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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama



Ferdinand Bruckner

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To purchase Criminals

Title: Criminals
Author: Ferdinand Bruckner
Genre: Play
Written: 1928 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 138 pages
Original in: German
Availability: in Two Plays of Weimar Germany - US
in Two Plays of Weimar Germany - UK
in Two Plays of Weimar Germany - Canada
in Maladie de la jeunesse/Les Criminels - France
in Werke, Tagebücher, Briefe. - Deutschland
  • German title: Die Verbrecher
  • Published in Two Plays of Weimar Germany
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Laurence Senelick
  • Previously translated by Anne Crawford Flexner (1941)
  • Die Verbrecher was made into a TV film in 1964, directed by Michael Kehlmann

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative presentation, effective drama

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 18/2/2013 Laurence Liban
Le Monde . 1/12/2011 Brigitte Salino

  From the Reviews:
  • "C'est une pièce bizarre, étonnante, foisonnante et sombre. (...) Au tableau expressionniste qu'il en rapporte il ne peut s'empêcher de joindre une sorte de thèse sur la justice. Vu à sa création, le spectacle souffrait de la longueur de ces discours, au demeurant très intéressants." - Laurence Liban, L'Express

  • "En dialoguiste cinglant, Bruckner joue avec tous les niveaux de langage. Il possède l'art de faire avancer l'action : on est happé par sa pièce, qui a une vraie force de frappe. Même la mise en scène déficiente de Richard Brunel n'arrive pas à la briser. C'est malheureusement tout ce que l'on peut dire de la présentation d'une pièce passionnante qui nous met face à une crise, alors qu'on en vit une." - Brigitte Salino, Le Monde

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Criminals is a three-act play with a large cast and a complex set -- one reason it regrettably isn't often revived. The creative staging has the stage divided into three levels, with different 'areas' on each where the action takes place. The first and third acts are set in an apartment house, the 'areas' rooms occupied by various tenants, as well as a kitchen and the backroom of a bar. The second act, meanwhile, is set in a courthouse, with four different courtrooms in which trials are taking place, as well as a judges' reading room and a corridor-space over the three levels. In each act, the spotlight moves back and forth across the different rooms and the different actions taking place in them. Juggling a number of overlapping stories, most of the scenes and dialogue are short and fast.
       There are two sets of a mother and two grown kids. Frau Berlessen's sons are Josef and Frank, and Frank's best friend, Alfred -- younger than Josef --, is madly in love with Frau Berlessen, but fears his lack of money prevents him from winning her over. Meanwhile, the homosexual Frank is in love with an oblivious Alfred, while also being blackmailed for amounts he does not have. Frau von Wieg's husband was once a member of parliament, and taught his children: "it was beneath our dignity to know the meaning of money", and the widow continues to support good-for-nothing Ottfried and Liselotte, claiming that when money is needed she simply sells off some more of their valuable possessions; in fact, she's been cashing in elsewhere, and the return of Uncle Dietrich, her husband's brother who left some jewelry with her for safekeeping and now returns to find it hasn't been kept very safe puts her in quite the spot.
       Destitute Olga and university student Kummerer are very much in love but can barely afford the basics; Olga's pregnancy is beyond what they can afford and they've agreed to give up the child to Ernestine, who pretends to be pregnant and that the child is her lover Tunichtgut's -- thinking she can bind him closer to her with the shared child, and not knowing that that unemployed waiter continues to carry on with several other women. Olga doesn't really want to give up the child, but can't see how they could support it -- but when Ernestine discovers her lover's philandering she decides she doesn't want the child after all.
       Various crimes that have been simmering or are committed in the first act culminate in murder, and the second act then shifts back and forth among the court proceedings. Tunichtgut is on trial for his life, for the murder of one of his lovers; he even confessed to it -- but only after a lengthy interrogation, and with some mind (and cigarette) games from the police; he is, in fact, innocent, but hardly in any condition to get his head out of the noose. Olga is also on trial, having tried to kill herself with her baby, but only the three-week-old child died in the attempt. Frank must decide whether to testify truthfully at another man's trial -- his rotten-to-the-core blackmailer, Schimmelweis --, facing an impossible dilemma, since it would mean admitting to something considered even more heinous. He maintains:

I would rather go to prison for perjury than for the other. I'd rather commit a crime than be imprisoned as an innocent man.
       Bruckner expertly serves up a variety of scenarios here that test notions of justice. The judges themselves debate the questions, but the law only allows so much leeway. And yet also, as one of the witnesses, housemaid Mimi (well, as she maintains: "Housemaid is an exaggeration"), suggests in her testimony about all this courtroom pomp and circumstance:
But when a person knows life and sees a dozen crimes go on around her every day that you couldn't even dream of, how could this chamber of horrors impress her ?
       At the end of the act the verdicts are read: Alfred's larceny is essentially forgiven, his sentence suspended; Tunichgut is sentenced to death (with three weeks prison time thrown in, "for inveterate contempt of court"); Olga is sentenced to a lengthy prison term for manslaughter; and Schimmelweis, the one true crook with no excuses for his actions among those on trial, is acquitted.
       The third act then looks at the fallout, including the desperate efforts to save the innocent Tunichtgut -- in Ernestine's hands, but she refuses to do the right (or any) thing.
       As Ottfried suggests:
Above all: Get out of this building. It's compromised.
       Some have already made good their escape by then, others find that it -- and the long arm of the law -- can't be escaped.
       Bruckner juggles all these various crimes (and the motives behind them) very well; Criminals is meant to show the poor mix of social ills and legal remedies and manages to do so without being too preachy. Bruckner doesn't absolve many of the characters deemed guilty -- Tunichtgut is more than just a cad, Olga did kill her child -- but shows how difficult circumstances complicate the issues. He also frames the stories well -- making for real drama, with some good tension.
       Admirably, also, the focus isn't solely on the crimes, but also on the legal system: Tunichtgut's case is an interesting example of a (gently yet just as devastatingly) coërced confession, for example, while Frank's predicament is due entirely to the impossible situation he is put in by a society that outlaws his true nature, forcing him to perjure himself:
I've fallen into the hands of a blackmailer, who knows everything and forced me to swear that he is not a blackmailer. I also had to swear that I am not a homo.
       Even the judges' debates about what is justice, and what criminal -- though standing out a bit among the action, as also the wordiest scenes -- don't try too hard to preach to the audience, but help refocus these questions which are as valid now as when Bruckner wrote the play.
       Among the few aspects of the play where Bruckner gets rather too obvious actually works better in English than the original German, where names like 'Tunichtgut', 'Schimmelweis', and 'Kummerer' are rather too on the nose.
       With its multiple storylines, Criminals is a very busy play, for better and worse. Mostly, Bruckner handles -- and connects -- the stories well, but it can feel pulled in rather many directions. Still, this is a very well-constructed play, and good, thought-provoking, and engaging drama, both large-scale and very intimate. Parts might seem somewhat old-fashioned, and parts of the treatment of the homosexual-angle are dated (including cringe-worthy phrasings such as: "I am not a homo"), but Criminals is fundamentally sound enough, in the issues it treats, to still be of contemporary interest, and it's also simply good drama. If it did not require such elaborate staging, it would surely be revived more often.

       Translator Laurence Senelick's Introduction to the volume Two Plays of Weimar Germany in which Criminals appears together with Youth Is a Sickness offers a good introduction to the playwright and his unusual career, and these two plays and their reception.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 September 2018

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Criminals: Reviews (*: review of earlier translation): Criminals - the TV movie: Other books by Ferdinand Bruckner under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian playwright Ferdinand Bruckner (actually: Theodor Tagger) lived 1891 to 1958.

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© 2018 the complete review

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