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Theater Review: iWitness Proves One Man Can Make a Difference

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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.

[ADBLOCKHERE]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.

Jagerstatter (Gareth Saxe) polishes pots and shoes. The repetition, the simplicity, and even the humbleness of the service he gives seem to give him comfort. He is waiting to die, doing chores not required of death row inmates. His crime: He refuses to wear a Nazi uniform, even as a janitor for a military hospital.

During the play, we see Jagerstatter as a young man, the lover of a wild woman (Katrina Lenk) who bears him a child out of wedlock, the husband of Franca (Rebecca Lowman), the father of Maria (Christina Burdette), the friend of Martin (James Joseph O’Neill), Hans (Seamus Dever), and the conscience of a priest (Michael Rudko).

Martin, an army anti-aircraft gunner, represents the logic of the Austrians who fought to defend their homeland from the Allies while Hans, an army chauffeur, fools around with his superior’s wife and takes advantage of his position by wheeling and dealing. Hans and Jaggerstatter portray their plight as a bit of political farce, which enrages Martin.

In the end, Jagerstatter remains unconvinced, even when a priest comes to speak with him. He declares, “All the honest people are in jail,” and that the Nazi uniform is a “criminal’s uniform.”

The most touching moments are those with his wife. One wonders what happened to her and their children in the face of their disapproving neighbors, but we aren’t told.

There were perhaps hundreds of others like him, who now are nameless in the face of history. Jaggerstatter left behind some essays and letters he wrote in prison.

Just as the man who thinks only of this world does everything Possible to make life here easier and better, so must we, too, who believe in the eternal Kingdom, risk everything in order to receive a great reward there. Just as those who believe in National Socialism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival, so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for the eternal Kingdom. But with this difference: we need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead, spiritual weapons — and the foremost among these is prayer…Through prayer, we continually implore new grace from God, since without God’s help and grace it would be impossible for us to preserve the Faith and be true to His commandments…Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for Those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are they who live and die in God’s love.

Sobol uses some of these words in the play and they did resound with the liberal California audience that cheered for each anti-war statement such as “Whoever starts the war, deserves to lose everything.” Many of these echo the words of those who did fight and bore witness, such as Ernest Hemingway who said of World War II, “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

The ensemble works together well and, although the parts don’t quite fit together, the subject matter is so worthwhile and timely, surely every person concerned with peace and faith should see this testament to one man who believed in God and his fellow man enough to die, even with a wife and children to think of, even if it was not his people, Christians, who were being sent in cattle cars to death camps.

When the play premiered in Tel Aviv, this play also reportedly caused uproar because it seemed to draw sympathetic parallels with Israeli soldiers who refuse to deploy to occupied Palestinian territories.

Albert Einstein, who escaped the Nazi regime, once said, “The pioneers of a warless world are the youth that refuse military service.” Jagerstatter was not a youth when he died at age 36, but he is a name amongst many nameless pioneers for peace who said no to military service for an unjust war and whose influence seems to have reached beyond Austria and whose message sadly remains worth heeding.

iWitness
Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012.
Ends May 21.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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