There are three major historical events in the early timeline of Nazi horrors that figure as personal turning points in the story of the corruption, perversion and destruction of the wealthy German industrialist family presented in “The Damned,” Ivo van Hove’s intense, extraordinary stage adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film. Van Hove directs a remarkable cast from the 338-year-old Comédie-Français, who perform in French with English subtitles in the cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. But the three events from 1933 feel like varied lessons in stagecraft from the avant-garde Belgian director – stagecraft that is ferociously inventive, unrelenting, and unsurpassed.
Actual news footage of the burning of the German Parliament building, the Reichstag, is projected onto the huge movie screen at the center of the stage. The fire, which enabled Hitler to change Germany overnight from a democracy to a dictatorship, occurs while three generations of the Von Essenbeck family are celebrating the birthday of the patriarch, the aristocratic Baron Joachim Von Essenbeck (a suave Didier Sandre.) What’s going on in Berlin convinces the Baron this day to announce that, not from any personal preference but for the good of Essenbeck Steelworks, “we’re obliged for better or worse into daily contact with… these new men.” And so he in effect fires as company vice-president his anti-Nazi son-in-law Herbert Thallman (a weary, tense and convincingly decent Loic Corbery) and replaces him with his son Konstantin (the persuasively thuggish Denis Podalydes), a brown-shirted official with the SA, the Nazi paramilitary militia.
The newsreel footage is replaced by live video, which lingers long enough on each of the central characters to introduce them to us, complete with captions explaining their identities. Here, then, van Hove is grounding this work of theater in a sense of history, fact and reality. (The Essenbecks were reportedly based on the Krupps of Essen, an actual German industrialist family who supported Hitler.) There are a few artistic flourishes – the mostly bare playing area has a floor colored orange, as if to symbolize the parallel with the literal fire in Berlin of the metaphorical conflagration occurring in the Essenbeck household. But even the artifice of the theatrical endeavor gets a kind of documentary approach, with the two videographers roaming through the dressing and makeup tables to one side of the stage to show us on the screen the actors as they get ready for their performances.
Once we are given this basic orientation, however, “The Damned” takes flight in eerie imagery and brutal metaphor.
This is at its eeriest in the presentation of the historical event known as The Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler ordered the killing of the leaders of the SA, in order to consolidate his power. At this point in the play, it’s become clear that members of the Essenbeck clan are willing to commit murder to achieve their ambitions. We now see Konstantin and a confederate engage in a strange, orgiastic dance, while the huge screen behind them presents their exact movements, as if the video is live, but surrounded by some dozen naked men who only exist on the screen, not the stage. The strange erotic choreography is surely making reference to the homosexuality of the SA commander Ernst Rohm, but the show has gone way beyond any literal intellectual interpretation. Its bloody climax, while inevitable, is a shock.
Then there is the depiction of Dachau, the first concentration camp the Nazis opened in Germany, in 1933, originally to hold political prisoners. It is where Herbert’s wife and two small daughters are sent once Herbert escapes. The screen shows gaunt faces, but there is a more haunting way that “The Damned” suggests the Nazi’s monstrosity. A train whistle shrieks from the front of the stage, emitting a violent plume of steam; an ensemble member dressed in Nazi black kneels before it, and pours ashes into an urn. And then, as the rest of the family (what remains of it) stares blankly at the audience, yet another character is led to the row of coffins on the other side of the stage. We watch their progress on stage and on the screen as they are brought to the coffin and placed inside, where they writhe and scream silently in agony. This is repeated numerous times. It becomes a ritual of death – numbing and visceral.
There are many other arresting moments in “The Damned,” such as the son tar and feathering his mother (pictured in the production photographs, along with a catalogue of other powerful images.) The cast is universally fierce, with stand-outs including Elsa Lepoivre as Sophie (the tarred mother), Joachim’s daughter-in-law, the viciously ambitious widow of his only son who died in the Great War; and Christophe Montenez as her son – a blank slate, a cross-dressed, a whiner, a child molester, who becomes the perfect patsy for the Nazis, and then becomes a Nazi.
Ivo van Hove has become familiar to New York audiences for his aggressively re-imagined stage productions, which he first started presenting here about 20 years ago. He’s gained mainstream success with two Arthur Miller plays on Broadway, “A View From The Bridge” in 2015 and “The Crucible” in 2016 , and he is scheduled to direct a Broadway revival of “West Side Story” opening at the beginning of 2020.
I’ve found his work uneven. I didn’t care for his horror-movie version of “The Crucible” or his minimalist “Angels in America,” plays that in his hands felt colonized, as if Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner were mere servants to von Hove’s vision. But I was floored by his elaborately staged “Scenes From a Marriage,” an adaptation of the film by Ingmar Bergman at New York Theatre Workshop, and I thought his minimalist “A View from The Bridge” deeply effective.
I don’t know what to conclude from this, other than Van Hove is willing to take risks. In “The Damned,” what he and his collaborators do is not just impressive; it’s riveting.
Click on any photograph by Stephanie Burger to see it enlarged, and read the caption.
Park Avenue Armory
Based on Luchino Visconti’s film and the screenplay by Nicola Badalucco, and Enrico Medioli’s; Dramaturgy by Bart van den Eynde; Directed by Ivo van Hove. Set and lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer: An D’Huys
Video designer: Tal Yarden
Sound designer: Eric SleichimCast: Sylvia Berge, Eric Genovese, Denis Podalydes, Alexandre Pavloff, Guillaume Gallienne, Elsa Lepoivre, Loic Corbery, Adeline d’Hermy, Clement Hervieu-Leger, Jennifer Decker, Didier Sandre, Christophe Montenez, Sebastien Baulain
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets:Officially $75, but the run is reported as sold out.
The Damned is on stage only through July 28, 2018