One of the most potentially controversial -- and one of the most affecting -- broadcasts in television history, "Playing for Time," has been scheduled for airing on CBS Tuesday, Sept. 30 (8-10 p.m. Eastern).
Coming in the midst of a varied chorus of protests, this Arthur Miller drama starring Vanessa Redgrave is based on a true story by Fania Fenelon about an orchestra composed of women prisoners at Auschwitz who made music for their Nazi captors as they struggled to save themselves from the gas chamber.
I have viewed this made-for-TV film at a private screening arranged by CBS, possibly to counteract the adverse criticism already emanating from many who have not seen the film. I have come away from the screening convinced that Arthur Miller's "Playing for Time" ranks with John Hersey's "The Wall" and Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl" among the most memorably effective literary efforts to emerge from the Holocaust.
CBS has scheduled this unrelentingly grim but grippingly honest three-hour drama for early release because of an almost unprecedented swirl of multileveled protests, criticisms, threats of boycotts, and rumors that it would never be released because of alleged anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi bias in its presentation of Nazis as complex human beings.
However, I found it to be a challengingly complex, engrossing work of art. It is an impeccably written, acted, photographed, and directed landmark drama overflowing with a sense of its own futility as it tries to deal with the never- ending tale of the struggle of multifaceted humanity to triumph over multifaceted evil.
It is far superior to NBC's much-heralded "Holocaust" mini-series because it refuses to fall into the simplistic pattern of judging all human events in terms of good and bad, black and white. It glorifies nothing but the almost inscrutable complexity of the human spirit as it makes an honest attempt to explain the inexplicable -- the unforgettable record of the calculated elimination of millions of human beings by other human beings -- by studying the case histories of a few.
Perhaps it even contitutes an important step in the recovery of humanity from its recent bout with inhumanity, a civilization-trauma from which mankind has not yet recovered.
The various causes of the uproar surrounding this drama are almost irrelevant after one has viewed it. Whenever or not Vanessa Redgrave is foolhardy in her highly publicized support of the Palestine Liberation Organization over the years -- and whether or not it is valid to prevent the hiring of an actor on the basis of her politics. Whether or not to heed the objections of the original author. Whether or not the Nazi's, especially Dr. Mengeles, are portrayed too sympathetically. All these things pall before the overwhelming effectiveness of the finished product.
"Playing for Time" poses fascinating questions. Are there limits of decency in the struggle for survival? Is survival always worth the price one must pay? Can we accept the fact that all human beings, Nazis as well as Jews, are complex personalities with good as well as bad characteristics? How does one account for a love for children and Beethoven in a person who sends 12,000 people per day to the crematoriums and orders horrible experiments on unknowing victims? Must we accept the fact that Nazi's need love and affection, too, and are sometimes even capable of offering this to others?
This drama refuses to make the judgments, instead leaving the answers for the viewer to determine.
"Playing For Time" may be the best writing that Arthur Miller has done since "Death Of A Salesman" and I believe it is the best performance ever for Vanessa Redgrave. Wherever her personal sympathies lie, she has made the Fania role into a classic heroine-villain-everywoman.
Cinematographer Arthur Ornitz and director Daniel Mann have photographed the entire film in muted colors, overcast by an intermittent haze of human soot from the ominously belching chimneys. The film is alternately claustrophobic, surrealistic, realistic. Produced by a woman of always-dependable quality productions, Linda Yellen, the superb cast features Jane Alexander, Shirley Knight, Melanie Mayron, Marisa Berenson, Viveca Lindfors, and Verna Bloom -- sooty, bedraggled, some shorn of hair, most scarred and pimpled, all looking and acting their parts with utter authenticity. The entire troup has made not only a concentration-camp atrocity story -- but a horror story/fable/parable for all time.
The drama may not seem to be uplifting to everybody -- in fact, some viewers may find it downright depressing. When Fania states: "We now know a little something about the human race that we didn't know before and it is not good news," that should be taken as a warning rather than a condemnation.
Ironically, the greatest horror of "Playing for Time" lies in unexpected humanity -- the hard-to-accept reality of sometimes attractive villains, sometimes unattractive heroines. The film forces the viewer to realize that the search for kindness and humanity is not always aided by obvious absolutes, that good and evil often seem interwined and, at least for some moments in time, undistinguishable and inseperable. so many confusing and complicated levels of morality are investigated that there are bound to be some misunderstanding among an audience used to having everything spelled out for them by television drama.
This Miller drama demands thought, and discussion. It will be argued about for months, yes years, to come. It is exactly the kind of stimulating, thought-provoking fare which critics of network programming have been demanding for years. It deserves to be heralded as, one hopes, the vanguard of a new era of adult, literate TV drama.
When a male custodian slips food to Fania and urges her to live, she asks why. He replies: "You have to look and see everything so that you can tell it all when it is over. . . ."
"Playing for time" tells it all. It comprises three of television's finest hours ever.