Monthly Archives: February 2010

February 16, 2010

Harlan Ellison: Pay the writer. (I can’t quite remember but I think he says “motherfucker,” so if you work for, you know, the Daughters of the Confederacy you might want to wait until you get home to watch it.)

Posted on by Joel Derfner | 4 Comments

February 2, 2010

My collaborators have written about the issue on their blogs, so I thought I might as well weigh in on singing Nazis.

Len points out that when characters sing they are often in a state of heightened emotion, a state in which, whether accurately or otherwise, they believe they’re being honest with themselves. “Did we want to dignify,” Len asks, “the honest reflections of SS officers?”

Peter notes that it was most definitely not his intention that the audience sympathize with the two Nazi characters in our show.

The question is equally tricky from a musical point of view.

There are three moments in our show when the Nazis sing. Two are performative (they lie, respectively, to the Jews of Prague and to the Red Cross inspector who comes to visit the ghetto), and the music sounds like the attitude they have assumed for the deception (respectively, reassuring and jolly), but the third is an honest moment, in which Heindel, the younger of the two, sings about his true belief in the Nazi aim.


And to the ones who cry compassion,
Preaching, ‘Hate is not the answer,’
I say humans must hate Jews
The way the surgeon hates the cancer.

I agree with Len that, in this moment, the character is being honest with himself, or as honest as he can be. And since the character feels—rightly or wrongly—that he is motivated by the noblest and most humanitarian of aims, the music has to feel noble and humanitarian.

But I also agree with Peter that we don’t want anybody to sympathize with the Nazis in our show. So how can the music feel noble and humanitarian? We all—at least most of us—feel noble and humanitarian emotions at one time or another, and if such a song is not an attempt to make an evil character sympathetic, then what is it?

The answer, I believe, can be found (as can the answers to most things) in ancient Greek, in the sources of the words “sympathy” and “empathy.” “Sympathy” derives from “pathe” (experience, suffering) and “syn” (with); “empathy” from “pathe” and “en” (in).

If you feel sympathy for someone, you’re “with” him—you’re on his side. You feel wounded when he feels wounded; you feel angry when he feels angry; you feel joyful when he feels joyful. If you feel empathy for someone, you’re “in” him—you’re in his shoes. You discern, however distantly, what he feels when he feels wounded, angry, joyful. You understand what it is to be him. Sympathy is a centripetal force, empathy a centrifugal one. Sympathy is about you. Empathy is about somebody else.

So unless our Nazi is a sociopath—which he’s not, though of course many were—then the only honest way to portray him as a character is to try to empathize with him and to try write him so that the audience empathizes with him too.

Which means that the song, if I’ve succeeded (you can listen to it here to decide for yourself), is horrifying, because it allows the audience to glimpse something in themselves that, pushed far enough, might not look too different from this monster.

To order tickets to Signs of Life: A Tale of Terezin, click here.

To find out more about Signs of Life, click here.

Posted on by Joel Derfner | 7 Comments