A scene from United Players’ production of Taken at Midnight, which is at the Jericho Arts Centre until Nov. 26. Seen here are Brian Hinson as the Nazi Dr. Conrad and Suzanne Ristic as Irmgaard, Hans Litten’s mother. (photo by Nancy Caldwell)
As a Jew, a lawyer and a child of a Holocaust survivor, I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Hans Litten until I saw United Players’ production of Taken at Midnight, which runs to Nov. 26 at Jericho Arts Centre.
Litten was a brilliant young Jewish-German lawyer, known for his defence of opponents of the Nazi movement. In 1931, he had the audacity to subpoena Adolf Hitler as a witness in the trial of four Nazis charged with murder, and subjected him to a grueling three-hour cross-examination, exposing the Nazi party for what it really was – a murderous bunch of thugs. Litten called Hitler “a cross between Baron Munchhausen and Attila the Hun.”
Unfortunately for Litten and the world, within two years Hitler was in power and he started to exact his revenge on his opponents. At midnight on Feb. 28, 1933, after the Reichstag (German parliament) fire, Litten, along with thousands of others, was arrested or, as the Nazis euphemistically called it, taken into “protective custody” at a series of concentration camps. Litten became known as “Hitler’s personal prisoner” – the cocky Jewish lawyer who had dared to expose the Fuhrer’s weaknesses – and, over the years, was subjected to brutal torture and unspeakable degradation as punishment. Despite the valiant efforts of his mother, Irmgaard, to obtain his release over the five years of his incarceration, Litten ultimately committed suicide in Dachau in 1938, which was a bit messy for the Nazis, as they wanted their political prisoners to die accidentally or naturally, not by taking their own lives.
The irony is that Litten was not technically Jewish. His mother was not Jewish and his father had converted to Christianity (to make things easier). As Litten says in the play, “I am an atheist Jew and, prior to that, I was an atheist Lutheran.” Of course, that made no difference to the Nazis, who went back three generations to ferret out Jewish blood.
Playwright and filmmaker Mark Hayhurst’s 2010 BBC films The Man Who Crossed Hitler and To Stop a Tyrant planted the seeds for this staged work. It had its West End (London, England) debut in 2014. Reviewers called it a “masterpiece of theatre not to be missed.” Now, United Players has taken on the formidable task of presenting this gripping story to Vancouver audiences. From the minute you walk into the theatre, the dark, shadowy, stark set – an elevated wooden platform fronted by barbed wire positioned between two floor-to-ceiling red banners emblazoned with black swastikas – is a harbinger of the grim things to come.
The entire cast, mostly comprised of veteran actors, is stellar and, as an ensemble, makes this a truly remarkable theatrical experience. Particular mention has to be made of the two main protagonists – Suzanne Ristic as Irmgaard and Sean Anthony as her son. Ristic is sublime in her portrayal of this strong, heroic woman who takes on the Gestapo establishment in a relentless battle to free her son. She often takes centre stage to talk directly to the audience, thereby breaking down the fourth wall, making for a very intimate encounter. And Anthony plays his difficult role with dignity, yet shows uncompromising defiance. We ache as we watch his physical and mental decline – his transformation from ordinary citizen to bloodied, head-shaven prisoner; a business suit to the striped concentration camp uniform, replete with the obligatory yellow Star of David.
Supporting, but not lesser, performances come from the rest of the cast.
Brian Hinson as Dr. Conrad, Irmgaard’s Gestapo contact, portrays a man of culture and intelligence who appreciates this feisty woman and appears to feel affection for her. The scene where they share an ice cream on a summer’s afternoon in a park seems incongruous, juxtaposed against the darkness of this play. Yet it speaks to some form of humanity even in the worst of times.
Litten’s cellmates – Erich Muhsam, an anarchist (played by Richard Hersley) who refers to Hitler as “the Austrian transvestite,” and Carl von Ossietzky, a newspaper editor and winner of the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize (played by Jewish community member Michael Kahn) – show the camaraderie and trust that can evolve from difficult circumstances. The triumvirate produces an amusing reenactment of Hitler’s cross-examination, providing an island of levity in their sea of despair.
Douglas Abel plays Fritz Litten, Hans’ father, as a calm counterpoint to his wife’s intense persona. John Harris, with his posh English accent, is Lord Clifford Allen, an English diplomat, patrician and pacifist who Irmgaard seconds in her quest for her son’s freedom. Allen is able to secure a meeting with Hitler to discuss the matter, but to no avail. Allen’s political attitude highlights the European appeasement zeitgeist of the early 1930s – that Germany was just experiencing growing pains and Hitler was an effective statesman, not a threat to the world. If only it had been so.
The play provides an historical lesson in the rise to power of the fascist Nazi regime and the consequences of speaking truth to power, but, at its heart, it is the story of the love of a mother for her son and her fight, at great personal risk, to try and save him.
As director Michael Fera, states in his notes, this is “an informative and deeply engrossing play about the high price paid for resisting tyranny,” and is as relevant today as it was in 1933. “People are living it now, again. History is repeating itself in many ways.”
Taken at Midnight is a tough watch and an emotional ride but well worth a trip to the Jericho Arts Centre. Kudos to artistic director Andree Karas for having the courage to stage this work. The show runs to Nov. 26, Thursdays to Sundays, 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinées Nov. 12, 19 and 26. For more information, visit unitedplayers.com or call 604-224-8007, ext. 2.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.