28 February 2015

Theatre Staging of SS Photos from the "Höcker Album"

Category: XXw, Reviews, Holocaust, History and film, News, Political history, Social history, Historical Policy


Using archival photographs of Auschwitz officers and non-conventional theater techniques, Teatr Trans-Atlantyk and director Paul Bargetto reveal factual evidence of the German operations.


The collection of black-and-white photographs known as the Höcker Album focuses on the SS officers commanding Auschwitz from May 1944. That month was the beginning of the mass transport of some 438,000 Hungarian Jews to the nearby camp of Birkenau, accelerating the killing at the largest, most deadly of Germany's Konzentrationslager complexes. Since the album became public in January 2007, its photos have sharpened the awareness, not of the SS crimes, but certainly of SS activities as the camp complex operated. As evidence, the Höcker Album runs counter to a prevalent view that "places the imagination of the consciousness of the perpetrators outside acceptable discourse on the Holocaust," in Erin McGlothlin's formulation from her contribution to After Representation? The Holocaust, Literature, and Culture. Donated to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USMM), the 116 mostly palm-sized images depict Auschwitz's top officers with colleagues and auxiliaries, from May 1944 to a Christmas event ending the year "when Auschwitz became Auschwitz," as Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and former USMM project director, stated in the New Yorker after the museum made the Höcker Album available online.

The photos are at the core of a non-fiction drama, Album: Karl Höcker, by Teatr Trans-Atlantyk and director Paul Bargetto. Their production had its latest performance on 4 March at the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw, with further performances at the Institute in May. What these photos document, however, are official duties, ceremonies and leisure events – prisoners are conspicuously absent, as are the train ramp, barracks and incinerator chimneys of Auschwitz-Birkenau's concentration camp and extermination facilities. Therein lies the risk and, arguably, the opportunity that Teatr Trans-Atlantyk presents with Album: Karl Höcker.

As onstage action develops, some 90 photos from the album are projected in sequence on a large backdrop screen. The company derives the work's onstage aspects from speculative interactions among identified and undentified Germans in the photos, or from a scene in a projected photo, along with improvisation, directorial interventions and other aspects of Teatr Trans-Atlantyk's contemporary stagecraft. It persists in focusing the audience on the archival material, rather than any consistent dramatic representation of the SS characters. The effect is an inexorable presence, a proximity to an evidential zone of terror. It is a measure of the production's intelligence that the photos remain the key and motivation over the 90-minute performance – including a mandatory awareness that this material suspends the audience terribly near implication, as embodied in the photo projections of SS personnel.

Premiere performances of Album: Karl Höcker took place in the Theatre Institute's black-box auditorium in January and February, produced by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. In an initial version, Album: Karl Höcker had been performed in July 2014 at the Sopot Nonfiction Festival in north Poland. Director Bargetto and his company then developed the full production along with playwright-dramaturg Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk. (Bargetto has directed several Sławomir Mrożek plays in New York City; Sikorska-Miszczuk's writing includes the two-part play The Mayor, about divisive exposure in Jedwabne, Poland, after publication of Yale historian Jan T. Gross's book Neighbors brought attention to local responsibility in 1941 for the pogrom in Jedwabne.)


Teatr Trans-Atlantyk's dramatic approach 

Before addressing their performance and aspects of the Höcker Album photos, it's necessary to clarify what the production is and what it is not, theatrically. After the performance on 2 February, Bargetto said the production will not take a final, completed form. "That would be a lie," he stated, referring to the fixing any linear drama according to what the SS men may have thought, or creating a narrative according to meanings of the devastation they wrought. This emphasizes Teatr Trans-Atlantyk's dramatic approaches, which include scripted and improvisatory sections for the ensemble of five, as well as the director's interjections. It also emphasizes a compelling awareness that the company demonstrates toward the mundane appearances of historical material being activated in the performance, and toward tensions this can provoke in the audience. There is no sound design in Album: Karl Höcker: by eliminating any illustrative function of music – and with a methodical reliance on the photos, not on video or projection effects – the audience must rely on their perceptions and preconceptions about genocidal engineering developed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.

The ensemble takes multiple roles from the projected photos, with dialogue in Polish and Bargetto's occasional interventions in English. These roles include Auschwitz Commandant Richard Baer; his predecessor, Rudolf Höss, who had established the Birkenau camp then returned to direct intensified killing operations there in mid 1944; and Baer's adjutant, Karl Höcker, the presumed owner of the album. Others include Birkenau Commandant Josef Kramer – named "the Beast of Belsen" when he was transferred later to Bergen-Belsen – and SS doctors including Josef Mengele, Carl Clausberg and Enno Lolling, with several women SS auxiliaries, or Helferinnen.

As Album: Karl Höcker begins, the cast is in the front row, SS uniform jackets draped on their chair backs, and director Bargetto provides a curt introduction with an interpreter. This opening arrangement establishes the actors as both a buffer for and a connection to the audience. The "fourth wall" safeguard of traditional stagecraft will be disrupted frequently – in some sections, for example, Grzegorz Sierzputowski, who performs roles including Dr. Clausberg, stares haughtily into the audience from one chair on the front row. Bargetto's participation includes stepping onstage to photograph tableaux vivants the actors have formed as particular album photos are screened. Bargetto said his presence "is there to break the narrative frame – to refocus the audience on the construction rather than the drama or, to put it another way, on the fact rather than the fiction." When onstage, the director may also reflect the anonymous SS photographer, who does not appear in Höcker Album photos.

Such shifts are frequent, then interrogations come from the director offstage, asking who the actors are playing, what they're doing. In one photo sequence of staff leisure time, the cast is overjoyed to arrive at Solahütte (Porąbka), a hillside lodge 30 kilometers downriver from Auschwitz (which still functioned until recent years). In another, two women, played by Helena Chorzelska and Marta Król, have their officer jackets removed by their male colleagues and replaced with white smocks, as an album photo screens of nurses passing SS officers who appear to be commenting about or to them. Sierzputowski engages the audience, asking what "SS" stands for? A more galling sequence involves Heil Hitler salutes, with Król refusing, at which point she's cajoled then forced by Tomasz Sobczak, whose roles include Mengele. Actors wonder about a document being studied by three officers in a sequence of photos. We don't know, of course. They then quote Thomas Mann on authoritarianism. Yet to contrast Mann's writing with his uniformed countrymen (and political enemies) is more of a grasp than it is a neat theatrical effect. The same holds when the cast sings a familiar 1960s theme song from the Polish TV series Four Tank Men and a Dog (Czterej pancerni i pies) – they're in front of a photo of about 70 singing SS officers at a forest bridge, facing an accordionist, so the audience might expect a rousing German folk tune instead. Several projections document a ceremony opening the SS military hospital built near Birkenau's entrance; a funeral is in other photos, with swastika-draped coffins after that hospital was bombed on 26 December 1944. 

Taboo is unmistakable as the performance develops, with photos appearing at such scale, the subjects in which are uniformly the moral enemy. Ours is an age when little is held sacred in experimental theater, or in more mainstream drama. With that said, it's unmistakable when an audience faces a taboo: when a choice is encountered with the awareness that, as individuals, the decision could go either way. Would one resist, or conform? Jews and prisoners are very rarely mentioned in the script – yet how frequently did those men and women discuss them?

The Germans' professional relations are teased out, for the most part in juxtaposition to the photographic evidence that projects relentlessly across the screen filling the back wall (sets and costumes are by Agnieszka Kaczyńska). The actors' brief characterizations are of men and women readily condemned as evil. That reaction, though, doesn't alter facts of their actions and decisions (in a lesser, contemporary analogy, elevating veterans of military invasions as "heroes" can be seen to absolve governments of sending them to fight illegal wars). Höcker, Baer and Mengele were born in 1911; serving at Auschwitz in their early 30s, each had devoted his career to the SS – perhaps for idelogical reasons, perhaps because it was at the heart of the nation's "growth engine" (in 1930, when Baer began with the SS as a Dachau guard, Höcker was about to lose his job as a bank teller, a career that, after a prison term in the 1960s, he'd eventually retire from). Part of the uncanny effect the performance achieves is that as the role-playing shifts and the performance continues to interrupt itself, the actors, who are in their 20s and early 40s, can be related to the age-restricted professional class of our day, both in the military and in other professions. The performers are thus distinct from yet also somehow closer to the Germans in the Höcker Album photos. In playing Karl Höcker, the actor Krzysztof Polkowski's eagerness before authority can seem all-too familiar. It can also seem naive, given Höcker's SS experience by the time he was at Auschwitz.


Holocaust theatre?

In working from archival material that focuses solely on SS activities outside or alongside the camps, Album: Karl Höcker's position on the Holocaust is both intense and elusive. Another recent stage production based on Auschwitz-Birkenau experience, the opera The Passenger by composer Mieczysław Weinberg, tours internationally (separate productions now play at Chicago Lyric Opera and at the Frankfurt Opera), with English-language headlines calling it a "Holocaust opera." Yet the drama of The Passenger is between an SS women's-camp officer and a Catholic Polish prisoner. The opera has its origin in a radio play from 1958, written by Zofia Posmysz, who survived the women's camp at Birkenau. Posmysz's play met with resistance among decision-makers at Polish Radio, for presenting the German character's point of view. And Album: Karl Höcker, on its surface, also presents  their point of view.

It is to be hoped that, as The Passenger's helps spur discussion of the German camp system being centered in Poland during the war, our present awareness of that system has grown, and must continue to do so. The evidence that Album: Karl Höcker works from is underpinned by two crucial points, though neither appears overtly in the performance. The first involves the chronological juxtaposition of the photos with concurrent operations being enacted at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The second is another invaluable photo album, the Auschwitz Album, which had been the primary source of Auschwitz photos until the Höcker Album became public.

The chronological juxtaposition is that Richard Baer took command at Auschwitz in May 1944, with Karl Höcker as his adjutant and as trains began bringing close to half a million Hungarian Jews there. The Hungarian government had just formed its alliance with Germany, and some three-fourths of the people on those transports were immediately murdered. The railway line through Birkenau's brick watch-tower gate was constructed in May 1944, to facilitate unloading the trains arriving from Hungary. The Auschwitz Album – almost 200 photos taken by SS photographers – show a day of selections on the ramp of the new rail terminus, nearer the gas chambers and incinerator buildings. In effect, the Auschwitz Album shows victims of the murderous process overseen by the Höcker Album's subjects. The mundane military professionalism in the latter album provides a glimpse into the two-month mass transport from Hungary, one of most dire periods of organized brutality in human history. 


Dual role of the Höcker Album

The photos that Album: Karl Höcker utilizes are accepted to have been memoribilia assembled by Höcker while stationed at Auschwitz. The album's first image is a large portrait of him with Commandant Baer, wearing his adjutant's insignia cords, and he's in photos on most of the album pages. The duties of camp adjutant – of Karl Höcker – is described by former Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss in his memoir, written while awaiting execution. The adjutant was "the first assistant to the Kommandant. He must ensure that no important event in the camp remains unknown to the Kommandant." Höcker received daily reports from each chief duty officer. He also brought experience to Auschwitz, transferred there after a year's service as adjutant at Majdanek, alongside the city of Lublin in eastern Poland. During his term as adjutant at Majdanek, 18,400 Jewish prisoners were shot and killed on 3 November 1943, part of the notorious Operation Harvest Festival, the single largest German slaughter of Jews in the war. Through half of his previous posting, Majdanek still functioned as both concentration camp and extermination camp. This was a dual role, distinct from the death camps of Operation Reinhard at Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibor. Though operations had ceased or been curtailed the year before at these other death camps, at Auschwitz and Birkenau a similar dual role had been undertaken and was being escalated. Richard Baer, the new Auschwitz commandant, had camp experience as did his adjutant, and earlier had overseen murderous "special treatment" programs against prisoners. However, he'd been transferred to Auschwitz after an administrative assignment in the SS office of economic policy, making Höcker responsibilities all the more important. When advancing Soviet forces liberated prisoners left at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in late January 1945, the two officers were just taking up their respective positions at Dora-Mittelbau, a subcamp in the Buchenwald complex in Germany. 

The Höcker Album was discovered in 1946 in a Frankfurt apartment, by a U.S. officer with the Counter Intelligence Corps. He then kept it until late in his life, when he contacted the USMM in Washington, D.C. His donation in 2007 was made under the condition of anonymity. The question remains how an intelligence officer would keep material of such singular significance private through decades when the trials of former SS men were major public events – prime-time news, in the new TV age. And as the extent of the Holocast's became a topic of overwhelming international importance. That question will likely remain without an answer.

It will require time and exposure with audiences for Album: Karl Höcker's adaptation of these photographic artifacts, these glances capturing the concentration- and extermination-camp hierarchy, to discern the level of permissibility in our day. It faces acute, long-standing prohibitions and reservations about the Holocaust and artistic representation, as a subsequent version of this article will consider. At this early stage, the theater production is taking a deeply considered step, perhaps a thankless one: willing to trust the audience, by making terrible evidence available to us. 


Alan Lockwood

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