City Paper is not for tourists
Lots of successful filmmakers operate under the credo of “one for me, one for them,” intermittently cranking out commercial movies to ensure they retain the clout and cash to bring their more personal, less marketable projects to fruition. Jordan Harrison’s Amazons and Their Men riffs on the queasy but probable premise that Leni Riefenstahl rationalized her service to the Third Reich in the same way. Her 1930s Nazi propaganda films Olympiad and especially Triumph of the Will continue to be studied and revered for their technical magnificence. Their maker lived to be 101 and insisted to her grave that she was never a Nazi, that she was oblivious to the genocide until after the war, that for her it was only, ever, always, about art, and what could she possibly have done to stop the horror anyway? Riefenstahl’s analogue in Amazons and Their Men is called simply the Frau, and Jjana Valentiner brings a regal cruelty to the performance. The Nazis and the war remain unnamed, too. No more beholden to history than is Inglourious Basterds, Harrison’s drama is a knotted tree of conjecture grown from a seedling of fact: In 1939, Riefenstahl began making her long dreamt-of film of Heinrich von Kleist’s 19th-century play Penthesilea, casting herself as the titular Amazonian queen. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Riefenstahl was forced to abort the movie. Only her scene outlines survive. Forum Theatre’s ardent, haunting production, co-directed by Michael Dove and Elissa Goetschius, drops us onto the set of Riefenstahl’s pet project and immerses us in its speculative mysteries for 75 fidget-free minutes. Round House Silver Spring’s black box space already resembles a soundstage; designer Tobias Harding’s movie screen-shaped backdrop with projected title cards completes the otherworldly mood. Off in the mountains, struggling to make them resemble a Trojan desert, the Frau demonstrates her well-practiced myopia, ignoring telegrams from Berlin warning her against sheltering Jews and gays in her work. But she can’t ignore what’s plain to her unblinking lens: Her two leading men, played by Daniel Eichner and Jay Saunders, have fallen in love and can’t act their way around it. That threatens her picture—at last, a calamity she can’t abide. The Frau’s sister, meanwhile, a veteran of 27 onscreen deaths in the Frau’s filmography, tries meekly to make her understand there are more ominous troubles afoot than a flailing film shoot. (Nimble Laura C. Harris handles the character’s shift from earnest servitude to desperate engagement with conviction.) This isn’t pulp, either, though it is escapism of a peculiar kind. It floats in dreams, where the atrocities of the waking world are sometimes kept briefly, mercifully, unforgivably out of frame.