Lost Holocaust Play THE LAST CYCLIST Premieres On THIRTEEN’S Theater Close-Up
By: A.A. Cristi July 28, 2022
“The Last Cyclist,” a uniquely immersive new film directed by Edward Einhorn that captures a stage performance of a rediscovered dark comedy written and performed once in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin in 1944, receives its broadcast premiere on THIRTEEN’s Theater Close-Up on Tuesday August 16 at 9:30pm. THIRTEEN encores the film on Sunday August 21 at 11pm. “The Last Cyclist” received its festival premiere in February 2020 in the Mene Tekel Film Festival in Prague, and, during the pandemic, it went on to win awards at the Chain NYC Festival, and the Melech Film Festival in Israel.
The original script of the “The Last Cyclist,” by the playwright Karel Švenk, was irrevocably lost during the Holocaust, when Švenk was sent to his death at age 28. But his production was not forgotten; it acquired mythic status among survivors despite having been banned following its dress rehearsal.
Beginning in 1995 the playwright Naomi Patz painstakingly reconstructed and reimagined the play based on everything she could find about it, especially by the cast’s sole survivor. She not only reconstituted the scathing satire of Nazism, in which bicyclists are blamed for all of society’s ills, but she also allowed its message of defiance in the face of prejudice and bullying to speak implicitly to society today.
Staged in front of an audience for film capture at La MaMa in 2017, the critically acclaimed immersive production – which treats the audience as if they are watching the play’s dress rehearsal with their fellow Terezin Ghetto inmates — is a remarkable new addition to the historical record of Nazi atrocities, as well as a fascinating artifact of Jewish resistance to racial intolerance.
In “The Last Cyclist,” a group of concentration camp inmates rehearse an absurdist comedy about escapees from an insane asylum who hate their bike-riding physician and target all bicycle riders whom they blame for the world’s misfortunes. A schlemiel of a hero who buys a bike to impress his girlfriend becomes the lunatics’ prime enemy. The leader of the escapees and her followers exploit the growing anti-cyclist hysteria and plot to eliminate all cyclists by sending them to Horror Island where they will be not-so-slowly starved to death.
Featured among the cast of 11, playing multiple roles, are Jenny Lee Mitchell, Patrick Pizzolorusso, Lynn Berg and Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld. The director of photography and editor of this intimate, multi-camera capture of the stage production is Alexander Jorgensen. The play’s incidental music and the film’s score are composed by the award-winning composer Stephen Feigenbaum, whose work was commissioned through the Terezin Music Foundation. Feigenbaum adapted Svenk’s stirring Terezin March, which became the unofficial anthem of the prisoners interned in the camp. (The adapted lyrics are by Patz.) Renowned artist Mark Podwal created the art for the opening credits.
Through a remarkable process of cultural anthropology, Naomi Patz was able to reconstruct the play based on a 1965 essay about theater in Terezin by Jana Sedova, a well-known post-war Czech theater and film actress who was probably the only survivor of the original Cyclist cast. In her essay, Sedova called the play “our most courageous production.” Four years earlier Sedova had recreated the play from memory, staging it at the avant-garde Rokoko Theater in Prague. Though infused with communist ideology that wasn’t in the original, the 1961 script still guided Patz in her quest to faithfully salvage Svenk’s original.
Terezin, the walled garrison town 40 miles from Prague is known in German as Theresienstadt. Euphemistically called a ghetto by the Nazis, Terezin was a forced labor camp serving as a holding place for transports to Auschwitz and the five other death camps to the East. Because of its high percentage of internationally known Jewish intellectuals and artists, the Nazis were able to use Terezin as a propaganda tool to draw attention away from the secret death camps, cynically misleading the outside world into believing important Jews were not only being protected from the ravages of the war but were allowed to write, lecture and perform.
“The Last Cyclist” was banned by the Jewish Council of Elders – the internal puppet self-government chosen and controlled by the SS – after it first and only performance, a dress rehearsal. Its author was a charismatic 27-year-old writer and director, Karel Svenk, who wrote and staged numerous cabaret and theatre performances. Described by survivors as a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, he was 28 when he died on a forced march westward from Buchenwald, as the Nazis retreated from the advancing Red Army, a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe.
“The Last Cyclist” enjoyed a critically acclaimed three-week theatrical run in 2013 at the West End Theater in New York. Neil Genzlinger of The NY Times called the production, “an intriguing exercise of Holocaust history,” observing that the play “is theater as a chance to bear witness.”
Patz and Einhorn came together again to re-mount the 2013 production with its original cast, filming it in front of a live audience at La MaMa over a four-day period in August 2017. The director of photography and editor of this intimate, multi-camera capture is Alexander Jorgensen.
Says Patz, “The kaleidoscopic experience of this extraordinary and bitter satire brings today’s audiences startlingly close to the spirited resilience of these inmates, who worked hard to maintain hope and a sense of their own humanity as they fought despair in the face of indescribable evil. The allegory that underlies the plot — the evils of bigotry and bullying — is terrifyingly appropriate today.” Patz continues, “The Holocaust was the largest organized mass murder in history. Humanity has not yet learned its lessons. For many years, the focus of historians was on the murderers and their crimes. In more recent years, we have begun to recover a sense of the lives that were lost, the human potential that was destroyed. Soon there will be no more survivors to tell the story. We need other ways to remind the world of what can happen when individuals and societies give in to bigotry, bullying, and authoritarian criminality.”