- Title: Crying Hands: Deaf People in Hitler’s Germany
- Written and directed by: Bentein Baardson
- Actors: Ipek D. Mehlum, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen
- Company: Teater Manu
- Venue: Theatre Passe Muraille
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to March 24, 2019
I’ve never experienced as harrowing a play about the Holocaust as Crying Hands: Deaf People in Hitler’s Germany.
Written and directed by Bentein Baardson, this production from Teater Manu, Norway’s national touring sign-language theatre company which is being hosted in Toronto by Theatre Passe Muraille, focuses on two German characters who initially greet the rise of the Nazi party with excitement in the 1930s.
Hans (Ronny Patrick Jacobsen), who is deaf, is a young man who initially finds a sense of belonging through the Nazis. He joins a squad of deaf and hard-of-hearing storm troopers – and particularly enjoys riding around on his motorcycle intimidating Orthodox Jews in the street. His only line spoken out loud in the show: “Heil Hitler.”
Gertrud (Ipek D. Mehlum) is a young woman who has become a medical doctor against the odds – and whose interest in public health leads her to embrace Nazi ideology. A vegetarian opposed to alcohol and makeup, she is excited about the new age of eugenics and the end of disease and degeneration.
Both celebrate the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor in 1933 – before their disillusionment comes at different speeds. Almost immediately, Hans is kicked out of the Nazi party because of his deafness, and members of his family begin to be forcibly sterilized, including his nine-year-old sister. Refusing to submit to sterilization, Hans goes on the run and is deemed an enemy of the state.
Gertud, on the other hand, keeps focusing on what she imagines are the positives of the Nazi regime, as her mother quietly moves abroad. Gertrud expresses gentle opposition to racial rhetoric about the Jewish population, but then simply puts it to one side in her mind. Soon, she is capable of ignoring even the mass murder of the disabled and the sick by her medical colleagues. If she’s one of the “deaf people in Hitler’s Germany” of the title, it’s in a metaphoric sense of deaf.
Eventually, Crying Hands’s two characters end up at Auschwitz, albeit in surprising ways. The efficient horrors of the gas chambers and the sadistic tortures committed by Josef Mengele are glimpsed up close by one or the other.
We, the audience, see much of this too, in black and white. Video designer Simon Valentine’s projections fill the back of the stage with historical photographs of piles of bodies or the crematoriums.
The documentation that comes with Crying Hands suggests that docudrama is an unusual form for Teater Manu – and, indeed, from the perspective of a hearing audience member, fact and fiction are combined in a way unlike in any show I’ve seen before.
As Hans and Gertud, Jacobsen and Mehlum essentially perform two solo shows, side by side, in American Sign Language. A third actor, Eitan Zuckermann, stands slightly to the side of the stage and interrupts from time to time to supply extra historical facts in ASL. (The actors have translated their show from Norwegian Sign Language for this tour that has already stopped in Washington and New York.)
I’m used to following surtitles for shows in other languages. Here, however, there is a woman named Kjersti Fjeldstad who sits in a chair on the sidelines and narrates in English throughout into a head-mounted microphone.
Just as the deaf actors are, Fjeldstad is communicating in her second language. I wonder if Jacobsen and Mehlum speak ASL with an accent as she does English? While she’s called a “voice actor” in the program, she often seems more like an interpreter in the way she takes her cues on what to say and when by observing the other actors closely – and communicating in her detached, almost emotionless delivery.
The dramatic or fictional aspects of Baardson’s show are, in the end, quite minimal – the characters he’s created are witnesses more than anything, and the most infamous Nazis come in and out of their orbit. At a certain point, I found the mix of the pictures from the concentration camps and the detail-heavy narration about crimes against humanity entirely too unrelenting – and had to turn off for a little while. It felt as if the drama part of this docudrama had gone AWOL.
I can’t say what the experience is like for deaf audience members. Not speaking ASL, I couldn’t tell how much Jacobsen and Mehlum were showing and how much they were telling. Although perhaps the distinction is a somewhat false one when language is not sound but movement and gesture.
All sign language is direct address in a way – or, at least, direct. You can’t whisper it, or eat an apple while speaking in it, or turn away from the audience and be understood. It’s intense, and especially so when the subject matter is, as it is in Crying Hands.
Although perhaps that’s what is needed as far-right forces rise around the world again: not gentle reminders, but an in-your-face confrontation with history.