Author: Hannah Moscovitch
Genre: Play script
Publisher: Playwrights Canada Press
Plays haven’t really gotten mainstream beyond musicals and the trauma of losing the rock-paper-scissors competition in an all-boys group over who had to play Lady Macbeth in highschool Shakespeare dramatics. So it shouldn’t be a surprising analogy that plays are to the 21st century what the British royalty is to Westminster: expensive, flashy, and growing irrelevant.
Okay that was mean, in reality while not pulling in massive box offices; every metropolis worth its name supports a theatre community. Communities that allow plays to not have to cost the price of walking into a music festival and within 3D movie ticket range. Fun fact: There exists a play which is a bunch of fat ladies doing aerobatics. East of Berlin is one such play, just not as much nudity.
Now statistically, by the title and cover alone, the majority of you have the brains to gander that it has something to do with Nazis. And if that’s true then go ahead and put a big gold star on your deductive skills, you bunch of Sherlocks. To be specific beyond “something” the play is set in the aftermath of World War 2, specifically in “fucking Paraguay” as the protagonist so eloquently puts it, the son of a Nazi attempting to deal with the fact that Holy Shit I am the Son of a fucking Nazi.
Now understand that East of Berlin is meant to be seen as a play, so reviewing just the script would be like judging the merits of foreign film without subtitles by the visual effects. I’ve never seen it as a play, so let’s pretend I’m reviewing a novella with a new presentation. Though, side note, the first time I read it, there’s a theatrical cue for when characters don’t speak but emote in the pauses, expressed in an italicized (beat), which didn’t help me think I was reciting lyrics to hip hop, oomphing with each line… Okay serious now, Holocaust serious this time.
So plot-wise, the protagonist is German expat and struggling South American, Rudi, who lives in a community of other German expats who managed to find the happy ending from the movie “Downfall” and escape postwar Germany. He grows up in easy comfort until he finds out that Gasp! his father was a former SS doctor who did human experiments in Auschwitz. From then on he struggles to deal with his heritage, said struggles involving a gay boyfriend, a Jewish girlfriend whose mother survived Auschwitz, and a lot of cigarettes.
Of course it’s more than just Oh My God My Dad was a Nazi! This play has depth, and what it digs into is living in the aftermath. Being able to deal with ones past if you will. First clue is that so many pivotal moments in the story, Rudi telling his father he knows what his father did during the war, Sarah, the Jewish girlfriend, finding about Rudi’s origins – not that much a spoiler as narrative-wise it’s inevitable – are muted, either in a voiceover or not even shown. This is especially apparent in the dialogue, where the strength lies in the pauses between words, leaving the enormity of the emotion to what is implied. For example “homosexuality”, “gay” even “faggot” are words never said though it’s everything that Rudi thinks of his gay boyfriend, Hermann.
It’s not just being copy with his language, but as a character focus, Rudi epitomizes how we are unable to comprehend or unwilling or unable to look directly at shameful pasts even if it isn’t our own. The title is a crowning example, “East of Berlin”, being the coded word for the camps yet it could also be easily construed as the Eastern Front as Rudi’s father was participant in and Rudi is led to believe for most of his life that’s the only involvement his father had during the war. Pertinently, South America would be as West as German expats could run from the East while Rudi flees in the opposite direction back East toward Germany and ultimately in a tour of Auschwitz for ironically the exact same reason. But even when Rudi calls his father out for hiding and never telling him he was a SS Doctor, Sarah karmatically does to Rudi when he never tells her about his father.
As Rudi puts so eloquently clinching what Sarah sees in Rudi that he doesn’t realize until it’s too late:
Rudi: No, I just didn’t tell you. Because, Sarah, listen, when I was young, in Paraguay, Sarah, my father didn’t tell me… about the camp, so when I met you, it was easy to just tell you what he’d told me.
Sarah leaves him and Rudi is left in the aftermath of two relationships, with his father, and with Sarah.
East of Berlin is great piece in that “An American Crime” sort of way, with an easy to understand plot, dialogue that doesn’t wax poetics and pretentious philosophizing, and carrying multiple layers of understanding. A good read for any aspiring playwrights who want to know how it’s done.
Recommend: a nice snacky read while waiting in line to a Toronto-based theatre production.
By Joshua P’ng, a North York Writer