The Condemned of Altona (Les Séquestrés d'Altona)
THE CONDEMNED OF ALTONA (Les Séquestrés d'Altona)
Play by Jean Paul Sartre, 1960
Jean-Paul Sartre's The Condemned of Altona is the author's only work that directly addresses the Holocaust. First produced in Paris in 1959, the play is a tense family psychodrama that explores issues of German guilt and responsibility for wartime and Holocaust atrocities. At the center of The Condemned of Altona is Frantz Gerlach, a German World War II veteran who has locked himself in his bedroom for more than a decade and deluded himself into believing that Germany is the ultimate victim of the war. The play slowly reveals the source of Frantz's psychological torment in ever-deepening layers of darkness. Although it is not immediately clear from the surface of the work, Sartre—who wrote The Condemned of Altona as France brutally strove to maintain its colonial rule over Algeria in the late 1950s—intended the play to be a comment on French involvement in Algeria as well as on Holocaust-era Germany.
The Condemned of Altona has two narrative threads. One follows the Gerlach family, which has survived World War II intact and whose members live comfortably in their home in the German town of Altona. The Gerlach father is busy rebuilding the family's shipping business. Under the general amnesty granted by the Allies, and buoyed by Germany's postwar economic recovery, the Gerlachs are regaining their fortune, though the patriarch is dying of throat cancer. Aware that he will soon be dead, Gerlach pére wants his son Werner to return home to live and run the business. On the surface the Gerlachs are a staid, respectable bunch. "We may lose our principles, but we keep our habits," a daughter comments.
But beneath this placid, bourgeois surface run the raving monologues of the family's insane son Frantz, who returned from the Russian front 13 years before the action of the play begins. Frantz has barricaded himself in a windowless upstairs room of the Gerlach family home. He paces, eats oysters, and rants constantly into a tape recorder, making a tape for "the thirtieth century." He refuses to speak to anyone but his sister Leni, with whom he is having an incestuous affair. With Leni supporting his delusions, Frantz has convinced himself that Germany is suffering at the hands of the Allies, that German children starve in orphanages, and that its cities lie in ruins. Above all, Frantz refuses to accept the fact of Germany's renewed prosperity.
These two plots collide when Werner's wife Johanna decides to confront Frantz in an effort to free the entire family from his domination. In peeling back the layers of Frantz's insanity like onion skins, the play moves forward and backward in time, slowly revealing the horrible secret that has condemned Frantz to Altona. These flashbacks also serve to heighten the dramatic tension of the play, as the reader is only slowly shown the full truth. It initially seems that Frantz is in hiding because of trouble with an American soldier who tried to rape his sister. But the truth is far more complicated. As the play progresses, we learn that Frantz saw his father sell off family land for use as a concentration camp. Further, during the war years Frantz tried to save a rabbi, but his father intervened to ensure that the Jew was sent to his death. Then his father forced Frantz to enlist in the German army. In the army Frantz allowed captured enemy soldiers to be shot. For some time Sartre leaves the reader with the impression that this is the real reason Frantz went into hiding. In the final act, however, the stinging final layer is exposed. Frantz not only allowed the murder of men placed in his custody but he was also a full-fledged torturer, the "Butcher of Smolensk." If his father had not bribed some German soldiers, Frantz would have been tried as a war criminal. In the family's attic Frantz has been hiding both from his guilt and because of it.
Responsibility is the key issue that underlies The Condemned of Altona. Like much of Sartre's other work, the play explores human freedom—in this case by asking whether Frantz committed his barbarous acts freely. In The Condemnedof Altona Sartre limns the question of whether Frantz was inexorably drawn down that path by the conditioning influences of his family and society or whether he made a conscious—and therefore morally culpable—choice. Frantz's final words provide Sartre's answer to the question of who was responsible: "I have been," he cries. Frantz's madness, Sartre judges, was his own choice as well, one freely made. His delusions were merely his attempt to justify his actions.