielbühnen from Munich, and Habimah with the Residenztheater from Stuttgart.
In both productions there is an Israeli actress and a German actress – Sarah von Schwarze (an Israeli actress of German origin) and Cornelia Heyse in the case of the Cameri’s Between Two Worlds, and Evgenia Dodina and Juliana Köhler in the case of Habimah’s Persona.
Such co-productions have become quite common in Europe in the last decade, and Israel, which may be considered marginally European, has occasionally been part of this phenomenon, especially in co-productions with German theaters. The Holocaust is always somehow present in the background, even if the plays in themselves have nothing to do with German- Jewish, or German-Israeli relations.
The two recent plays exemplify this. Between Two Worlds, written by von Schwarze and partially autobiographical, deals with Israeli, German and Jewish identities. In the play, in which both Hebrew and German are spoken, von Schwarze plays the role of Ruth, who unexpectedly arrives in Munich and breaks into the loft where her estranged father Avraham (played by Eli Gorenstein) lives with his partner Sabine.
Avraham is a German convert to Judaism who came to Israel with his family, and then left them suddenly, returning to Germany, where he lives as a Jew, with a non-Jewish lawyer – Sabine, who previously lived with a woman.
At first one gets the impression that Ruth has come to confront her father, who is celebrating his 70th birthday, with his desertion. However, it soon transpires that her visit was an impulsive decision, resulting from the fact that she believes she accidentally killed an Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, and since she is afraid of the consequences she has come to Munich to seek Sabine’s professional services.
IN THE course of a very angry and aggressive confrontation with her father it transpires that the background to his conversion was his own grandfather’s suicide during the Nazi era; after discovering that he had a Jewish ancestor, he believed that by killing himself he would save his family.
It is also revealed that Avraham decided to leave Israel because of a traumatic experience in the course of the First Lebanese War, and that Sabine was unaware of the fact that he is a convert – i.e. originally a Christian German, like herself.
What finally emerges is that no Israeli soldier was killed in the West Bank on the relevant date, and consequently Ruth’s panic is without foundation.
“What you need is not a lawyer, but a good psychiatrist,” Sabine says to her as the play ends.
The plot sounds a little like a Latin American soap opera, and those elements that are not autobiographical are not always credible. However, from a purely theatrical point of view the play isn’t bad – texts that confront some very real issues regarding the German past, the Israeli present and the human dilemmas that they create. The acting is also good.
I do not know how the play was received in Munich.
In Israel it received rave reviews, but even though it was performed in the smallest of the Cameri’s theater halls, the house was not full, and the audience was a very specific sector of the population (largely elderly Ashkenazim, of German background).
Persona is a different kettle of fish. The play is a German adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film by the same name, which in turn was based on a four-page, one-act play written by Swedish playwright August Strindberg in 1889.
The play has nothing whatsoever to do with Israel, Germany or Jews, but like Between Two Worlds deals with the uncovering of secrets, and tortured souls.
The original play was about two actresses who fortuitously meet in a café on New Year’s Eve, but in the original only one of them does all the talking. Bergman used a few motifs from Strindberg’s play, but changed the plot. The adaptation to the stage by Amelie Niermeyer is generally based on Bergman’s version.
It tells of a nurse (Alma) who is asked to take care of an actress (Elisabet Fogler) who for no apparent reason has stopped speaking. The male figure in the play (played in Israel by Alon Neuman) is the husband/psychiatrist/ stage director, who is trying to get Elisabet to start talking again, and return to her acting career and her role as wife and mother.
Except for a single word at the end, Elisabet remains silent throughout the play, and all her reactions are facial. Most of the talking is done by Alma, who ends up telling secrets from her own past, and is instrumental, through her interaction with the male figure, in revealing details from Elisabet’s past.
The text is extremely emotional at times, as for example when Alma discovers that Elisabet has betrayed her confidence. As in the case of Bergman’s film she ends up walking away from Elisabet, but whereas in the film Elisabet turns completely catatonic as a result, in the play there is a suggestion that she might have returned to her previous self.
Unlike Between Two Worlds, Persona is not bilingual.
In Munich German actor Götz Schulte and Köhler, as Alma, spoke German, and Dodina played the mute Elisabet. In Tel Aviv Alon Neuman and Dodina as Alma spoke Hebrew, and Köhler played the mute Elisabet.
Those who had seen Bergman’s film were apparently disappointed with the play, but since I had missed the film I could judge the play on its own merits. Once again, the play was good theater, thanks to clever staging using an almost totally bare stage, and the magnificent Dodina and Köhler.
However, there was really no specific reason for putting it on stage as a German-Israeli co-production, beyond the availability of (German) financing for the project.
Since no German was spoken during the play, the audience was not necessarily made up of persons with a German background, but Habimah’s smallest hall wasn’t full. This is not because of antagonism toward German-Israeli cooperation, but simply because the audience in Israel for highbrow cultural events such as this is small, and diminishing.
Is there any chance that such cooperation will stop the growing political rift between Germany and Israel, against the background of Israel’s policy in the territories, and regarding negotiations with the Palestinians? I am doubtful. Israel’s critics in Germany are as unlikely to go to see these co-productions, as are those in Israel who are disgusted by the European position in general and that of Germany in particular.
Nevertheless, such cultural interludes are certainly welcome to those of us who crave for some “time out” from the complex and problematic reality of Israel’s daily existence.
Now back to the theater of coalition building.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.