Leopoldstadt: A National Theatre film of the play by Tom Stoppard
by Jennifer Bryce
Leopoldstadt is about a Jewish family in Vienna across six decades, it has been filmed live on stage in London’s West End.
Although he had always known he was Jewish, Stoppard found out only in the 1990s that he was ‘fully Jewish’ and that many of his Czech family had died in Nazi concentration camps. The play is not directly based on Stoppard’s family, but he says it’s his most personal play. In an interview with the director, Patrick Marber, Stoppard says that it felt like ‘unfinished business’.
Stoppard’s mother died in 1996. The family had not talked about their history and Tom didn’t know what had happened to the family left behind in Czechoslovakia. In the early 1990s, with the fall of communism, he found out that all four of his grandparents had been Jewish and had died in Terezin, Auschwitz and other concentration camps, along with three of his mother’s sisters.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Leopoldstadt was the old, crowded Jewish quarter of Vienna. But Hermann Merz, a factory owner and baptised Jew now married to a Catholic, has moved up in the world. In the play we see how history impacts on identity, from institutionalised antisemitism (professorships are slow to be awarded to Jews, those of Jewish origins cannot join the jockey club) to the outright terror of the Holocaust.
Rather than a play with a plot, this is a narrative of a Jewish family group in Vienna over the period 1900 to 1955. The main set is the drawing room of a well-to-do family. There are five acts, occurring in the years 1899, 1900, 1925, 1938 and 1955.
- 1899 This is the family Christmas (complete with Christmas tree).
- 1900 One of women takes an unrequited fancy to a cavalry officer whom she meets at tea with a family member. And that family member succeeds (secretly) in having an affair with the officer, subsequently producing a son.
- 1925 Post-war conversations and circumcision celebrations (the mother vacillating between whether or not her infant son should be put through this rite – ultimately it is carried out).
- 1938 The year of the Anschluss. The family’s home is requisitioned by the Nazis and the family must leave to be transported the following day, taking limited possessions.
- 1955 Post war gathering, with a diminished cast, many having died in The Holocaust.
I had been unsure of how I would cope with this film of a play, having been put off by early (1950s) films of Shakespearean plays and films of opera where the camera is aimed fairly statically to the centre of the stage. A movie of The Magic Flute where these constraints are thrown aside (I think it was the one directed by Ingmar Bergman) proved to be an exception. For some reason that I find hard to articulate (Stoppard’s brilliance, probably) I feel that the filming of this play was superb. To have conceived this as a film where we might see the family in all appropriate contemporary trappings moving through the first half of the twentieth century would have had far less impact. We are with the (changing) family in their living room for over two hours, from the children’s excited preparations for Christmas in 1899 (the family’s liberal blending of Judaism and Christianity conveyed brilliantly when a young child places a star of David at the top of the Christmas tree), to the diminished gathering in 1955. When necessary we are reminded of significant events such as Kristallnacht with sound effects.
According to Stoppard the play ‘took a year to write, but the gestation was much longer. Quite a lot of it is personal to me, but I made it about a Viennese family so that it wouldn’t seem to be about me.’