The Spotlight: Norbert Weisser in ‘Way to Heaven’ at the Odyssey
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Theater and history can intersect in haunting ways. The Odyssey Theatre’s production of “Way to Heaven” tells the story of Jewish prisoners at the Theresienstadt camp who were forced to act as though they were well treated; they ‘performed’ in a fake village built to convince Red Cross officials that rumors of extermination were false.
German-born Norbert Weisser, who plays the camp’s commandant, has his own complicated relationship to the legacy of Nazi Germany. The veteran of stage and screen (“Midnight Express,” “Chaplin,” “Schindler’s List”) sat down to talk about how his experience connects to Juan Mayorga’s play.
You grew up in West Germany — what was the atmosphere after the war?
I was born in 1946, right after the war. My teachers in junior high and high school had been teaching during the Third Reich. When they taught this particular subject, they tried to change their spots because they had to. But their old beliefs were still there. We as children caught a certain dissonance, but couldn’t quite decipher it.
I saw [Alain Resnais’ Holocaust documentary] “Night and Fog” when I was 12. I thought there was something genetically wrong with Germans, including myself.
How did your family deal with it?
My old man was too old to serve in the army, and my mother was a teenager during the war. After the war, they were in shock when they realized what happened. They joined a Protestant pacifist sect. My relatives were a different story. None were in the SS, but there was real anti-Semitism just under the surface. When did you come to America?
I left in the mid-’60s, just as the new political movements were taking hold. The symbols we used for freedom — Levi’s, Satchmo, James Dean, Lucky Strikes — they were all American. So it was a pretty obvious choice to come here.
You’ve played your share of Nazis, most memorably alongside Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List.”
The camp felt real most of the time. And Spielberg has a way of creating incredible depth of field in his storytelling. He’ll set up one scene. Then he’ll set up another scene behind it — people running or having an argument. Then another scene behind that one. It’s extraordinarily dynamic. And if it doesn’t work he’ll turn on a dime and try something else.
How do you approach playing the commandant?
For me, the commandant is in purgatory. The audience is a kind of tribunal to which he tries to justify himself. I have all these feelings about the Holocaust that are stored up in me, and I sort of barf them out at the audience.
How do audiences react to you?
There’s a tangible hostility that I completely understand. To some degree, it means I did a good job.
The play is so powerful, as an audience member I feel shame at being unable to change the events I’m witnessing.
Yes. For me, the shame is permanent. There’s no way to get rid of it. Those are my people. It happened on our doorstep.
So what do we “do” with the story of Theresienstadt?
The Holocaust itself, even just this story about Theresienstadt, is too big for any one of us to handle. What you can absorb is the realization of the Red Cross guy, who knew something was wrong but didn’t pursue it. One of the responsibilities we have as citizens is not to be hoodwinked. A lot of lies come our way. The play is saying: Watch out! See the lie for what it is. Try to decipher it.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“Way to Heaven” plays at the Odyssey Theatre through Dec. 18.
Above: Norbert Weisser at the Odyssey Theatre. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times