Daily life in a provincial grammar school in totalitarian times. A far-right party, the ‘rich plebeians’, has seized power and now ‘shuts itself away in the tower of dictatorship’. The citizenry is pressed into embracing an upcoming war, the media is brought into line and the school curriculum is rewritten with a nationalistic bent. The school’s history teacher is suddenly expected to teach a chauvinistic ideology which he rejects but lacks the drive and fearlessness to criticize. When marking his pupils’ drearily nativistic essays, he notices that he hardly has to drum militarism and contempt for human beings into them. Their families and friends have already indoctrinated them, wholly without his involvement. When the teacher dares to comment to Pupil N, who has written a provocatively racist essay, that black people are also human beings, the pupils and parents lay into him and demand disciplinary measures to be taken for his ‘sentimental humanitarianism’ and ‘sabotage of the fatherland’.
On a class trip, consisting of military combat training and armed field exercises, the daily regimen of violence finally reaches a breaking point when one of the pupils is mysteriously murdered. Envy, rivalry and a secret affair between Pupil Z and Eva, the leader of a rebellious band of outlaws, seem to form a mix of motives for the killing. The trial, in which the prejudiced judge and prosecution blame the wrong suspects, sheds no light on the true perpetrator. It does, however, shed a great deal on the society that produced the perpetrator: a spectacle of ruthlessness and coldness, in which bourgeois profiteers have ensured the smooth functioning of totalitarian structures. Only the teacher and a small group of non-conformist pupils go in search of the true reasons behind the murder.
Having recently staged Ödön von Horváth’s 1931 ‘folk play’ Italienische Nacht (Italian Night), Thomas Ostermeier now tackles a second text by the author from the 1930s, with his dramatization of the novel Jugend ohne Gott (Youth Without God), dealing with the collapse of democracy and civil society. Horváth was driven out of Germany by the Nazis in 1936 and expelled from the Reich Chamber of Literature in 1937. Published in German that same year by an Amsterdam publishing house for exiled authors, Jugend ohne Gott was quickly translated into several languages and rapidly achieved international fame: as a reflection of social mechanisms under the Nazi regime. Even so, the text specifies neither a precise time and place nor a set of political rulers, all of which are evoked in a darkly metaphorical way — the novel transcends its historical context. In Germany, the book was immediately withdrawn by the Nazis and put on the ‘list of harmful and undesirable literature’ for its ‘pacifist tendencies’.
Thomas Ostermeier has been artistic director of the Schaubühne in Berlin since 1999. He has also directed productions at the Kammerspiele in Munich, the Burgtheater in Vienna, the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam, the Theatre of Nations in Moscow and the Comédie- Française in Paris. His productions have also received premieres at international festivals such as the Edinburgh International Festival, the Athens & Epidaurus Festival, the Manchester International Festival, the Salzburg Festival and the Festival d’Avignon, where Thomas Ostermeier was appointed Artiste Associé in 2004. Together with the ensemble of the Schaubühne, he will create a new stage adaptation of Horváth’s third novel. Jörg Hartmann, who last worked with Ostermeier on Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi, takes on the main role of the teacher.
Translation: Sebastian Smallshaw