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Stage Productions and Television Play of Die Ermittlung, by Peter Weiss (1965/66)

Peter Weiss’s text for theater Die Ermittlung. Oratorium in 11 Gesängen [The Investigation. Oratorio in 11 Cantos] was staged or read aloud on October 19, 1965, in a simultaneous premiere in 15 West and East German theaters.[1] The same day, Peter Brook’s production opened in London, and on October 24, the piece was performed in the Staatstheater in Stuttgart. Even before the premiere, the work had provoked lively debate. The undramatic text, which forgoes any psychologizing of the speaking parts, for the most part was staged with corresponding simplicity, concentrating on the spoken words. Most striking in the first productions are the spatial arrangements of the defendants, court, and witnesses on the stage, and hence their relationship to the audience. Erwin Piscator, in his staging for the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin, had the witnesses step out from a recess between the stage and the auditorium, as if they were speaking by proxy for the audience, and facing the defendants, who are seated at a great distance from the spectators. In a departure from the representative role of the witnesses in Weiss’s text, the witnesses in Piscator’s production were portrayed with great emotion and as individuals, which contributed to an overall arrangement with a context of political appeal, described as “solemn, theatrical, and polemical.”[2] While Piscator thus asserted a distance between the defendants—and thereby the crimes in Auschwitz that are on trial—and the audience, in the Cologne production the defendants stepped out of the audience, which thus was marked and placed in question as a community that was harboring the criminals. Peter Palitzsch, in his Stuttgart production, had photos of the real defendants in the first Frankfurt Auschwitz trial hung up in the room, and had the roles of the witnesses and the defendants spoken alternately by the same actors, which one reviewer described as a “clear, horrifyingly endless and anonymous succession of voices” that pointed to a “machinery which relegates the victims and the executioners to a common category and makes them interchangeable.”[3] In their perception of Auschwitz, both the director Palitzsch and his enthusiastic reviewer, Ernst Wendt, completely blank out the social circumstances, specifically the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, and thus the nature of the Jews’ extermination, in which victims and perpetrators were in no way interchangeable. Thus they reinforce a tendency in the Auschwitz discussion that is already present in the text of Die Ermittlung, and that corresponded to a defining view of Auschwitz in the West German public in the 1960s. Palitzsch, in his production, also highlighted the spatial sequence of the cantos by dropping down, at the start of every canto, a map of the camp on which the site of the canto within the Auschwitz camp complex was marked.


Radio plays of Die Ermittlung were broadcast on October 26, 1965, on the Deutschlandsender station in the GDR and on October 27 on the Hessischer Rundfunk, and they heightened the public impact of the piece. The following year, the Norddeutscher Rundfunk produced a television performance of Die Ermittlung staged by Peter Schulze-Rohr, who also had been responsible for the Hessischer Rundfunk radio version. Schulze-Rohr, in his television production, repeatedly led viewers back to the scene of the events, but this time, for added illustration, fading in shots—views of the train station, barracks, aerial photos of the camp, and so forth—from snow-covered Auschwitz and Birkenau. To a great extent, the television production is reminiscent of a stage production. The defendants, judges, and witnesses are arranged to form a triangle, with the witnesses frequently stepping into the vacant space in front of the judges’ bench to give their statements. The spatial arrangement asserts a clear distinction between witnesses and defendants. Emotion is expressed here primarily in the feigned outrage of the defendants at what they are accused of; otherwise, the 155-minute television play concentrates entirely on the statements and the effect of what is said, including the remarks about I.G. Farben.


On November 20, 1966, a taping of the reading in the assembly room of the People’s Parliament was broadcast in the GDR, and that concluded the reception of Die Ermittlung in East Germany. While additional productions on international stages followed, including one by Ingmar Bergman in Stockholm, there was a let-up in West Germany, too, as a 12-year intermission began. Since 1979, however, Die Ermittlung continues to be performed from time to time in Germany.

(MN; transl. KL)


Atze, Marcel: “‚Die Angeklagten lachen.‘ Peter Weiss und sein Theaterstück ‚Die Ermittlung‘.” In: Auschwitz-Prozess  4 Ks 2/63  Frankfurt am Main [exhibition catalogue]. Edited by Irmtrud Wojak for the Fritz Bauer Institut. Cologne: Snoeck, 2004, pp. 782–807.

Lindner, Burkhardt: Im Inferno. „Die Ermittlung“ von Peter Weiss. Auschwitz, der Historikerstreit und „Die Ermittlung“. Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Bund für Volksbildung, 1988.
Lindner, Burkhardt: “Protokoll, Memoria, Schattensprache. ‚Die Ermittlung‘ von Peter Weiss ist kein Dokumentartheater.” In: Stephan Braese, ed.: Rechenschaften. Juristischer und literarischer Diskurs in der Auseinandersetzung mit den NS-Massenverbrechen. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2004, pp. 131–145.
Rühle, Günther: “Versuche über eine geschlossene Gesellschaft. Das dokumentarische Drama und die deutsche Gesellschaft.” In: Theater heute, 10/1966, pp. 8–12.
Weiss, Peter: Die Ermittlung. Oratorium in 11 Gesängen [1965]. Including a DVD of the television play (NDR, 1966, directed by Peter Schulze-Rohr). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2008.

Weiss, Peter: The Investigation. New York: Macmillan, 1996.

Wendt, Ernst: “Was wird ermittelt?” In: Theater heute, 12/1965, pp. 14–18.


Television Play

Die Ermittlung. Theaterstück nach dem Schauspiel von Peter Weiss. Directed by Peter Schulze-Rohr. Norddeutscher Rundfunk, 1966, 155 min.

[1] FRG: Freie Volksbühne Berlin, Essen, Cologne, Munich; GDR: productions in Rostock und Potsdam, scenic readings in Altenburg, Cottbus, Dresden, Erfurt, Gera, Halle, Leipzig, Neustrelitz, and in the assembly room of the People’s Parliament of the GDR in East Berlin.

[2] Ernst Wendt: “Was wird ermittelt?” In: Theater heute, 12/1965, pp. 14–18, here p. 14. (Translated by KL)

[3] Wendt: Was wird ermittelt, p. 16.