In the 1930s, children all over Germany were sucked into Hitler’s ideology by means of the youth organization Hitlerjugend. Two such children were Hans and Sophie Scholl. Like many Germans, the Scholl siblings were initially enamored by the promises of national socialism and eager to swear loyalty to their country and the Führer. However, within a few years they had begun to recognize the reality of Naziism. Unable to outwardly defy Hitler, the two began an underground resistance with a few friends called the White Rose. The group secretly distributed pamphlets throughout Germany, alerting the public to the inhumanity of national socialism.
In 1943, Hans and Sophie were captured by the Gestapo and executed for crimes against the state. This puts a stamp of tragedy on their story; in spite of this, they were influential in the disillusionment of the Third Reich and are an encouraging reminder of the possible strength of humanity even under harsh situations like dictatorships.
In honor of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth is premiering their own version of the Scholls' story called Hans & Sophie, from now through March 1.
The play was written by Deborah Yarchun, Illana Stein and Sean Hudock; Stein also directs, and Hudock plays Hans. The collaborative creation of the play from script to performance gives it an intimate, curated cohesion. This plays leans heavily on language: although the moments of live dialogue are convincing and delightful, there are also many more poetic soliloquies and asides, as well as recitations from important works of German literature. The characters’ eloquence may be unrealistic, but it contributes to the poetic portrait of young heroism and sacrifice.
And realism isn’t the sole aim of this play, anyway. Although it’s a true story, the production transcends the limitations of reality. Much of this is achieved through its minimalist style. There are only two actors and both are onstage for pretty much the entire play. They make quick costume changes onstage to signal the passing of time and changing of circumstance: an army jacket tells us Hans is now fighting on the front, an apron tells us Sophie (Rebekah Brockman) has been forced into the menial factory work mandated by the Third Reich.
The characters’ eloquence may be unrealistic, but it contributes to the poetic portrait of young heroism and sacrifice.
When the two characters aren’t physically together, they communicate each other’s stories through letters read aloud. An impressive lighting design by Kenneth Farnsworth also helps the audience transition from one scene to the next — his lighting adds dramatic depth to more serious scenes and a carefree mood to the play’s few happy scenes. The production is simple but uses its simplicity to great effect.
That simplicity is contrasted by a quick-paced and thrilling plot. Many people will already be familiar with the Scholls' history. If they aren’t, they’ll discover how their story ends before they discover the rest of it: the play begins with the dramatic and effective sentencing of the siblings, aged 24 and 21 at the time of the trial, to death. Only once we know how the play will end does its story begin. But even though we know the end of the story, its beginning and middle remain suspenseful, emotionally charged and revelatory.
Following the play’s cold open, Hans and Sophie dance back to their childhood. They are suddenly ingenuous children playing in the woods, chanting their loyalties to Hitler, bearing swastikas on their sleeves. Their innocent commitment to Hitler’s ideology reminds us of the massive ignorance and innocence behind every corrupt government.
It isn’t long, however, before the Scholls begin to lose their innocence. Hans is quick to reveal himself as the more foolhardy sibling, and it is this very foolhardiness that leads to his disillusionment with the Nazi party as a teenager. He was arrested for a hinted-at relationship with another boy as well as the initiation of a youth group separate from the Hitler Youth. His arrest alerts both Hans and Sophie to the inhumane restrictions of Nazism.
The years pass and the siblings grow in their hatred of Hitler; but they also grow in their love of music, literature, and knowledge. Both end up studying at the University of Munich, where they celebrate being together by reciting German poems to each other. When they first begin printing and distributing pamphlets as the White Rose, they use Goethe’s explicitly anti-totalitarian poetry. In this story, the Scholls’ love of art and dedication to their studies communicates the atrocity of the Third Reich, which, through the persecution of the Jewish people and forced labor of national socialism, prohibited the excellence of many artists, students and citizens. The Scholls don't merely protest the Nazi’s destruction of human dignity and life: They demonstrate why humans possess dignity and why freedom should be protected, not prohibited.
They bear witness to the beauty of humanity through their acts of resistance, but they are also an example of just how good humans can be. The relationship of the siblings is what carries this play along, and it wouldn’t work if it weren’t excellently acted by Hudock and Brockman. The only two actors in the production have to portray an impressive variety of emotions and characteristics as Hans and Sophie undergo the many vicissitudes of their short lives. All throughout, they convince us of their love and loyalty toward each other. This play doesn’t have many laughs, but those it does have are because of these siblings’ beautiful and real relationship.
DFW is lucky to have this lovingly crafted production. Through it, we can witness the heroism of Hans and Sophie Scholl while also enjoying high-caliber theater. The significance of the Scholls’ history is made all the more real to us by a truly beautiful production, its beauty commensurate with its message of human bravery and sacrifice.