Conversations à Rechlin
Written and directed by François Dupeyron
Marie-Claude Chappuis: singer
Inna Petcheniouk: pianist
Nicolas Brieger: officer
Music by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Hugo Wolf
rec. Le Cercle du Grand Théâtre, Genève, 2009.
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Audio languages: FR (dialogues), DE (lieder)
Subtitles: FR (Lieder), EN, DE
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Region code: 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 541 [91:00]

This play begins with three characters in a dark room with a piano; the time is 1944. Two of the characters - women - are wearing the grey-striped uniforms of a German labour camp. The third, a man, is a German officer in uniform. We later learn that the two women are Swiss, and they are searching for the husband of one of them (the pianist), and that the officer is in charge of the camp. At first, they come together because the women think that by singing lieder to the officer, they can be absolved of having to work in the camp. They sing a first song, tense and anxious, and he tells them to come back the next day at the same time, and that they don’t have to work tomorrow. As the story continues, they return each day, at 5.00 pm, and sing a song, and they start discussing themselves, how they got to where they are, and the horrors of war. The officer has lost an arm, but used to play the violin, together with his wife, killed in a bombing raid, who was a cellist. He loves music, especially the lieder of Schubert. The three characters, all in search of an exit, will find one as the Allies close in on the camp.

This is an interesting combination of music and dialogue, with each short section of “conversation” advancing a story which leads inexorably to an ending that we know in advance: the camp will be liberated and the characters separated. A modern form of the Scheherazade story, the music serves as the tales that keep the characters out of the daily hard work the others in the camp must perform. Or Beauty and the Beast, where the music soothes the evil German officer; though he turns out to be not so evil after all.

For the weakness of the play is that it is based on a number of clichés, which make the dialogs into commonplaces about the horrors of war, and the fact that, after all, these are just three normal people cast into a drama not of their making. What starts out as a tense huis clos becomes, as the play progresses, just a series of conversations that progresses as one would expect, as the three characters - more correctly, the singer and the officer - become attached by the music.

Musically, the performances are quite good; Marie-Claude Chappuis is a very good singer, and Inna Petcheniouk is a fine pianist. But one does not watch this just to hear a few lieder; the songs are, in fact, a vehicle that drives the play forward, and that does so in a unique way.

The filming is tense and anxious, with hyperactive handheld cameras on the stage. There are many close-ups which are disturbing, and which ultimately, attract too much attention. This technique is similar to that used in many American cop series on TV, and, while it adds to the tension, it gets stale very quickly.

All in all, this is an interesting play, but the simplicity of the message, and the all-too-obvious dénouement, detract from its overall potential.

Kirk McElhearn

A unique form of theatre combining lieder and dialog in a story about the end of World War II.