How can you portray the Holocaust as an artist?

Films are a form of falsification of history, reads halfway through The bus to Dachau. In the performance, the theater group De Warme Winkel attempts to portray the Holocaust. In the gray area between fact and fiction, between history and entertainment, exciting, uncomfortable questions arise. What does it give if you look at a war not so much from a historical, but from an artistic perspective? Can fiction help keep history alive, or does it get in the way? Is feeling guilty a duty reserved for one person and not another, and how does one fulfill that supposed duty?

In a naturally immersive scene in the Dachau concentration camp, we see prisoners endure horrific hardships. The suffocating scene is played in a closed cube on the stage floor, and projected up against the back wall of wood facing the audience. But then filters slide over the actors’ tormented facial expressions, their faces give way to smooth conversations and animations, blushes on the cheeks, loving glances: Dachau becomes Disneyfied. The suffering is still palpable, but easier to digest. It is not inconceivable that it is even closer for some, now that it is served so kindly.

The bus to Dachau is the first performance that De Warme Winkel did in Germany, at the Schauspielhaus Bochum. Together with a group of (mostly German) actors, collective members Vincent Rietveld and Ward Weemhoff investigate what happens when art and war meet.

As usual, De Warme Winkel presents an almost inextricable tangle of metal lines

Script

The performance takes its point of departure from a script for a war film that Weemhoff’s father wrote in the nineties, but which was subsequently rejected by the Film Foundation: right after blockbusters such as Schindler’s List as far as the fund was concerned, the market was saturated in terms of holocaust films. De Warme Winkel is now breathing new life into the script by faking a film adaptation on stage. Weemhoff’s father, who leads this fictional exercise as a film director, is played by Rietveld, who is in turn directed from the audience by Ward Weemhoff: As usual, De Warme Winkel immediately executes an almost inextricable jumble of metal strokes.

Players imagine how prisoners beg for an extra spoonful of soup, or debate among themselves what the best holocaust movie is. Rietveld gives a poignant monologue as a prisoner himself in Dachau, where he describes in detail his now painful defecation, and at the same time experiences it as “the last piece of civilization you have left” when you come back from the camp. Meanwhile, Weemhoff constantly sabotages the immersion in the monologue by giving his colleague directions from the audience.

It becomes touching when Rietveld and Weemhoff in the role of father and son sing Schubert together; the fact that they are filming themselves live emphasizes the artist’s dominant frame, which by definition determines the context in which we see this scene. The audience is constantly guided in when and to what extent they identify with the suffering on the floor as it happens in any fictional expression, but De Warme Winkel makes that artificiality explicit in all possible ways.

Uncomfortable

Subsequently, the group also problematizes its own role in this project. Because why do the Dutch actors come to Germany to establish a Holocaust project? The project comes to a head when the German actors demand accountability from the Dutch initiators. Because isn’t Ward Weemhoff abusing a gruesome war to stage a sentimental ode to his father?


Also read the interview with Vincent Rietveld

Especially now that more and more people know the Second World War mainly from films, series and books, the creators want to be critical of how romanticized war is portrayed in art. The actress Lieve Fikkers confronts her German colleagues with an unpleasant possibility: in order to understand the Holocaust, a clear demarcation between the guilty and the innocent is essential. Those contradictions must not be watered down, she says, because some things do not tolerate nuance. If fiction can help make the difference between good and evil clear and understandable, then the artists have a great responsibility. “Perhaps the Holocaust has more impact as fiction than as fact,” suggests Ward Weemhoff.

Then gifts The bus to Dachau fiction as a dangerous but necessary falsification of history that requires care and bravura: two things that do not suit each other well, but which De Warme Winkel has learned to combine over the years in an incomparable way.

The performance shows the problematic aspects of an unequivocal morality, which comes into sharp focus precisely at the meeting between war, art and entertainment. The bus to Dachau is a fascinating and confusing venture that earlier this month in Bochum could count on a little resistance from the spectators (“Vincent, people are running away”) and a long ovation afterwards.

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