In Kamp, a production by Dutch theatre company Hotel Modern, a gigantic scale model of Auschwitz covered the floor of St. Ann's Warehouse, an avantgarde performance space in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. Measuring 36 × 33 feet, the set was meticulously rendered, complete with rows of barracks, crematoria, and a sign that declares "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work makes you free). Fenced in by barbed wire and guard towers, 3,000 three-inch-tall figures of prisoners and guards "performed" a series of vignettes that depicted the debasement and viciousness of the Holocaust in a harrowing and visually arresting manner. The three members of [End Page 109] Hotel Modern, Pauline Kalker, Arlene Hoornweg, and Herman Helle, dressed in muted earth-tones, manipulated the figures around the set, depicting a day in the life of Auschwitz. Guided by hands, by control sticks, and by wire, prisoners filled bags with stone, ate soup from makeshift bowls, and were sent to die in gas chambers. Often acting as documentary filmmakers, the three performers captured the action as it unfolded using small handheld digital cameras. These images were then projected in real time on the rear wall of the theatre. No one spoke in the piece, and no words were needed. Through innovative use of digital technology and puppetry, Kamp evoked the gross absurdities and terrors of the Holocaust. It was an hour-long tour of hell in miniature.
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Structurally, Kamp alternated sequences in which the puppeteers moved within the set, preparing the figures for the next scene, with the scenes themselves. Importantly, there were no individual characters in Kamp. There was no real story-arc outside of the progression of day to night, no "girl in a red coat" with whom to empathize, as in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film Schindler's List. Without any characters with whom to connect, the audience was forced to consider the vast scope of the horror.
Created by troupe member Helle, the crudely fashioned figures who occupied the space of the camp were made of moldable plasticine and paint. With holes for eyes, a nub for a nose, and a gaping mouth, their doughy faces recalled Edvard Munch's iconic The Scream. Ultimately ambiguous in affect, these faces suggested bewilderment, anger, alarm, exertion, desperation, or pain depending on the context. That the very same faces were to be found on the SS officers suggested, paradoxically, both a common humanity despite the circumstances, and also how the mechanization of death rendered everyone inhuman.
The performers' manipulations of the figures worked in precise choreography with the cameras, giving a sense of what Kalker, one of the founders of Hotel Modern, has termed a "live animation film onstage." The audience, seated at a distance from the tiny figures, viewed the action in tight close-ups. Such apparent proximity to the action—in a space where death is omnipresent—created a sense of perpetual dread. Death seemed always to be lurking just off-screen.
Interactions between puppeteer and figure often created meaningful symbolism. In a vignette at the beginning of the piece, four prisoners were hanged at a tiny gallows in the middle of the camp. Slowly, almost tenderly, a puppeteer placed small boxes under the gallows. Then the puppeteer placed the heads of figures in the nooses. Finally, the hand of a puppeteer reached over, in view of the camera and the audience, and pulled each block away one at a time. The hand appeared so large onscreen that it seemed almost God-like in scope, a parody of Michelangelo's The Creation of Man. The camera shot framed the dangling figure, an object seeming to struggle and jerk, but eventually becoming still. This was repeated over and over until finally the camera panned away to reveal a group of thirty more prisoner figures that looked as if they were watching the event. Their gaping mouths seemed to be reacting to the execution. The scene ended with the camera operator...