A new lens on Auschwitz in 'Here There Are Blueberries'

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A new lens on Auschwitz in 'Here There Are Blueberries'
Kathleen Chalfant, center, with the cast members of “Here There Are Blueberries” in front of photographs of a Nazi officer, Karl Hocker, taken at Auschwitz, at the New York Theater Workshop, in New York, April 16, 2024. Archivists are the heroes of this documentary play about a photograph album depicting daily life among the perpetrators of the Holocaust, writes the New York Times critic Jesse Green. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Jesse Green



NEW YORK, NY.- You do not expect a camera to be the first thing you see in a play about the Holocaust. Yet, even before “Here There Are Blueberries” begins, a spotlight illuminates a Leica on a pedestal. A period advertisement projected behind it promotes it as “the camera of modern times.”

That’s apt for a dramatized documentary that looks at its subject from an unusual angle: the discovery of photographs taken at Auschwitz and the archivists who brought them to light.

“Blueberries,” which opened Monday at New York Theater Workshop in a co-production with Tectonic Theater Project, focuses on the so-called Höcker album, which the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum acquired from an anonymous donor in 2007. Uniquely, none of the album’s 116 photographs depict victims of the Nazis — only the Nazis themselves, going about the banal daily business of living and enjoying their lives at the camp.

That the play takes a similar approach, keeping the victims mostly out of frame, is a blessing and a problem. A blessing because, in so doing, it avoids both active horror and the cynicism of Holokitsch, in which the murder of 6 million Jews is appropriated to zhuzh some emotion that might otherwise be absent.

But in backgrounding the tragedy, even with the noblest intentions, “Blueberries” — conceived and directed by Moisés Kaufman, and written by Kaufman and Amanda Gronich — gets caught in a different dramatic problem: a problem of moral scale. What it’s about, however worthy, is so much smaller than what it insistently isn’t.

It’s not just that the album at the center of the story, being the keepsake of an assistant to the commandant of Auschwitz in 1944, makes no reference to major atrocities in its portrayal of minor pleasures such as the title blueberries. We do not see — as we do in the film “The Zone of Interest,” which features some of the same characters and locations — smoke from crematories or glowing evil light at night. In keeping with the museum’s efforts to “avoid undue attention to the perpetrators,” the play’s Nazis are characterized almost as little as their victims.

That makes sense in deference to survivors, but, in a play, the dependence on implicit contrast (look at the Nazis relaxing!) rather than demonstrated conflict wears thin. There’s only so much drama to be wrung from 2D representations of villains. Tectonic finesses the problem, as it did more successfully in “The Laramie Project” and other productions, by creating a round robin of ordinary heroes.

The heroes, set like the Leica on a pedestal, are the archivists. It’s their story that we follow in 31 short scenes that Tectonic calls “moments,” a term suggesting snapshots but also the company’s hallmark process of developing new work with an emphasis on performance instead of just text.

In “Blueberries,” this produces a kind of dramatic pointillism, the moments collecting into a larger image as the archivists learn of the album, acquire it, study it obsessively and decide whether it should be publicized and displayed. (In the end, it was worldwide news.) Everything the archivists do is high-minded and thoughtful; even their desks, the main feature of Derek McLane’s set, glow with intent under David Lander’s warm lighting.

All this uprightness gets a bit stiff, in the manner of a lecture-demonstration for high school students. (though I hope “Blueberries” becomes just that.) In any case, it’s a relief whenever the eight actors (all good) switch out of archivist mode to take on other roles, including the donor of the album and people reacting to it. Sometimes the cast even provides live foley effects, animating the photographs with the sound of giggles, footsteps and spoons scraping bowls of blueberries.

Although all this is precise and intelligent, the overall effect is weirdly narrow and not exactly news. That great evil was done by the most ordinary people should come as a shock to no one. Beyond that, I found it hard to share the excitement of discoveries that, however important they are to history, stand at a remove from history itself. Dramatizing the identification of a man in the background of a photograph is not the same as dramatizing what he did.

That problem is compounded by some of the play’s otherwise welcome opening out moments, as when it explores the effect of the publication of the photos on several Germans who are shocked to recognize relatives in them. The question of the inheritance of culpability, perhaps even the genetic predisposition to sociopathy that one of them fears, is surely worth investigation. But giving such characters prominence here pushes the story’s actual victims further into the background.

Only near the end of this 90-minute play do we hear from a Holocaust survivor. Perhaps because of the deprivation of drama earlier, this testimony, which I won’t spoil, finally and fully engages us directly. (Elizabeth Stahlmann is riveting in the role.) Even so, I couldn’t help feeling that the character exists in “Blueberries” only because she too has an album — and thus aligns with the play’s thematic discipline.

Like all disciplines, that creates a kind of tunnel vision. One of the archivists, played by the always-gripping Kathleen Chalfant, acknowledges it as part of her own work: “I put blinders on, and I focus in on the details,” she says, so as not to think about the horror of what she sees. Another wonders whether the Nazis at Auschwitz did much the same thing, compartmentalizing their moral attention.

The comparison is pungent but inapt: Archival work is not death work. Likewise, a play is not a museum. That’s part of why, while admiring Tectonic’s intentions and technique in “Blueberries” — not for nothing was it recently named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama — I find it even more unbalanced today than I did when I saw it last year in Washington.

Then, it seemed merely disproportionate to history, training its marvelously sharp lens on a far corner of the picture. But after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the deaths of more than 30,000 people in the Gaza Strip, and the antisemitism that has roared fully awake ever since, it feels disproportionate to the present as well. So when, in the play’s epilogue, an archivist says that the album “changes our understanding of that time ... and of ourselves,” I can’t help but wonder, as a Jew: How so? It merely confirms mine.



‘Here There Are Blueberries’Through June 16 at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; nytw.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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A new lens on Auschwitz in 'Here There Are Blueberries'




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