In “The Great War,” the Dutch theater company Hotel Modern simulated the reality of the World War I battlefield in all its muddy, body-mangled horror through the projection of toy soldiers and miniature objects onto a screen.
Live animation — or more precisely, the theatrical creation of a live animation stage work — was able to accomplish what the vast literature on trench warfare has sometimes struggled to depict: The man-made hell that turned the natural landscape into an open grave for a generation of soldiers.
The group is back at REDCAT with an even starker historical mandate: to re-create a model of the Auschwitz death camp, where the grandfather of Hotel Modern’s Pauline Kalker spent his final days.
The entire stage, filled with squat buildings, train tracks and barbed-wire fences, is transformed into a deathly sand-colored scale model of the extermination camp. Figurines are wordlessly manipulated by Kalker, Arléne Hoornweg and Herman Helle, the multimedia artists who go about their business with brisk, neutral efficiency.
The daily routines of these inanimate figures are projected onto a screen, and it’s there that you can see the condition of the skeletal prisoners, as the camera closes in on their shaved heads, sunken eyes and hollowed cheeks.
The labor forced upon them by Nazi guards constitutes a form of physical torture that is excruciating to watch. When one prisoner collapses, a guard savagely beats him, the thud repeating mercilessly as the violence tears through cartilage into bone.
The gas chambers are re-created through the mountain of shoes and clothes that are left outside and the mysterious salts in containers with skull and crossbones labels that are poured before another group is rendered lifeless.
The sheer number of corpses defies comprehension. The trains roll in, and Jewish families are pulled out like inhuman cargo. Sickly hordes are marshaled at night under the lights for what resembles a zombie march. The bone and ash piles keep rising.
The slurping that accompanies the dispensing of watery soup served out of a trash can is one of the most pitiful sounds I’ve heard in a theater. But the most harrowing aspect of Ruud van der Pluijm’s sound design just might be the impervious wind that blows relentlessly through the camp. That sound was somehow even more terrifying than the boisterous carousing of drunken Nazis after another day’s murderous work.
Never forget. Our collective imperative has grown more difficult by the distance of time and the willfulness of denial. How many today have never adequately learned about the Holocaust or fully accepted the lessons that it teaches about the barbarism that even the most civilized societies are capable of?
“KAMP” isn’t for the faint of heart. I gasped and groaned. At times, I had to look away. But I was grateful for the courage and the craft of Hotel Modern and for the timeliness of this historical re-creation.
It can’t happen here? “KAMP” reminds us that the unthinkable can come to pass whenever humanity turns its back on the values upon which its own sanity and security rest.
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Hotel Modern: ‘KAMP’
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday
Info: (213) 237-2800 or redcat.org
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes