Hotel Modern is a Dutch theater collective that for more than twenty years have been presenting their unique brand of visual storytelling to international audiences. The group, which consists of Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker and Arlene Hoornweg, combine miniature sets with videography and music to create a haunting and engaging visual and theatrical experience.
The group‘s production of KAMP, which chronicles daily life in a German concentration camp, was presented recently at REDCAT in Los Angeles. The miniaturized set, which faithfully recreates the stark conditions of the camp and its inhabitants, is a powerfully evocative reminder of the suffering of the victims of the Holocaust. Pauline Kalker’s own grandfather was one such victim, and the production is, in many ways, a memorial to him and the millions of others who were murdered by the Nazi death machine.
The multi-media format of the production is itself theatrically and visually compelling. The three members of the group move wordlessly around the set, manipulating tiny puppets to create scenes that are then projected via a tiny camera onto a screen above the set. The audience is able to observe not only the scene as it is projected above, but also the intricate work of the human actors as they delicately stage scenes of horror.
The puppets themselves – barely mobile figures that are more reminiscent of clay animation puppets – are initially presented as a mass of humanity, faceless victims in a Grand Guignol tragedy. However, as the performance progresses, the individuality of these inmates is slowly revealed – a child here, an old man there, over there a starving, crippled man. The German guards, however, remain anonymous, plodding workers in their labor of genocide.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to the “banality of evil” in describing the Nazi murderers like Adolph Eichmann, and Hotel Modern’s portrayal of a day in the life of a concentration camp vividly illustrates that concept. We see one of the inmates engaged in a grindingly mundane task of sweeping the dusty ground, a chore that is briefly interrupted by the hanging of several inmates.
In another scene, a couple of inmates are shoveling piles of rocks into wheelbarrow when one is brutally attacked and beaten by guards. And, in yet another scene of daily horror, a single inmate strolls slowly across the camp yard, all alone, isolated, until he throws himself onto an electrified fence in a desperate act of suicide.
Some of the most haunting scenes are those in the gas chambers, in which inmates are unloaded directly from arriving trains into the buildings, stripped naked and then ushered into the chambers of death. Their final, gruesome destination are the ovens, where Nazi workers load the dead bodies to be cremated in assembly-line fashion.
The power of the presentation is in the faceless, dehumanizing drudgery of a single day in the camps, in which human beings are unloaded from trains and sent to their deaths with mechanistic efficiency. The use of miniature puppets and sets highlights the automatonic rhythm of life in the camps, as the ritualistic procession of death and degradation unfolds, day in and day out.
The multi-media mix that Hotel Modern creates emphasizes the grim, industrialized pace of genocide. Every action appears to be in slow motion, with incremental steps by a well-oiled machine that lead inexorably to terrifyingly monumental destruction. There is no single moment of grand tragedy here, rather the grinding, ongoing pace of genocide.
The sound design by Ruud van der Pluijm brilliantly supports this tone and is particularly noteworthy. The clanging of the arriving trains, the sound of inmates’ slurping on watery soup or the scrunch of shovels digging into piles of rocks underlines the ordinariness of this extraordinarily evil place. There are no shrill cries or screams, no plaintive calls for help, only the silent suffering of the doomed.
By recreating the unspeakable agony of the camps in miniaturized form, Hotel Modern has provided a birds-eye perspective on the unfathomable cruelty of human beings to one another, and one that offers a bitter lesson of the dangers of unbridled hatred and tyranny.
Hoyt Hilsman is a writer, journalist and Los Angeles Theater Critic for Riot Material magazine. Mr. Hilsman has been a regular theater and cultural critic for Daily Variety and HuffPost, and has written articles for national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and others. He is a member and former President of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and served as Chair of the PEN West Drama Awards. As a writer, his stage plays and musicals have been produced in theaters around the country and abroad, and he has written screenplays for a number of studios and television networks, including Disney, Sony, New Line, Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS. He has also written a series of political thrillers novels, including Nineteen Angels, which is currently in development as a feature film.