How far will you go to deny your identity in order to be a somebody? What happens when you make a deal with a devil whom you might normally despise, but has transfixed much of an entire nation’s population? And how long can you will yourself to ignore evidence of the intolerable? These are just a few of the questions raised — sometimes with allusive finesse, sometimes with blunt-force impact — during “The Performance,” an enthralling period drama with often disquieting contemporary relevance.
If you have roamed through this cinematic territory before, you may discern in Shira Piven’s exceptional film traces of “Cabaret,” “Mephisto” and other tales of ambitious entertainers striving for the spotlight as Adolf Hitler’s shadow spreads over 1930s Germany. But this largely faithful adaptation and intelligent expansion of a 2002 short story by Arthur Miller ultimately stands on its own merits as both vivid historical recreation and riveting cautionary fable, propelled by a career-highlight performance by Jeremy Piven — the director’s brother — as a man who learns the hard way just how quickly dreams can turn into nightmares.
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Piven plays Harold May, a gifted but underemployed tap dancer whose early success — signaled by fleeting references to past bookings at “The Palace” and other elite locations — seems to be naught but a frustrating memory as we meet him in 1936 New York. Along with members of his troupe — cynical ladies’ man Benny Worth (Adam Garcia), closeted young hoofer Paul Garner (Isaac Gryn), svelte singer Sira (Lara Wolf), and Carol Conway (Maimie McCoy), Harold’s once and future lover — he hopes to find steady employment (and, better still, a return to prominence) by signing on for a series of bookings throughout Europe.
The gigs are not in the most prestigious venues, but audiences are hearteningly receptive to their act. Indeed, Harold and company draw the attention of an extremely impressed new fan: Damian Fuglar (Robert Carlyle), a soft-spoken, impeccably dressed and obviously well-to-do German who makes Harold an offer he cannot confuse. He’ll pay the troupe $2,000 for a one-night-only performance before a very special guest in a storied Berlin theater.
Benny voices grave misgivings about the proposition, noting that Germany under Adolf Hitler is hardly a welcome environment for free spirits of any sort — and, worse, is particularly hostile to Jews like Harold. But Harold insists, persuasively, that since he’s been able to pass as a gentile for most of his life, he and the troupe should not be in any danger. Besides, there’s all that money to consider.
As they prepare for the big night, the troupe is surprised and delighted to be treated like royalty by a hotel staff that caters obsequiously to their every request. Harold is not only elated by the attention, he more or less accepts it as overdue compensation for his years in the wilderness, and a promising indication that he and his troupe will soon launch a lucrative journey on the comeback trail. And then, just before showtime, Harold learns that the very special guest on hand to view the tap-dance performance is Der Fuhrer himself.
For the first hour or so, “The Performance” adheres fairly closely to its source material, as Harold talks himself out of his revulsion and convinces his crew that, hey, the show must go on. After all, he insists, they will leave Berlin shortly after the show, with money in their pockets and no commitment to a return engagement. Fortunately, Hitler (a shadow-shrouded cameo by David Oberkogler), greatly enjoys the performance. (Here and elsewhere, ace choreographer Jared Grimes earns major kudos.) Unfortunately, Hitler really, really enjoys the show — and wants Harold and company to stick around.
In Miller’s original story, Harold extricates himself from the potentially dangerous situation in a manner that may remind film buffs of Fritz Lang’s legendary response to a job offer from Herman Goebbels to produce Nazi propaganda films. But Shira Piven and co-writer Joshua Salzberg shrewdly and successfully take a different route, even as they ingeniously retrofit bits and pieces of Miller’s dialogue.
Harold can’t help himself: Fueled by equal measures of chutzpah, self-delusion and a borderline-toxic sense of entitlement, he convinces his fellow entertainers that it probably would be a terrific career move to remain in Berlin long enough to rehearse and stage a full-scale dance extravaganza with local performers specially trained under Harold’s demanding guidance.
His tunnel vision is such that he repeatedly ignores (or tries to ignore) the ever-increasing brutality directed at Jews, Communists, homosexuals and other undesirables, and refuses to think that the German people would be sufficiently complicit with Hitler and other hate-mongers to accept such violence indefinitely. “These aren’t some freaky moon people,” he insists while defending the not-so-innocent bystanders, then incongruously adds to support his claim: “They have refrigerators.”
The key to Jeremy Piven’s complex and compelling portrayal of Harold is his exemplary ability to convey the willful blindness of someone who, while certainly not himself receptive to Hitler’s dictatorial manipulation, can nonetheless talk himself into benefitting from it. And besides, just look at how clean the streets are in a well-regulated society.
Director of photography Lael Utnik artfully enhances the pungent period flavor of “The Performance” with swaths of 16mm footage (much of it supposedly shot by the eager young Paul) and archival material, and joins forces with editors Jessica Hernandez, Oona Flaherty and Michael Hofacre to amp the kinetic energy of the dance sequences.
The supporting characters are well-cast across the board, with Carlyle (who, not incidentally, made a powerful impact in the title role of the controversial 2003 miniseries “Hitler: The Rise of Evil”) a standout as a true believer who is ultimately shocked to find he has admired and befriended a member of a race he’s been taught to despise. Trouble is, the discovery has only marginal effect on his loyalty to the Nazi regime. Then again, he wouldn’t be the last person who refuses to let anything shake his absolute faith in a revered leader.
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