“We understand how reality is invented. A person sits in a room and thinks a thought and it bleeds out into the world. Every thought is permitted. And there’s no longer a moral or spatial distinction between thinking and acting.” — Don DeLillo, Mao II
We already know this story. It has been told many times over in many variations in films and books, at lectures and in museum exhibitions over the past seven decades. We have seen the images of emaciated humans forced to work in the prison camps. We have seen the pictures of the gas chambers and ovens, the naked people herded into them, the piles of shoes, left behind. We have seen trains packed with terrified faces, unloaded like cargo, prodded along by stoic uniformed guards with swastika armbands. The brutality of the Nazi death camps is inscribed in history. So the question arises – why must we revisit it again and again. The answer of course has been so that it should not be forgotten, and thus not repeated.
The repeated part seems increasingly questionable at this moment at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, as right wing authoritarian governments rise to power in Poland, Hungary and Turkey, and the American President loudly and proudly engages in increasingly nationalist, xenophobic and racist rants, while he courts the favor of powerful totalitarian dictators who have no problem with eliminating their rivals. The specter of fascism hangs in the air, as the realities of ethnic “cleansing” proliferate on the ground, and terror becomes “normalized.” If we have not yet forgotten Auschwitz and its lessons we also seemed to have learned little.
Thus this story needs to be told again. But in order to extract it from its established place in history and bring it into the present, the retelling needs to change the way we see it without changing any of the facts. Which brings us to KAMP, a brilliant restaging by the Rotterdam-based Dutch performance collective Hotel Modern. KAMP allows us to see the totality of the atrocity of Auschwitz in a new way by reducing it to model-sized scale. Originally constructed by the Germans to cover the area of a small town, Hotel Modern has meticulously reconstructed it in miniature. Buildings, railroad tracks and trains, trucks, disposal dumpsters, guard towers, and barracks surrounding an open central plaza, covered the stage of the REDCAT theater like a huge architect’s model populated by tiny doll-like figurines manipulated by three adults like giant gods in a Lilliputian village. Or children in a playroom with toy soldiers and prisoners. As the performers re-enact the narrative by moving the figures and objects about the set, they also document the action with micro cameras. These videos are projected above the camp like old black and white film newsreels.
There are no words spoken, no personal voiceovers or dialogues. No reportage. Only the eerily ominous sound effects — the wind blowing through the camp, the industrial creaking and scraping noises, the unlikely sound of birds chirping, the thunderous roar and screech of the train – to punctuate the images and actions. When a tiny oompah band marches between the buildings and into the square, the sudden interjection of a rousing German drinking song stingingly counterpoints and underscores the actuality of what is happening there. I recognized the music and its nationalistic message from the soundtrack of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. The only words are on a sign – ARBEIT NACHT FREI. One can hear the guards laughter in those words, and the irony. The prisoners work to exhaustion, are beaten, starved, and exterminated. Some are made to enforce the rules on the other prisoners.
I need not again describe the familiar images of daily brutality, torture, terror, and death. What this production brings back to the forefront is not just the monstrosity of genocide, but the unprecedented manner in which it was carried out that makes it particularly relevant to the present moment. After all, humans have been annihilating each other throughout history, committing all sorts of atrocities in the name of religion, ideology and empire, tribal and clan feuds, conquests for power, land and resources. History is littered with bloody massacres using a vast array of weaponry from hand-to-hand sword combat to exploding fire from the sky. But never before has it been systemized, mechanized, and industrialized.
What we are watching is a pre-meditated and designed construction of an idea carried out with clinical precision and efficiency and defined intent. It is not just what happened in the camps but how, that is important. The Modern Hotel installation and animation performance paradoxically magnifies the more insidious and dangerous nature of the enterprise by presenting it as a kind of miniature game board movie set inhabited by facsimile humans who do not have individual faces, protruding bones, flesh, and blood. The prisoners are not people. They are objects. We see them as they were viewed by their captors — as an anonymous mass, perceived as no more than infected cattle to be processed, used and slaughtered. In this case gassed and cremated. So much cleaner, more impersonal! Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps were assembly line factories, technological marvels. The end product was ash and bone. The purpose was not to defeat an enemy, but to categorically physically, psychically, and culturally dehumanize people in order to “cleanse” the society. The camp was created and built solely for this purpose and ideologically justified as necessary for the good of the nation. KAMP allows us to perceive this reality in the light of current political rhetoric.
Now ask yourself – Where are all the little brown children, ripped from their parents’ arms and taken off to detention camps? What should we think when we hear many hundreds have been secretly swept away in the night to a new tent city?
What happens next when the President demonizes the press, paints people of color as the enemy, maligns and mocks all who oppose him, bullies members of his own party, and humiliates and abuses women? What is the state of the nation when a man can repeatedly and self-righteously commit perjury and still be confirmed by the United States Senate as a Supreme Court justice?
While KAMP was created as a memorial for Hotel Modern member Pauline Kalker’s grandfather who died in Auschwitz, it provides its audiences the opportunity to wake up to and think deeply about what is happening right now in the world around them, to consider the role each of us plays as citizens, and to pay attention to and heed the warnings everywhere.
This is what can happen. So be careful what you wish for.
Hotel Modern: KAMP
September 20-23, 2018
REDCAT in downtown L.A.
Created and performed by Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker, Arlene Hoornweg
Sound design by Ruud van der Plujm
Cover photo: Leo van Velzen