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  • Die Schmutzigen Hände ★★★


Die Schmutzigen Hände ★★★

Mateja Koležnik adaptation of Jean Paul Sartre's 'Die Schmutzigen Hände' (Dirty Hands) at the Berliner Ensemble externalises its inner psychodrama

BERLINER ENSEMBLE: "Die schmutzigen Hände" von Jean-Paul Sartre, Regie: Mateja Koležnik
Photo: Matthias Horn

The personal might be political, but what about the ethical? What does it take to commit to a position rather than merely play at one? The real action of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Dirty Hands – which the New York Times once rightfully dubbed the “existentialist Hamlet” – takes place in interiors. The hesitating intellectual Hugo attempts to prove his revolutionary credentials by taking up the position of home secretary to Hoederer – a pragmatic politician who strays from the party line – with the aim to kill him. However, he only pulls the trigger when he finds the politician embracing his wife, Jessica. Mateja Koležnik’s staging attempts to externalise this inner psychodrama.

Where Sartre’s original text begins by holding Hugo up for judgement, with his superiors debating his rationale for the murder, Koležnik’s treatment drops this deliberative framing for a more gripping (if somewhat more abstract) dramatic arc, begun by piercing strobe light through total darkness, establishing the action with a cry and a gunshot. Less interested in the particularities of party politics, Koležnik leans into the work as pure existentialist parable of political engagement, situating it with her typically-excellent stagecraft amidst smoke and shadow – and, more frustratingly, forever staged before a wall that we never breach.

Paul Zichner snivels convincingly as Hugo, paling before a larger-than-life Marc Oliver Schulze, whose physical presence embodies his moral resolve. The key then might be Jessica (a wonderfully madcap Lili Epply), whose constant, ironizing playacting troubles the belief in a fixed nature – a preexisting essence – of the play’s characters. Indeed, the moment when Hugo shoots Hoederer is staged for great shock, but the most dramatic decision occurs afterward: when he finally stakes his life – and self – on it.

  • Ensemble, Apr 13-14 & May 5, Berliner, German with English surtitle, purchase your tickets here.