The Investigation (Die Ermittlung)

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Play by Peter Weiss, 1965

In his work Peter Weiss was confronted with the fundamental problems of an artistic reckoning with the Holocaust as well as the representability of the Holocaust. He was himself an eyewitness of the Nazi regime, though not a witness to the destruction of the European Jewry in the death camps. He could not remember the actual events but only make use of the personal testimonies mediated to him as a spectator of the Frankfurt am Main Auschwitz trial by survivors and perpetrators, as well as the photographs, radio reports, and newspaper articles published by Bernd Naumann during the trial and later edited as a book. The Auschwitz trial against the murderers of the death camp Auschwitz and their odd-job men took place from December 1963 until August 1965. Twenty defendants and more than four hundred witnesses took part in the trial, in which the activities of all persons involved in the extermination camp Auschwitz were investigated.

Naumann's and Herrmann Langbein's respective documentations of the Auschwitz trial were used as raw material for Weiss's documentary drama The Investigation (1966; Die Ermittlung, 1965). Weiss wished to write a world drama on the course of history of the twentieth century, following the pattern of Dante's Divina commedia, which he found both fascinating and irritating. In his triptych, Inferno represents the world in respect to perennial suffering and Purgatory the present time of action, of searching, doubt, hope, and the fight against the evils of the world. Although Weiss later abandoned his plans for a world triptych project, he found an aesthetic form for a play on the Auschwitz trial, adopting Dante's aesthetic structural principle of numerology in order to treat his abundance of material, reducing it to a compelling indictment of what happened at Auschwitz. The Investigation consists of eleven cantos, each subdivided into three segments, in which the account of imaginary spokespersons stride through the site of destruction, Auschwitz, in nine stations. The play begins with "The Platform" where the trains arrived, proceeds to "The Camp," and ends with two cantos, "Zyklon B" and "The Fire Ovens." Although the situation of examining witnesses and defendants may appear to guarantee unity of time and place, neither directions of time nor place are actually given by Weiss.

Weiss managed not to mention the words "Jew," "German," or "Auschwitz" in his play. He did not draw attention to the national or ethnic background of the victims. The nine witnesses of the extermination camp—in which, according to the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, specimens, not individuals, died—are not differentiable dramatic characters but anonymous figures one to nine without discernible individuality. They appear in the play as nameless mouthpieces, their statements speaking for the many. The representatives of the jurisprudence appear as not individualized function carrier: "Judge," "Representative of the charges," and "Representative of the defense." Only the 18 defendants, listed at the beginning as anonymous numbers, are identified during the course of the play by the witnesses and the three legal representatives.

The two cantos in the center of the play, cantos 5 and 6, are different from the other nine songs: In these two cantos the individual destiny of two persons of the same age—a victim, Lilly Tofler, who died in Auschwitz, and a perpetrator, the 19-year-old Nazi, SS Corporal Stark—are described. Individuality is admitted only to this victim and this perpetrator in Weiss's play.

The artistic, artless, toneless, laconic, monotonous, and unemphatic language of the various mouthpieces, which is characterized by the parataxial sentence construction, the renunciation of metaphors, and punctuation and language, gives the wrong impression, as if Weiss has only quoted and assembled the trial's testimonies. A comparison of the Auschwitz trial documentation with the text of The Investigation shows how Weiss simplifies and reduces the language material to create a distance between the spectator and the event in order to anesthetize the feelings of the spectators/readers who have to work through this text. This play removes Auschwitz from the pure realm of religious, metaphysical, or mythological discourse. One of the key witnesses in The Investigation demands: "We must drop the lofty view that the camp world is incomprehensible to us." The theatrical but nondramatic documentation of Auschwitz offers no catharsis or resolution of any sort; it renounces use of naturalistic dialogues, a traditional dramatic structure, and individually drawn characters, who make audience identification possible.

The atrocities of Auschwitz are not scenically represented in The Investigation— according to Weiss any mimetic representation of Auschwitz or scenic reconstruction of the trial must be renounced—but naked testimonies are described in gruesome detail to the court negotiation by the witnesses and defendants. According to Lawrence Langer, a noted scholar specializing in the field of Holocaust literature and testimony, "Peter Weiss lowers the barriers of the unimaginable." His theatrical testimony of physical suffering "gradually narrows the space separating the imagination from the camp."

—Olav Schröer

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The Investigation (Die Ermittlung)

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