The Last Cyclist, written in Terezín during the Holocaust, is a daring absurdist comedy in which bicyclists are blamed for all of society’s ills and systematically hunted down and murdered. The Last Cyclist’s anti-Nazi allegory was so overt that it was banned following its dress rehearsal. The script, nearly lost to time, was painstakingly reconstructed and reimagined by the writer and producer Naomi Patz, beginning in 1995
Filmed by Edward Einhorn, who also directed the play, The Last Cyclist allows audiences to bear witness. It is as if we too are attending that fateful dress rehearsal in the concentration camp. Amused, intrigued, distracted and thrilled by the not-so-subtle equation of Nazis with lunatics, we are still terrified victims of the murderous immorality of a lunatic and her followers.
The film is a remarkable new addition to the historical record of Nazi atrocities, as well as a fascinating artifact of Jewish defiance.
The music for The Last Cyclist is by the award-winning composer Stephen Feigenbaum. Feigenbaum adapted Švenk’s stirring Terezín March (courtesy of the Terezín Music Foundation and its director, Mark Ludwig) and incorporated into his score two fragments of an unpublished song Švenk wrote in the camp. These fragments are also the music for “Dear Red Cross Guest,” the two stanzas sung by the prisoners on Horror Island, and the introduction to the courtroom scene.
Feigenbaum’s score, made possible by a grant from dear friends of Naomi and Norman Patz, was commissioned by the Terezín Music Foundation as a living memorial to Karel Švenk and his fellow composers and musicians of the Terezín concentration camp who perished during the Holocaust. The score was recorded in 2013 under the auspices of the Terezín Music Foundation – Violin: Si-Jing Huang; Cello: Sato Knudsen; Clarinet: Thomas Martin; Percussion: Jim Gwin; Piano: Won-Hee An; Director: Mark Ludwig; Engineer/Producers: Thomas Martin and Richard Sebring.
Find out more about Karel Švenk’s music in About the Play.
A group of prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp known as the Terezín Ghetto rehearse a zany slapstick comedy in which escapees from an insane asylum take over the world. Because they hate their bike-riding physician, they target all cyclists, blaming them for the troubles afflicting society. The lunatic leader and her followers exploit the growing anti-cyclist hysteria and plot to eliminate everyone whose family has had anything to do with bicycles for several generations back by sending them to Horror Island, where they will be not-so-slowly starved to death. A schlemiel of a hero, who buys a bike to impress his girlfriend, becomes the lunatics’ prime enemy. Ultimately, good conquers evil – but only on the stage. In the real world, as the film makes painfully clear, the Terezín actors and their fellow inmates still face their fate among the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
And yet nothing in the play talks about the Holocaust … or Nazis … or Jews. It is an allegory that warns about the dangers of totalitarianism, herd-like behavior and the frightening extremes to which bullying can lead. But the Council of Elders still banned the play after its dress rehearsal. They were afraid of SS reprisals because the explicitness of the satire and its references to the irrational behavior of dictators and their followers were so blatantly and transparently anti-Nazi.
A few years ago, I was taking a cab, and my cab driver asked me if I had any good ideas to help the world. He was collecting.
I’m a writer and director, I said, so all my ideas relate to that. But I do think art can help the world.
He scoffed. If you were starving, he asked, what would you like? Food? Or a flower?
This is how I responded to the cab driver: I just directed a film of a play called The Last Cyclist, based on a comedy written during the Holocaust in a camp called Terezín. All the prisoners in Terezín, including all the actors, were starving. The play made fun of the Nazis, and though the actors were able to rehearse it, they never performed it, for fear of reprisals. Most of the members of the cast were among the six million Jews eventually murdered.
But during those rehearsals, they felt alive. And that’s why they were doing theater—to feel alive, to feel joy. Which is essentially why all artists create. Art, I believe, is a basic need, dating back to the cave drawings. I would like to think it betters humanity. But I make theater because I need to. Because when I do, I feel joy, and when I don’t, I feel empty and unfulfilled.
I did not know the inmates of Terezín, nor have I ever experienced what they experienced. What I know is the joy of creating theater. And that is what my actors know, and my designers, and my stage manager, and all the people who helped us make this film. And that joy has always been the focus of my work on Terezín.
The context gives it a poignancy of course. It’s a poignancy that I know to expect, but it still takes me by surprise. The joy becomes heroic. It does not become heroic because I or the actors choose to portray it that way. We are just doing the show as best we know how. It becomes heroic because the audience knows what the performers in Terezín themselves did not fully realize. The audience knows the horror of the world in which these artists were living—not just the subhuman conditions of Terezín, but the death camps and the gas chambers that awaited nearly all of them. Most of the actors, composers, and writers in Terezín used their art more to entertain and divert than as political resistance—though in the case of The Last Cyclist I am fairly sure that there was an element of resistance. But feeling joy and doing art is always an act of resistance. At the very least, it is resistance to misery. It is also resistance to oppression, the oppression of society or life or fate.
I know when I personally feel besieged in today’s world, theater and film give me a place to rediscover who I am and what it feels like to be human. I am grateful for it. I need it too, in a different way perhaps than those in Terezín did, but then again in a related way. Just like I don’t feel the hunger that they felt, and perhaps cannot imagine it, I can imagine hunger. It is a need, and the need they had was great.
–Edward Einhorn, October 2019