‘Great War’ a small won­der

Ob­jects pro­jected on a screen de­pict WWI hor­rors, giv­ing rise to big, chill­ing thoughts.


Last year marked the 100th an­niver­sary of the start of World War I— a hell-ish an­niver­sary, to be sure, but one that couldn’t go un­marked. Ob­serve how the geopo­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of that con­fla­gra­tion are sav­agely play­ing out in the Mid­dle East, where na­tional bound­aries de­cided upon by the Al­lied vic­tors fol­low­ing the bru­tal logic of their own eco­nomic in­ter­ests have led to a cen­tury of strife and in­sta­bil­ity in the re­gion.

Though his­to­ri­ans are still ar­gu­ing over the prin­ci­pal cause (ap­par­ently it’s a good deal more com­pli­cated than the mul­ti­ple-choice an­swer “the as­sas­si­na­tion of Aus­trian Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand”), there is no de­bat­ing the calami­tous waste of life, with the mil­i­tary and civil­ian death toll near­ing 20 mil­lion in some es­ti­mates.

How can such over­whelm­ing atroc­ity be un­der­stood? In small in­cre­ments only, as “The Great War,” an in­ge­nious live an­i­ma­tion film cre­ated by Dutch theater com­pany Ho­tel Mod­ern and com­poser Arthur Sauer, art­fully demon­strated over the week­end.

The pro­duc­tion, pre­sented at REDCAT for three per­for­mances, sim­u­lated the bat­tle­field hor­ror through the de­ploy­ment of minia­ture toy theater ob­jects pro­jected onto a screen. A ta­ble spread thick with pot­ting soil was wa­tered lib­er­ally to re-cre­ate the night­mare of the trenches.

The power of the images — minia­ture sol­diers trekking through mud lit­tered with body parts, fire tear­ing through en­camp­ments, mus­tard gas leav­ing ev­ery­thing si­lent in its wake — was as­ton­ish­ing given the banality of the ma­te­ri­als be­ing used.

The au­di­ence’s at­ten­tion was split be­tween the screen and the stage ac­tiv­ity be­hind it. The art re­tained its mys­tery, though the process of cre­ation could be dis­cerned in dim light. (Af­ter the show, au­di­ence mem­bers were in­vited onto the stage to get a closer look at how it was all done.)

The four-per­son en­sem­ble moved with the dis­cre­tion of Bun­raku pup­peteers. Her­man Helle, Ar­lène Hoorn­weg and Pauline Kalker took care of the har­row­ing vi­su­als and nar­ra­tion.

Sauer, bril­liantly man­ning an orches­tral sta­tion of his own de­vis­ing, was re­spon­si­ble for the de­monic sound de­sign.

The start of the war was dis­patched in a pref­ace per­formed on car­tons cov­ered with a map. To re­view the al­liances, coun­tries were des­ig­nated with dif­fer­ent-size cigars.

Let­ters from the front were read to pro­vide eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the mis­ery. The pale flesh of the for­lorn sol­dier fig­urines con­trasted starkly with the wet dirt. The growl­ing of the war ma­chine height­ened the sense of phys­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Death was per­va­sive, but the fear of dis­mem­ber­ment and the guilt over dis­hon­ored corpses seemed to pose greater chal­lenges to the psy­che of sol­diers.

“War Horse,” the Tony­win­ning Bri­tish im­port, brought the mur­der­ous­ness of World War I to life through breath­tak­ing an­i­mal pup­petry. “The Great War,” work­ing on a much smaller and far less com­mer­cial scale, doesn’t set out to daz­zle us in the same way. The au­di­ence was never al­lowed to lose sight of how the pro­duc­tion’s scenic ef­fects were pro­duced. Thus, com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion, al­ways a dan­ger when trans­pos­ing hu­man tragedy to art, was cut off. The dirt­i­ness of this his­tor­i­cal re-cre­ation im­pli­cated us all.

At the end, a mound of rot­ting bod­ies was turned into a ghoul­ish stew by snow and rain. Even­tu­ally, the corpses sank into the ground. Trees (pars­ley sprigs mag­i­cally de­ployed) sprouted up in this field, obliv­i­ous to the car­nage.

Na­ture has the fi­nal word, if not the last laugh. The tech­nol­ogy that made World War I so lethal is now turned against the planet it­self. “The Great War,” a mod­est, hand­crafted mul­ti­me­dia gem, pro­voked such dis­pro­por­tion­ately big and chill­ing thoughts.

Joost van den Broek

HER­MAN HELLE and Pauline Kalker are part of the en­sem­ble that pre­sented “The Great War” at REDCAT. The power of the pro­duc­tion’s images is as­ton­ish­ing given the banality of the ma­te­ri­als be­ing used.

Joost van den Broek

A SCENE from “The Great War,” from Dutch theater com­pany Ho­tel Mod­ern and com­poser Arthur Sauer. At REDCAT, the art re­tained its mys­tery, though the process of cre­ation could be dis­cerned in dim light.

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