A Shiny Life For Me!

a personal review blog by Bianca

Nachtland

Nachtland
20 February 2024 
Young Vic
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

Nachtland, currently playing at the Young Vic, is a new production of a German play addressing the uncomfortable past of the country and how it still affects current generations.

The setting seems simple at first, two siblings, Nicola and Philip, go through the leftovers of their recently departed father’s life, sorting through all the debris in the attic, and unexpectedly find an old painting. A watercolour, in sepia tones, of an Austrian church, seemingly unremarkable. But when they discover that the painter was none other than A. Hitler, things get heated. Do they dispose of the painting? Pretend they’d never seen it? Where did it come from? What does it mean about their family’s history? Or do they try to sell? If so, is there a moral obligation to use the money for a good cause? Is it okay to personally profit from something like this? An endless slew of questions.

Philip’s wife happens to be a Jewish woman, which leads to further tension between the parties discussing their intentions for the painting. When they find out they will need to prove provenance, a believable story of how their family would have come into possession of this painting, they need to decide whether to stick with the belief that their own family was not involved with the Reich at all, or come up with a new story, one that puts their grandmother into the arms of Hitler’s personal secretary.

The play is an interesting exploration of the lingering effects of the atrocities of the 30s and 40s in Germany, but I’m not entirely sure it works as well for a British audience as it did in Germany. There are a lot of layers of inherited guilt and blame, as well as grappling with the fact that few people were held responsible after the end of the war, and many families still held on to the businesses and treasures that were robbed from Jewish families during the Holocaust, with no consequences at all. And of course the ever present line that no one knew what was actually happening, our family was DEFINITELY not involved, they were only party members because everyone had to be in order to be employed, an ever present justification still often heard today.

This exploration of how to deal with suddenly having to go from justifications and excuses to leaning into a story of ones own family having been close to higher ups in the party for financial gain is fascinating, and extremely well done, with plenty of darkest humour and so many lines and comments very familiar to Germans today. However, in a country that still celebrates its colonial past, despite the many atrocities committed, I’m uncertain if the depth and point of the play came across as strongly.

The arguments from all sides for and against turning a profit from this artwork, what responsibility we still have today for generations of the past, and how today’s political climate in Israel fits into the conversation, is fast paced and intense, with many opposing opinions simply being aired out and left to simmer, for the audience to dissect themselves and come to their own conclusions.

With a very simple stage design of just a wall of a gutted building in the background, and a few chairs scattered around the stage, the conversations are centred in this show, not distracting from the points being made. Apparently the German production had an elaborate video installation above the stage, which received some criticism of being distracting and overbearing. This English production did not incorporate the installation, but chose to only use a minor light projection in certain scenes, keeping the focus on the actors themselves.

Nachtland is a fantastic exploration of morals and beliefs, inherited responsibility, the past’s influence on the present, and how far people might go for a chance at wealth. While I wish the characters, especially Judith, Philip’s wife, would have been more well-rounded, the show does do a great job of laying down the many different ways people today react to Germany’s past, giving several viewpoints a chance to be heard without judgement. A fascinating story of ethics and politics, and what would better be left unsaid.

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