In its American premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles, Joshua Sobol’s iWitness brings the inspirational tale of one Austrian man’s stand against Hitler to light. Though dramatic, this play has an uneven tone and is at times too gimmicky.
Director Barry Edelstein adapted Sobol’s English language version and while the segments work by themselves, they fail to form a cohesive whole, lurching widely from realism to slapstick farce to one poetic segment done as rap. All this buries the very moving true story about a man whose last confessor was called a saint and whose story was discovered by American Gordon Zahn while doing research on German Catholics’ response to Hitler.
According to some sources, the book, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter, deeply influenced Daniel Ellsberg and his decision to bring the Pentagon Papers to public attention. If true, then this one man is surely proof that one man can make a difference and perhaps an indication that the seeds for dissent in the 1960s were indeed planted in the 1930s.
In his 1936 poem “The People, Yes,” U.S. Poet Carl Sandburg wrote, “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” Sandburg was voicing a sentiment that would become more popular in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970, a Tony Curtis and Brian Keith movie would be titled Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?. In his 1972 poem, “Graffiti,” Allen Ginsberg would write, “What if someone gave a war and Nobody came? Life would ring the bells of Ecstasy and Forever be Itself again.”
Sandburg could have been writing about a man like Franz Jagerstatter. Jaggerstatter was born in Austria in 1907, the illegitimate son of a man who was later killed in World War I (1915). He was adopted by his stepfather. By World War II, he was married and had three daughters. In his small village, he was the only man who voted against the unification with Nazi Germany (Anschluss) in 1938 and he remained publicly defiant of Hitler. When he was called to service, he refused. He was eventually found guilty of harming the war effort and executed by guillotine on August 9, 1943.
Although his fellow villagers regarded his stand as foolish, and despite the efforts of one bishop and three priests who sought to convince him that military service was compatible with his Christian faith, Jaggerstatter never wavered in his faith.
In the Taper production, Neil Patel’s scenic design has a small square set apart by a different texture from the rest of the floor, representing a cell. Along one side is a spare cot with a thin mattress. Along the back side are a few clothes hanging. Along the side opposite the cot is a line of pots and pans, and shoes are lined up along the side at the front. Projected onto the back of the stage are images of a person handling shoes that are at times so close up as to be almost abstract. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the images of the Holocaust can’t help but remember the shoes, the millions of shoes left behind by the victims of the Nazi regime, a European Holocaust that cost the lives of Jews, Catholics, gays, intellectuals, communists, gypsies, and others deemed undesirable or dangerous by the Nazis.