Amerika was Franz Kafka’s first novel, which he left unfinished: he broke off work on it in 1914 when another idea gripped his imagination, and grew into his best known work, The Trial. Amerika was eventually published, posthumously, in 1927.
In 2010, the distinguished theater director Anselm Weber became artistic director of the Schauspielhaus at Bochum in Germany’s industrial heartland of the Ruhr. Part of his new policy for the theater was to invite foreign directors to work on stage adaptations of classic German novels. Kafka’s Amerika fell to the Polish director Jan Klata (born 1973), who prepared a script in collaboration with dramaturg Olaf Kröck (born 1971). Their version of Amerika premiered at the Schauspielhaus on April 28, 2011, and was also performed at the international theater festival in Cracow that October.
It’s a production I would like to have seen – for several reasons!
Kafka originally entitled his story Der Verschollene (The Man who Disappeared). It tells the story of Karl Rossmann, a German teenager who has been sent to America by his parents to avoid a scandal after he got a maid pregnant. In the Bochum production, the character is played by Dimitrij Schaad. He proves to be an innocent in the land of big business and cut-throat exploitation, and as the story goes on, he sinks deeper and deeper into obscurity: in effect, America swallows him whole.
At first, he has good fortune: his uncle is a wealthy businessman and a senator, and he also makes friends with a millionaire’s son, Mack. He is invited to stay with a banker, Mr Pollunder, but his uncle doesn’t want him to go. He does anyway, a decision which will cost him his uncle’s patronage. What happens there will cost him all his other friends too…
This being America in the first quarter of the twentieth century, there’s a fair chance that we shall encounter one of those spoilt rich girls who make life a little more exciting by needing to be taken down a peg or three. In Amerika, the role is filled by Pollunder’s daughter, Clara, who is played in Jan Klata’s production by 25-year-old Kristina-Maria Peters. Here she is:
And here she is in costume as Clara:
This is modern German theater, so you have to allow for the costumes to be a little, well, eccentric. But doesn’t that red dress remind you of anything?
For me, it resembles nothing so much as the outfit worn by Judy Gringer in the very enjoyable Danish film comedy of 1960, Poeten og Lillemor og Lotte:
And we know what happened to her:
With that in mind, let’s look at Clara’s costume from another angle:
Clara pays Karl a visit during the night, with obviously amorous intentions:
When he ignores her advances, she turns wildcat and attacks him. That much comes from the novel. But Jan Klata’s version makes a significant addition: in the course of the fight, Karl gives Clara a spanking. That may be bad for Clara in the short term, but ultimately it’s worse for Karl, because his friend Mack turns out to be her fiancé and is therefore now his ex-friend! So his stay at Pollunder’s house has really started him on the downward spiral that leads to his ultimate disappearance.
But before we look at the spanking scene, we must give a moment’s thought to the stage design by Justyna agowska. She based everything on a child’s pop-up book: as each new scene came around, the back wall would drop down over Karl like the pages of the book turning, leaving him suddenly in a new location. All the foreground scenery would fold up from flat, like the balustrade they are pretending to lean on here:
And that presented a problem to the actors in doing the spanking scene. Here they are, valiantly coping with a couch that cannot actually be sat upon:
That’s the only spanking photo that has come to light – but at least we know that, in line with current central European tastes, Clara got spanked on her panties. Red panties, too!
Applause, please, for the cast of Amerika!