Nachtland review: Is that a Hitler in the attic?

Maybenburg’s play warns the Shoah was not the end of German antisemitism


Jane Horrocks in Nachtland at the Young Vic Credit: Ellie Kurtz


Young Vic | ★★★★✩

Only Germans and Jewish stage artists are able to address the Holocaust with knockabout bravura that borders on farce. Perhaps fully living with the legacy of Nazism gives them licence to be something other than humourless. German playwright Marius von Mayenburg uses that license to be downright funny and disturbing in equal measure. And so does his Jewish director Patrick Marber.

Nicola (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Phillip (John Heffernan) are sifting through the effects of their recently deceased father when they come across a carefully wrapped painting that was stored in his attic. The painting’s pretty scene is of a Viennese street and church, though with no people, eerily. For Nicola the art is derivative kitsch and deserves to be binned. For Phillip it is a link to his father and should be treasured until Philip’s Jewish wife Judith (Jenna Augen) complicates matters by spotting a signature previously hidden under the frame. It says A.Hitler. Or is it Hiller?

Expert opinion is sought and given by Jane Horrocks’s art historian Evamaria. The frame proves beyond doubt, she says with rising excitement, that we are talking about a “genuine Hitler”. It has the mark of the future Nazi leader’s favoured framer, a Jew. Not only that, Evamaria has a rich buyer: Kahl who is played by Angus Wright with Teutonic decadence.

No one is going to accuse Mayenburg of subtlety. If you want a metaphor for the rise of Germany’s far right the discovery of a genuine Hitler will do the job as emphatically as mallets crack nuts. But his play is not really targetting the far right even though since his play first appeared in Berlin, in 2022, mainstream German politics has been infiltrated by them.

Phillip and Nicola are aspirational middle-class Germans who have have no interest in right-wing politics. However, seeing that there is a windfall to be made they have no hesitation in profiting from a Hitler watercolour.

The siblings bicker incessantly until they are united, you might say, by Hitler. Perhaps that is the metaphor for the unifying effect of fascism. More unsettling, however, is the ease with which Judith’s place in her German family is sidelined and the disdain with which she and her concerns are discounted. Mayerburg is not only saying that German guilt for the Holocaust is fraying, but that antisemitism can be slipped into as easily as an old slipper.

The play climaxes when Judith becomes the disrupter of Phillip and Nicola’s negotiations with the Hitler-obsessed Kahl. She offers to satisfy his desire to have sex with her (proof, he says, that he is not antisemitic) in return for being allowed to destroy the painting. For Kahl, that’s a tough one.

When Marber directed Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt he said that every Jewish artist should address the Holocaust at least once. Mayenburg’s play is a coda that warns the Holocaust was not the end of German antisemitism.

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