Judenfrei: Love and Death in Hitler's Germany

Unfavourable verdict for lawyer drama

By John Nathan, January 6, 2011

New End Theatre, London NW3

Barred from the bar: Anthony Wolfe and Noa Bodner play Jewish lawyers under threat in Nazi Germany

Barred from the bar: Anthony Wolfe and Noa Bodner play Jewish lawyers under threat in Nazi Germany

There was, of course, no part of German life that the Nazis did not make free of Jews. History most regularly remembers the artists, musicians and doctors who were prevented from doing the work they were devoted to. Less often remembered is that the German legal system also ruthlessly ejected its Jewish talent.

There is something particularly revolting about a profession being used to destroy the values it was created to protect. Under the Nazis, as Kate Glover's play, based on a true story, shows, the German justice system worked for injustice, a practice that began in earnest in 1933 when Hitler banned Jewish lawyers from the bar.

Glover's intimate drama, first seen with a different cast at the Jewish Museum in London last year, follows the fate of two Jewish lawyers. Of Germany's 20,000 or so solicitors and barristers, it is thought that as many as half were Jewish - a statistic this claustrophobic narrative would have benefited from highlighting, for there is little sense here of the scale of Nazi persecution in this area of German life.

The play is set mainly in Berlin cafes and the homes of the lawyer's frightened families. Glover's hero is attorney Philipp Meier (Anthony Wolfe) who finds it hard to believe the authorities will act upon their anti-Jewish edict. How could the German legal system survive after getting rid of so many of its lawyers? Except by 1938, it should have been pretty obvious that preserving the efficiency of the legal profession was less of a priority than getting rid of Jews.

We begin with Meier begging his colleague and lover Hanna (Noa Bodner), a well-known campaigning lawyer, to leave Germany before the Nazis arrest her. Tom Scott's thriller-paced production squeezes what tension it can out of Hanna's will-she-or-won't-she dilemma. There is not just her future to think of but that of her dependants - a widowed mother (played by the author) and
a younger sister (Rachel Sternberg) .

If there is a villain (other than the Nazis who are, refreshingly, entirely off-stage), it is Hanna's manipulative mother.

Glover is not particularly judgemental about the character - she is after all too scared of the future to agree to her grown-up daughter deserting her - but the play at least veers from stereotype by casting the normally selfless Jewish mother as the selfish obstacle to the heroine's safety.

Yet all this is much more engaging in theory than it is on stage. Here I have to tread carefully. To meet this week's JC deadline, I saw the play in its final preview night and so I will gloss over the profound technical problems that would hopefully have been cleared up by the official press performance.

What will not be so easily resolved is the series of repetitive exchanges in which, at various points in the narrative, nearly everybody takes turns at being incredulous that the Nazis represent
a mortal danger. Hanna refuses to believe Philipp; Philipp refuses to believe his sister Margarete (Victoria Corlass) and father (Tim Thomas); Margarete refuses to believe Philipp… and so it goes on.

I can accept that the growing danger might have been hard for assimilated Berlin Jews to accept. But the year here is 1938, half a decade after the Nazis seized power. And, anyway, you only need one such conversation in a play to make the point, not four.

Scott does his best to impose an appropriately Brechtian feel to his production, which is to say that the actors watch the action from the stage's fringe - a technique meant to detach the viewer emotionally from the action, allowing them to reflect on the content.

But with these thin performances, there is little chance of the audience getting too emotionally involved. Many of the scenes are fatally static; the impression is often amateurish.

It gives me no pleasure to give another New End show a thumbs down. The theatre does not seem to be able to let go of the view that plays with Jewish content need not reach the highest theatrical standards because, being located in a Jewish area, it can always rely on getting an audience.

But then, they may well be right.

Tel: 0870 033 2733

Last updated: 11:04am, January 6 2011