Theatre is slowly, tentatively opening up again and there’s no denying that a good play with however small a cast can deliver all the dramatic tension and tingle in the world. Joanna Murray-Smith’s Berlin comes with a hell of a title. Wasn’t that what Isherwood said goodbye to, isn’t that the name of one of Lou Reed’s grander and more austere concept albums? It’s no surprise that the play rehearses the shadows of modern German history and whatever the production turns out to be like (it opens 22 April) there’s no denying that the script with these two millennials crying in a historic wilderness for justice and for mercy packs its punch.
The same cannot be said, alas, for the Franco-German Canadian TV epic Shadowplay about the immediate post-war occupation of Berlin when it was divided into zones governed by the allied victors and law and order had to be established in a ruined city by conquering powers with sharply different values. Rape, retribution and crazed anarchy are part of the historical record and are not hard to imagine given the moral ruination the Nazis had visited on Germany and the world.
It is not, however, convincingly imagined in Shadowplay despite some lustrous talents on display. The Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch was one of the stars of the superb Texan football soap Friday Night Lights and he was in the second series of True Detective. He has always been able to radiate a luminous youthful quality with an adult complexity. Christian Koch (who played the aristocrat who tried to assassinate Hitler in Stauffenberg and was in Paul Verhoven’s The Black Book) is about as fine a mid-career actor as modern Germany can boast. Neither of them can lift Shadowplay. Kitsch plays a young cop trying to establish an American-style police force single handedly though he’s hampered by his psycho brother who is bent on avenging the Holocaust through various ghastly murders (which include, for instance, cooking a middle-aged woman).
The schadenfreude and the sadism are beserk but the overall effect is of darkness, confusion and expositional ineptitude. A figure broods with sinister power over the Russian zone, young women who have been raped beat their bound violators to death with sticks. Koch speaks to camera with plangent expression of undisclosed personal horrors and talks to young women as if he might give them abortions – he’s a doctor – as some form of redemption. There is a vivid performance from Nina Hoss as Elsie, a German police woman, who walks her own dark byways and speaks in the kind of demotic Berliner accent that made David Malouf think he could speak German until he encountered the accents in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, arguably the greatest piece of TV drama ever made.
It was a depiction of the pre-war German criminal classes which brought techniques derived from James Joyce into the vicinity of characters who had something in common with the figures in a George Grosz painting. But the upshot had an extraordinary emotional clarity.
Shadowplay has none. It is a botched melodrama in the vicinity of the most terrible things in the world. What could be more unseemly than an eight-hour attempt to sensationalise the unspeakable? There is every reason why SBS might have been attracted to Shadowplay as a package. The cast, the history, the look of a long ago past in the shadow of tribulation but the upshot is both sickening and tedious. It exploits history while being characterised by a sort of drawn-out stammering confusion. Fassbinder, Isherwood, Visconti’s The Damned give us the pre-figuration of Nazi Germany. Shadowplay gives us an unconvincing aftermath. In any case, the rule of thumb is that when history is ghastly stick to the docos. Stick to Shoah, stick to The Sorrow and the Pity.
Perhaps it’s the Canadian contribution to Shadowplay which makes it such a fizzer in the midst of its dismal moral intensities. Canada can produce superlative actors and directors: Xavier Dolan made I Killed my Mother in his twenties. It can produce Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. But somehow the thing that gives Canada its edge, the fact that it’s almost America but not quite, gets in the way of its television.
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