At Salzburg Festival, a Thrilling Provocation and a Promise Unfulfilled

Theater

SALZBURG, Austria — At the beginning of “Youth Without God,” the first new theater production at this year’s Salzburg Festival, the actor Jörg Hartmann climbs onstage and poses a question to the audience: “What do I owe to Adolf Hitler?”

“The question can be answered in a single word,” he continues. “Everything!”

The next five minutes or so are a lofty paean to the Führer, taken from an archival 1935 letter written by an ordinary German, identified as Horst R. from Braunschweig. The repeated mentions of Hitler and use of tainted Nazi terminology made the well-heeled audience the other night wince and squirm in their creaky seats.

A collective sigh of relief passed through the theater once Mr. Hartmann finished this recitation and stated for the viewers that Odon von Horvath wrote the novel “Youth Without God” in 1937, several miles from Salzburg.

This bracing prologue has been added to an adaptation of Horvath’s book by the director Thomas Ostermeier, and it gets you juiced for any further provocations over the next two intermissionless hours. But then things take a far more conventional turn, as we settle in for a dramatically astute evening that is sensitively done but doesn’t have much bite.

When Mr. Ostermeier, the artistic director of the Schaubühne in Berlin, was invited to work at Salzburg, he accepted on one condition. He told the organizers of the luxurious festival, which draws members of the 1 percent to this jewel-like alpine city each summer, that he would do the job only if he could put on “Youth Without God.”

Speaking to The New York Times earlier this year, Mr. Ostermeier said that the rightward shift in Austria — where the far-right Freedom Party was part of the governing coalition until May — was the chief reason he wanted to stage Horvath’s novel about a humanistic high school teacher confronted by his Nazi-indoctrinated pupils.

The rise of nationalist populism around Europe has made Horvath popular again in the German-speaking world. Works like “Youth Without God” and “Italian Night,” a 1931 play about a showdown between democrats and fascists in a small town (which Mr. Ostermeier also directed last season in Berlin), crop up increasingly on the Continent’s theater schedules, reflecting contemporary anxieties about how advanced societies can slip into totalitarian and xenophobic ideologies.

In “Youth Without God,” a high school teacher in an unnamed German town watches as his pupils uncritically absorb fascist dogma. He looks on with a mixture of disgust, helplessness and, mostly, inertia. When a student dies on a camping trip, he is forced to make a moral choice that has unforeseen consequences for the murder trial that ensues.

In a departure for Mr. Ostermeier, who is known for startlingly contemporary productions, in which actors frequently break the fourth wall during their sweaty, acrobatic performances, the Salzburg production features period costumes and props. The few modern accouterments include some live video projections and onstage microphones, into which several actors whisper the teacher’s inner thoughts.

The novel “Youth Without God” is closer to an existentialist parable than an anti-Nazi manual, something that Mr. Ostermeier, who makes no hero of the teacher, clearly understands. Mr. Hartmann invests the role with stubbornness and vulnerability, and gives an ambivalent, not especially likable performance.

Horvath himself was no stranger to moral quandary and compromise. Even after he had relocated from Germany to Austria in 1933, the writer struggled — and failed — to reassure the Nazi regime of his respectability. By highlighting the teacher’s isolation and indecision, Mr. Ostermeier suggests a parallel between the author and his protagonist, both of whom react to external circumstances with indecision and cowardice.

It is one of the more interesting and involved ideas in a stage adaptation (by Mr. Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer) that otherwise seems faithful to a fault. Compared with other recent versions of “Youth Without God,” including Zeno Way’s in Stuttgart and Nurkan Erpulat’s at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, the Salzburg production comes across as stifled.

The question on my mind the entire evening was: What was gained from putting the novel onstage more or less as it is written? Page to stage adaptations can bring out multiple narrative layers, or deconstruct their source material. But unlike two recent productions adapted from novels at the Schaubühne — Mr. Ostermeier’s thrilling “History of Violence” (which will soon be seen at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn) and Simon McBurney’s searing version of Stefan Zweig’s “Beware of Pity” — this “Youth Without God” is hemmed in by its focus on the various twists and turns of the novel’s plot. It seems less an interpretation than a carbon copy of the original.

That impression sadly persists despite the dynamic performances from the members of the Schaubühne’s ensemble who populate the sparse stage, often empty save for a forest of leafless trees at the back.

Unlike Mr. Hartmann, the remaining seven actors assume multiple roles. Laurenz Laufenberg is agitated and enraged as Z., the student who stands trial for murder. He also dons a frock, and a mix of arrogance and cynicism, as the priest who utters what is perhaps the novel’s most memorable and chilling line: “God is the most terrible thing in the world.”

Alina Stiegler has feral energy as Z.’s clandestine love-interest, Eva, and Bernardo Arias Porras brings welcome eccentricity to the role of Julius Caesar, a disgraced colleague of the teacher.

At the end, the audience’s response to the actors and the production team was thunderous. Mr. Ostermeier has furnished the Salzburg Festival with a hit. But unlike Horvath’s clammy and disquieting novel, the production feels, on the whole, a bit too safe. Especially given the director’s expressed motives for doing this play in Salzburg, it would have been refreshing to see him ruffle the Austrian elite’s feathers with something more incisive and incendiary.

For those who still remembered it by the end of the evening, the love letter to Hitler at the beginning felt like an empty provocation.

Youth Without God. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Salzburg Festival, through Aug. 11; continues at Schaubühne Berlin starting Sept. 7.

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