“The Good German”: A Challenging Look in the Mirror

Date April 12, 2007

I recently saw the play The Good German at a local theatre. I’m not sure what I expected, since the film was apparently mediocre, but this mise en scene was a tour de force of excellent acting and extraordinarily insightful writing that made me think long and hard about myself.

In a few words, it is the story of 4 people (3 Aryan Germans and 1 Jewish German) during World War II in Berlin. Two of the characters have hidden, with some reservation, this Jewish man they barely know in their home to avoid his deportation. The fourth character is their friend and frequent visitor, a young, ambitious administrative clerk in the Nazi army. I will say no more about the plot, except to mention that at no point did I suspect the next step in the play’s evolution.

Striking in playwright David Wiltse’s ruminations on history and human nature is his ability to see into the motivations, frailties, fears, emotions, and contradictions of each of his characters and to bring these sentiments to life in compelling and damning (if perhaps too transparent to be lifelike) ways. In each of these characters, we find feelings and weaknesses to love and empathize with, as well as behaviors and mentalities to passionately hate. We understand each of them, even as they fail to understand each other. No one is spared the hard and brutal exposure to our eyes, including we the audience; we see too much of ourselves in each one of them for our own comfort.

The perspective of time too often allows us (in the present) to say, ‘were I alive then, I would have known better or acted with more integrity.’ We judge these players in the past with the comfortable righteousness of those who were not involved and yet know with retrospect what was the ‘right’ or just decision to make. We tell ourselves we would have had the wisdom, the courage, the strength, to act differently. And then we avoid really examining the ways in which we unthinkingly act as bystanders in our own moment or history, or justify our own large and small “atrocities” in our present life. Wiltse shatters this certainty; it both hurts and awakens. As I watched Siemi, the young Nazi clerk, devolve in his acts of persecution, I was struck with the damning realization that were I in his shoes, I wouldn’t have had the courage not to pull the trigger either.

There was much discussion in the post show Q&A about the parallels with our present time; for the most part, they were ‘external’ (societal/political), such as Rwanda, the Bush Administration, the recent immigration raids on the local Latino illegals, etc. I was equally, if not more, disturbed by the ‘internal’ parallels: how their actions, despite their best efforts and intentions, were ultimately self-centered (protecting me, my comfort, my ambition, my view of myself and my dignity, etc); how their thinking justified their actions (a reminder of one of our brain’s most troublesome mechanisms: first we decide, then we find reasons to make ourselves right about our decisions/actions); how much more reassuring and powerful it feels, regardless of our professed values, when we are angry, righteous, better than others.

A frightening and memorable moment is Siemi’s empassioned explanation for why he has chosen hate: in a time of chaos, it is the one emotion you can count on. It isn’t fleeting, like happiness, nor does it dissipate, like lust once satiated. It is a constant, day in and day out. It gives energy and drive, a sense of purpose. It is his compass now that he has lost his bearings. In reflecting afterwards, I was all the more troubled by this monologue, and this was perhaps the most upsetting parallel to today: when we are hurt, or scared, or disoriented in our cultural/moral values, we feel vulnerable, weak, powerless. These feelings are too unbearable to live with for long, and so we target, we blame, we stoke our fire with anger. Left unattended, we learn to hate.

We are not naturally hateful, but it is in our nature to hate, if we are not vigilant. And if we do not make a different choice, it will only grow with time in its intensity and righteous justification.

I believe this parallel to be true in individuals, but also in peoples. The US fell into this trap after 9/11. with the Muslim world. Perhaps there is still time for us to make a different choice, but each passing month and reinforcing event brings us further down a path the end of which no man can foresee.

It is this message that makes The Good German an ultimately uplifting play (despite my focus in this review on some fairly ‘negative’ personality aspects). Wiltse gives us clues and insights for how to understand behaviors we don’t want to repeat, as well as an emotionally charged reminder of why we would want to do differently. It is up to us, however, to act upon the clarity.

Are we ready? Are you? Am I?


Shayne Hughes


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