Small and furious he stands there, the man who embodies Adolf Hitler in Israel. The grey jacket buttoned narrowly over the chest, naked belly underneath, brown boots on his feet. "The glory is here short-lived even if I murder," the guy hisses, spits, whispers in German.
He runs to the right, to the left, from the front to the back. Waving his arms about, he speaks fast, stutters, stares. “It’s the deed that counts," he emphasizes the "E." But nobody reacts. Children play outside on Shabbat.
Martin Wuttke rehearses. There isn't any opposite number yet, no audience, there still cannot be any reactions. But it is exactly those reactions that will make this play, now running for almost 20 years in Germany, a special one.
The Berliner Ensemble is in Tel Aviv for a guest performance. For two nights, "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" is playing in the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. Bertolt Brecht's parable about the advancement of Hitler in the 1995 production of famous director Heiner Müller, long deceased, premiered on Saturday for the first time in Israel.
Can we expect applause from Israelis for the Hitler allegory played by Germans, almost 70 years since the Holocaust? Referring to an essay by Avishai Milstein, author, director and chief dramatic adviser of the Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv: Yes, we can. The houses in Israel would seldom stage plays on Jewish history so that work is in demand in connection to the Shoah from abroad – and would generate great media interest, he says.
Hitler as a dog (Photo: Barbara Braun)
For lead actor Martin Wuttke this is more than just a role. He, together with director of Berliner Ensemble, Claus Peymann, and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, has been the driving force behind the production being staged in Tel Aviv.
"I will not play my role differently than usual, but of course being here makes me more aware of what I am saying”, Wuttke says.
The rehearsal is over, it is still six hours until the premiere. The 51-year-old seems tense. He landed late at night after performances in Moscow and Vienna, he chain smokes and asks twice: "Where can you eat something fast here?"
Tensions buildingMartin Wuttke has already performed "Arturo Ui" 396 times. Furthermore, he played Adolf Hitler in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." The reactions of the spectators will certainly be different and this is exciting, Wuttke says. “I am also aware that it will be hard for many to applaud.”
The tension begins to build at 7:30 pm on Saturday evening. Half an hour before the curtain rises, the first guests sit outside the theater, drink wine, speak Hebrew. A microphone suddenly cracks. On the balcony of the theater there is a man dressed in a coat, he wears a hat, clenches his right hand and says in German: "Decades have passed over this country…"
It is the prelude, it is part of the production. People look up. Passersby stop, fetch their mobile phones from their bag, take photographs of the figure on the balcony. "It is the day of the retrieval of the strength of the people“, the man in the coat continues.
Soon afterwards the large part of the audience continues with usual pre-premiere routine: Talking, eating, drinking. After 10 minutes, a man shouts: "Shut up, finally shut up!" The man in the coat repeats his speech twice. At 7:55 pm, the audience moves into the auditorium.
"We react quietly," Varda Fish, director for international matters of the Cameri Theater says shortly before the beginning of the play. “Many guests have come to me and asked if it was necessary to have that speech outside the theater before. Holocaust survivors may be among the audience, of course this stirs up. Also I have lost almost my whole family in the hands of the Nazis." Instead of anger she supplies tears.
Provoked tears. Just a year ago Varda Fish invited the Berliner Ensemble to Israel. In 2009, she was responsible together with Claus Peymann for the cooperation between the Cameri Theater and the Berliner Ensemble on the occasion of the 100th anniversary celebration of Tel Aviv. There the Ensemble from Berlin performed Bertolt Brecht's "Threepenny Opera."
"Art has an important function in times of political and religious conflicts," said Klaus Wowereit, travelling with them at the time. “This time we wanted 'Arturo Ui,'" Varda Fish says today. The time is ripe, this production has been met with great interest in Israel. “Every Israeli is connected to Hitler, the Holocaust and German history," Fish says.
For years Israeli theater groups have dealt with the topic. In 2007 "Hitler, the Robot and the Knife" won first prize at the Akko Festival, in 2008 the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv showed the early years of the dictator in "Résumé." The Gesher Theater picked up "My Fight," an adaption by George Tabori in 2012, this one in the same year the Israeli actor Amir Orian took on the role of the Hitler in the Bar-El Room Theater in Tel Aviv.
Here, a German embodies Hitler, in German, in Israel. This is new.
'The applause simply touched me'It is 8 pm, every seat is taken in the hall of the Cameri. The faces are serious, the curtain opens. Wuttke alias Arturo Ui, his tongue colored in red, made up palely with a naked torso, darts about the thick boards on all fours, panting. Hitler as a dog. Nobody laughs.
The next scene, Ui yells: "I will shatter them." Nobody laughs. The atmosphere loosens for the first time as Ui gets rhetoric lessons from reciting Shakespeare. The audience laughs. Some spectators loudly giggle, almost gratefully. But it already changes again in the next scene.
"Only death is for free," Wuttke-Ui sizzles. When he forms the swastika with his body, the spectators whisper. Again, serious faces. The reaction of the audience, the changing tension within the auditorium, never before had I felt so strongly, Wuttke says later. He approaches the end of the play. Last scene, the ensemble stands united on the stage, the curtain falls.
And the audience claps hesitantly, then chants “bravo!" One after the other, the audience rises. “He is unbelievable," Nili Aslan, a photographer from Jerusalem, says. “It was terrible but I love the play.”
There are tears in the eyes of only one man in the hall, Martin Wuttke, at the end of the applause. “Really thanks, thank you”, he soon afterwards says at a reception of the German Embassy. “The applause has simply touched me unbelievably.”
Small and happy he stands there, at this place in Tel Aviv in Israel.