The controversy over the casting of Vanessa Redgrave as Auschwitz survivor Fania Fenelon has turned as hateful and misguided as the pro-PLO statements that Redgrave made and which inspired the controversy in the first place. This state of affairs, however, is appropriate to the CBS film in which Redgrave stars tonight and in which she is, unfortunately for her detractors, brilliant.
"Playing for Time," at 8 on channel 9, is Arthur Miller's grim and uncompromising meditation on the subject of compromise, moral and spiritual. It is about the problem of clinging to one's humanity at a time when the glory of being human had never been in greater doubt. Miller has found new nuances and deeply troubling dilemmas within the theme of the Nazi Holocaust and its victims.
As Fenelon, Redgrave contemplates her tormentors from a barracks at Auschwitz. "We're of the same species," she tells a fellow inmate. "That is exactly what is so hopeless about this whole thing."
Fenelon was a member of a prisoner's orchestra at Auschwitz, saved from death by her musical talent; hence, "Playing for Time." Although they were spared from the gas chambers and the ovens, they didn't know how long their reprieve would last, and their immunity made them enemies to the others interned in the camp.
The film opens with Redgrave entertaining at a piano bar, but in only a moment she is in a stifling, wretched railway car on her way to the concentration camp, where the rest of the three-hour film takes place. Any actress who shaves her head and lets herself be made grotesque for a role gets a certain deference right off. It is unquestionably jarring to watch as Redgrave is shaved and a number is tattooed on her arm. But the performance makes the character far more than pitiable. There is a complexity and depth that go beyond usual portrayals of victims and oppressors.
In one scene, another woman in the barracks has adapted to life in the camp by offering the guards sex for food. Redgrave as Fenelon sees this, silently deplores it, but then, starving, eats some of the food herself. She covers her mouth suddenly and weeps, and knocks her head against a wall -- a devastating expression of shame and despair.
Redgrave plays Fenelon not as a moralist but as a determined survivor who wants to make as few moral submissions as possible. After singing, in English, Puccini's "One Fine Day" for the erratically sentimental Dr. Mengele (Max Wright, chillingly subdued in the part) and hearing his praise, she makes one small but important gesture of protest to the commandant, telling him her real name is Fania Glodstein, that she is a Jew and all he hates.
Later, she smacks her head with a hand on the line, "I'm all confused," and the simple act is amplified into a poignant statement. As the Russians advance and the war nears its end, Fenelon considers the small victory of having made it through alive: "We know something about the human race that we didn't before, and it's not good news."
Miller justifies returning to Auschwitz by finding new, troubling subtleties within the incredible nightmare. Director Daniel Mann uses some old newsreel footage, but not atrocity films; only vicious imagery of the era that cannot be forgotten. Humans as a race do not have much of a conscience, Miller is saying; the best one can hope for is enough individual consciences, to keep the species from devouring itself.
By studying the case of Fenelon, he also brings the wider picture into focus: that what happened at Auschwitz and the other death camps is a scar on the century that should never be forgotten. Miller doesn't want us to thank heaven we weren't among the victims; he wants us to be very grateful that we weren't one of the criminals.
Occasionally Miller resorts to devices too theatrical for the realism of the setting. A little old man who looks like a carpenter -- and presumably represents humanity's better side -- saunters in out of nowhere after Fenelon has witnessed a baby being taken from its mother and mother dragged through the mud by the guards.
"Don't turn away," he tells her. "You have to look and see everything so you can tell Him when it's over." He leaves her with the command to "live!" and returns later, a pseudo-Brechtian visitation out of synch with the rest of the film.
Shirley Knight has tremendous impact as Frau Lagerfuhrerin Mandel, a Nazi in charge of the orchestra. She is especially poignant in an unexpected scene in which she brings a small Polish boy, retrieved from a truckload of new arrivals, into the barracks and marvels at his youth and spirit. Miller composed other scenes that have similar macabre resonance, as when the women in the orchestra stand around a piano singing the pop tune "Stormy Weather," giving stunning, literal meaning to lines like "Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky."
Jane Alexander does another medley of mannerisms that will be mistaken in some quarters for a performance; she plays the leader of the orchestra, a woman whose strategy of survival is to ignore as much of the horror as possible. Viveca Lindfors also makes a negligible contribution as another Nazi officer. Melanie Mayron as Marianne conveys some kind of insane dignity even in the abandonment of all pride and self-esteem.
Many others in the cast, as members of the orchestra, distinguish themselves even when Miller has drawn the characters too simplistically. It is unfortunate that the one steadfast Zionist is depicted as a naive fanatic and that Redgrave has scenes with her in which she appears exasperated by the rhetoric: But to offset such things there is a scene in which one girl confesses to Redgrave that she has become, she fears, overly, and romantically attached to another.
"In this place, to feel at all may be a blessing," Fenelon tells her.
Fenelon herself has been in the forefront of protests against the film, not only because of the casting of Redgrave, but also because she has claimed it to be an unrealistic depiction (the credits say, "Based on the book by Fania Fenelon, with permission of Opera Mundi, copyright owner"). If it were any more realistic, hardly anyone would be able to watch it. As it is, many will be scared off by the story and the setting.
The one thing that may keep otherwise reluctant viewers from straying is Redgrave's striking, compelling, intuitive performance. It is a pity that the thoughtless things she said off camera should intrude on the integrity of the performance but, then, it is quite possible for a great actress to also be, at least in political matters, a blithering idiot. There are other examples of that.
It is difficult, on the other hand, to imagine an actress who could have played this role more effectively, or to imagine that anything approaching harm could be done by the film. Wisely, CBS has announced plans to limit the number of commercial interruptions and group the ads; to have gone from the agonies and complexities of Auschwitz to the romping sprites of a fast-food restaurant would have been (perhaps still will be) disastrous.
This is one of those rare serious works of television that deserve special treatment.