Whilst I was sitting in the Studio waiting for the performance to start, it seemed that the trains sounded even louder than usual. Yet miraculously, once the play began I do not recall hearing them again for another hour. Why? Because I Was A German is that engrossing.
Following Brexit, and some eighty years after her paternal Jewish grandfather, Heinz, fled Nazi Germany, Clare Fraenkel is claiming German citizenship. She goes on to relate how one evening in Berlin Heinz was warned not to go home as the Gestapo were waiting for him, but to make his way to Paris instead. He followed the advice, but only after the rather good party he was at had finished. We learn how, along with many other Jewish and political refugees, from Paris he made his way to the United Kingdom. He worked for a government agency as a German/English translator; got married; tried to enlist to fight fascists in the Spanish Civil War; was rounded up and sent to an internment camp in the Isle of Man; released after an outcry by the British public; returned to Germany as a war correspondent; observed the Nuremberg trials – the list goes on.
Clare relates Heinz’s story with a mixture of narrative and through his voice acting out some of the events he experienced. At first she felt a little bit stilted, but that soon changed as she relaxed into the performance. Although a serious subject matter there is a light hearted tone throughout with the odd joke thrown in; Clare is obviously German because she has always liked Sauerkraut. This doesn’t detract from the story at all but rather makes it all the more relatable.
Props consist in the main of suitcases and cardboard cut-outs but do the job well, although I wasn’t so sure about the bright electric blue ‘army uniform’. Shout out to the lighting and sound which were perfectly timed to create atmosphere, and the music, film and shadow puppets, which all add to the interest and playfulness.
Although this is an absorbing personal story of one man’s escape and subsequent life as a displaced person, the writing manages to draw parallels to recent events, both directly and indirectly. The recounting of how at one point in time Adolph Hitler did not get the majority of votes in an election but still insisted he won sounded familiar, as did the style of a news report on the mass ‘round up of so called refugees’.
Clare tries to imagine how her grandfather may have felt about being declared a non-person and thus forcibly stripped of his citizenship. He decided in the end to remain in Britain, where his family were born, because of his admiration for the tolerance of the people. She asks the question as to whether he would feel the same way today.
Written by: Clare Fraenkel
Directed by: Lowri James
Composer and Sound Design by: Arran Glass
Lighting Design by: Pablo Fernandes Bas
Set and Costume Design by: Nicola Blackwell
I Was A German plays at VAULT Festival 2023 until 24 February. Further information and bookings can be found here.