Review: ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ Studies Holiday Photos from Hell

This interview-based docu-play revolves around a mysterious photo album donated to the Holocaust Museum that showed the lives of those running Auschwitz.

Elizabeth Stahlmann in Here There Are Blueberries. Matthew Murphy

One longtime admonition to artists has been, “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” What’s the prompt for our century, hellbent on reenacting the catastrophes of the previous one? Make evil banal, and banality evil? Certainly, we live in a time of Arendtian moral vapidity, with strangers tagging each other terrorists and genociders from the comfort of their smartphones on platforms owned by oligarchs. Nevertheless, a new docu-play from Tectonic Theater Project, co-produced by New York Theatre Workshop, clears the space for audiences to contemplate a shocking record of bourgeois complacency coexisting alongside mass slaughter. Here There Are Blueberries cracks open a 1944 photo album that captured life at Auschwitz and invites us to gaze beyond the frame.

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To repeat, that’s life at Auschwitz. In a mysterious collection of 116 pictures mailed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2006, there were no heaps of fresh corpses or skeletal wraiths being herded into crematoria. Instead, the black-and-white snapshots show SS officers and functionaries at merry meetings, inspecting facilities, or relaxing at a riverside resort less than 20 miles from camp barracks. We see smiling men in crisp uniforms and robust young women who work the switchboards laughing and cavorting in a pastoral setting. Dignified, happy professionals. Gassing and incinerating thousands of Jews, Poles, and Roma every day. 

Scott Barrow, Elizabeth Stahlmann, and Nemuna Ceesay in Here There Are Blueberries. Matthew Murphy

The photo album is real. Diligently assembled by Karl Höcker, administrative assistant of the last commandant of Auschwitz, it graphically demonstrated the sort of compartmentalized pathology needed for the camp to succeed. After the war, the album was discovered in an abandoned Frankfurt apartment by a U.S. Army operative deployed to Germany to arrest Nazis. Fifty years later, this cagey intelligence agent (Grant James Varjas) shares the album with the Holocaust Museum and eventually donates it, anonymously. After initial skepticism, archivist Rebecca Erbelding (Elizabeth Stahlmann) recognizes one of the men in a shot: Josef Mengele, the physician nicknamed the “angel of death.” Once Erbelding and the head of photographs, Judy Cohen (Kathleen Chalfant), have authenticated the ultra-rare artifact, the question becomes: Should they display normalizing portraits of genocidal war criminals? 

That’s the set up to the rigorously earnest, interview-based piece written by Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich and directed by Kaufman (24 years after their landmark researched drama, The Laramie Project). A ten-member cast mostly addresses the audience in narrative chunks, stepping in to deliver verbatim testimony from Höcker (Scott Barrow) or the grandson (Jonathan Raviv) of another officer identified in the album. Some scenes have been derived from interviews with museum personnel, others were improvised from research. Dramatic tension gathers in the patient uncovering of the evidence of the photos—who are we looking at, what did they do, what happened to them. There’s the sickening revelation of what the top brass did before joining the SS: a bank teller, an accountant, a confectioner—a maker of candies and chocolates. Banality, thy name is Auschwitz.

Nemuna Ceesay, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Kathleen Chalfant, and Erika Rose in Here There Are Blueberries. Matthew Murphy

For a historian or student of World War II, such details will not be surprising—or new. Audiences who prefer a dramatic treatment of similar material can stream Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which fixes an unnervingly calm eye on the home life of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz. (The movie’s loosely based on a Martin Amis novel but overlaps with the Höcker album.) Even though at times Here There Are Blueberries seems less a play than a live PBS documentary (and, at worst, an infomercial for the Holocaust Museum), it’s still a compelling 90 minutes. That’s down to strong cast, anchored by the luminous Stahlmann, a grimly determined angel bringing light and a sword into darkness. Derek McLane’s spare but effective scenic design—work desks and screen—neatly cradles David Bengali’s elegant projection design, integral to the impact. In the end, the piece asks what the camera caught and what it excluded. We have seen the carnage of the death camps. That ultimate horror is the result of countless steps from everyday civility to desensitized inhumanity.  

Seeing the killers as they wanted to be remembered inevitably shoves a mirror in our faces. Every day we collectively churn out zettabytes of visual data to catalogue ourselves, our food, our clothes, our friends, our politics. In a hundred years, will a fraction of this record be coherently assembled to paint a true moral portrait of the time? Or will its very incoherence—an ocean of digital waste that mingles atrocity and triviality—be all that curators need to know? 

Here There Are Blueberries | 1hr 30mins. No intermission. | New York Theatre Workshop | 72 East 4th Street | 212-460-5475 | Buy Tickets Here   

Review: ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ Studies Holiday Photos from Hell