Updated: Jul 24
Towards the end of Hitler's reign, one of the most powerful chesspieces of the oppressive and barbaric Nazi war machine meets with a representative of the very people he is charged with exterminating.
The two ambassadors, Heinrich Himmler the Reichsfuehrer of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Norbert Masur of the World Jewish Congress agree to a sit down under the seemingly passive but dexterous mediation of Felix Kersten, a masseur to the Nazis, who is brilliantly able to leverage the convictions of the two officials to draw them into a settlement that some would have deemed ludicrous and unthinkable at the peak of the Nazi regime.
Slight spoilers ahead. The play starts with a prologue from Masur, played by Ben Caplin, who describes the circumstances under which he, against his conscience, volunteers to travel to Germany on a mission to persuade Himmler to stop the atrocities committed against the Nazi concentration camp prisoners. Specifically, he needs to persuade Himmler to release as many Jews as possible to the Red Cross. In exchange for backstabbing Hitler and saving those Jews, Himmler may earn a little leniency from the Allies after the Nazi regime collapses and the people at its helm are forced to face the music.
The meeting is set against the backdrop of Russian gunfire as the Nazis struggle to sustain a foothold on their regime and are projected to succumb to the Allied forces in a matter of weeks. A key source of tension in the plot is the fact that Masur is not authorised to make promises to Himmler about a reprieve on behalf of the Allies, nor can he grant Himmler a sanctuary with immunity in his home country of Sweden, which leads Masur to wonder why Himmler agreed to meet with him in the first place, let alone be persuaded. Although Sweden did send Masur as an ambassador to negotiate, their act is one of atonement for their neutrality in the war so far rather than a sympathy for Himmler. To grant asylum to Himmler is therefore a tough sell.
Survival, in the face of an uncertain and bleak future, is a strong motivator and can convince an individual to suspend all values and principles if it improves their odds of keeping their life. We see this with Himmler, but the beauty of the play is in the fact that Himmler capitulates with grace and poise rather than a frenzied fear for his own life.
Himmler is portrayed by a lanky and sharply dressed Richard Clothier as someone repressing his humanity and logic in favour of advancing the goals of the German propaganda. Despite the knowledge that he is not in a position of power in the current negotiation, Himmler displays an impressive self-contentedness. Whether it is an artefact of a delusion that he has much less to gain from this negotiation than Masur, or an excessive discounting of the possibility that the Nazi regime would reach its demise in the coming weeks, or the sanctimoniousness of a Nazi who has deigned to meet with a Jew, or even a sudden development of altruistic tendencies to atone for the atrocities he committed, he does not explicitly state. Director Alan Strachan ensures that Himmler's motives remain elusive to the audience, and that adds a veneer of mystery to an already strong, intriguing character.
A heated and gripping discussion ensues between Himmler and Masur while Kersten helplessly tries to moderate the agenda. The sentimental and rather offended Masur struggles to conceal his passionate hatred for the acts against his people during their parlance and often loses sight of his mission. We see the subliminal convictions of the two officials emerge slowly but steadily as the play unravels.
Masur is deeply perturbed by the atrocities underway and is haunted by the thought that he is perhaps the only free Jew in all of Germany at the time. His passionate disdain keeps him from seeing clearly the power dynamic in play in the negotiation. Himmler needs Masur more than Masur Himmler. Masur is however blinded by the colossal burden he carries on his shoulders; the lives of thousands of Jews depends on how he makes his case to Himmler. Buckling under the pressure, he fails to see that Himmler’s concern for his own future is a terribly powerful bargaining chip Masur can leverage.
Fortunately, Himmler had already been primed by Felix Kersten to concede. In the current meeting, with Masur waiting outside for Himmler to have a private conversation with Kersten, Kersten continues to nudge Himmler to think about how Hitler had been rather unfair to him. Much like Mark Antony who employs irony, sarcasm and ingenious wit to instigate the mob after Julius Caesar is assassinated, Kersten subtly but powerfully convinces Himmler (who accepts Felix's prognosis with little protest) to take a realistic view of the future, and take his survival into his own hands instead of continuing to defer to Hitler. In this way, Felix Kersten more than makes up for Norbert Masur's potentially detrimental zeal.
The scene in which Kersten and Himmler converse in private shows clearly that the deft influence of Himmler's close friend and masseur Kersten was a critical factor in Himmler's persuasion. Kersten is driven by his own ulterior motive of finding asylum in Sweden, and orchestrates this meeting to enable Himmler and Masur to reach a mutually beneficial agreement that, as a happy byproduct for Kersten, would give him safe passage out of the country.
We see the rather austere demeanour of the authoritarian Himmler melt as he warms up to Kersten while the latter massages away his painful cramps. Kersten, who very clearly understands the position of Himmler, senses an undercurrent of submission to the inevitable loss, and he nourishes that submission. He uses this opportunity to motivate Himmler towards the "magnanimous act" of setting the prisoners free and salvaging pardon from the Allied forces after the war. Further, a remarkable character in the plot, Kersten's maid Elisabeth, played by Audrey Palmer, even manages to imbue sentiments of humanity and kindness in Himmler through her motherly aura.
Besides focusing on a chilling, hair-raising meeting between two mortal enemies, Ben Brown’s The End of the Night is also a lesson in negotiation. Himmler tries desperately to hold on to his one bargaining chip; he can moderate the number of Jews he releases based on the magnitude of leniency he is promised in return. However, any power he thinks he has is a mere delusion. Masur cannot grant him sanctuary. Further, the Nazis are about to capitulate.
The audience is kept at the edge of its seat as Himmler contemplates his options. Himmler must release the Jews out of pure goodwill and in good faith, hoping and praying that his act may increase the odds that he be spared when the Allies contemplate his fate on Judgement Day. Do nothing to perish with certainty, or do something for a small chance of survival. Or die gracefully with your principles intact.
On the other hand, Masur skilfully exhibits the difficulty of loathing Himmler for his atrocities and simultaneously currying favour with him for his mercy on the remaining Jews, and the audience is able to resonate with Caplin's disposition as he fleshes out this difficult character. It is difficult to say whose position is more unenviable - Himmler or Masur.
Being stuck between a rock and a hard place, Himmler nevertheless keeps his poise and negotiates calmly, as though not aware that he was on the lower pedestal in this negotiation, while Masur treads the fine line between speaking up for his people and offending Himmler.
In all, Ben Brown's The End of the Night is tense, gripping and evocative. The set is designed well, with most of the action taking place in Felix Kersten's living room on an old estate - an unpretentious, dark and gloomy location that creates the perfect backdrop for the chilling meeting underway. The estate is poorly lit so as to not attract outside attention, with curtains drawn and windows boarded up to keep a low profile. Bombing is heard intermittently from the outside. The ominous design of the set complements Masur's anxiety, fear and disdain, all of which were compellingly delivered in simultaneity by the talented and versatile Ben Caplin.
The only fault the bee finds is with the pace of the play. Writer Ben Brown takes his own sweet time to bring us the scene where Himmler and Masur meet, and once they do, Himmler speaks at a monotonously slow pace that the bee and its beefriend were finding themselves completing Himmler's sentences for him. If director Strachan or actor Richard Clothier who played Himmler thought that a slow, deliberate and considered speech would project an aura of power and prestige, it did not work for the bee, who felt that an essential sense of urgency was missing in the play despite all its dramatic tension. However, the bee did feel engrossed in the actors' dilemmas and appreciated the diverse range of emotions each one displayed.
Watched 17 July 2022 online on OriginalTheatreOnline.com. Grateful to the Park Theatre for making this play available to stream at a reasonable price. This post is written by guest blogger RS, a beloved member of this site.