Tuesday, January 18

Yellow review: a gripping epic about fascism in Belgium | Theater

DDirector Luk Perceval’s Sorrows of Belgium trilogy traces three dark chapters in the nation’s history, beginning with the colonial oppressions in the Congo in Black (produced by NTGent in 2019) and ending the 2016 Brussels terror attacks in red (yet to be staged). The second installment, Yellow, dramatizes the rise of the fascist Rex party, which led to collaboration with the Nazi occupiers.

What immediately catches your eye on NTGent’s live stream, with English subtitles, is the cinematic quality of the production. It is exquisitely filmed by Daniel Demoustier on stage, though not always on stage. Shot almost entirely in black and white with some intermittent shades of yellow, it looks like a dance and a series of painful paintings of human suffering and collective delirium. Camera angles draw us into the awake faces of the Belgian fascists, giddily surrounding them as they spit out their rhetoric and then zooming out to show them as a choreographed ensemble. Annette Kurz’s set design looks more like a moving painting, with the actors often performing on or around a table that serves as a miniature stage.

The full cycle of the war is shown, from the rise of the Rex party (“Hitler will not forget the flamingos,” says a character) to the eastern front and finally the bursting of the fascist bubble at home. It’s the story told through family members and everyone from the absent and bookish Jef, who is pushed into enlisting for war, to his father (Peter Seynaeve), his mother (Chris Thys) and his sister, Mie (Lien Wildemeersch). Their testimonies are combined with narrated letters written by Jef from the front, and there is a Jewish woman, Channa (Maria Shulga), who appears occasionally to tell her own story of persecution and escape, albeit frustratingly not enough.

… Yellow.
Brave narration … Yellow. Photography: Fred Debrock

The Flemish family is no different from Edgar Reitz’s Heimat villagers: eminently ordinary, their lives interrupted by ideology and war. As they fall under the spell of fascism, they are shown to be delirious, dancing maniacally, their movements erratic and like marionettes. And then they get small and suffer again, as that spell is broken.

Joining them is the story of Léon Degrelle (Valéry Warnotte), the founder of Rex, and Otto Skorzeny (Philip Leonhard Kelz), an Austrian SS officer whose zeal brings the “cult of the Führer” to life vividly as they talk, with almost childlike wonder, shaking hands with Hitler or seeing him at rallies.

Peter van Kraaij’s script (with contributions from Steven Heene and Margit Niederhuber) resists traditional storytelling and, as compelling and intense as the effects may be, it sometimes becomes opaque and overly impressionistic. It never loses its atmosphere, but due to its many narrative ellipses, the historical detail is difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with it. Nonetheless, the emotional tension remains, conjured by Ted Stoffer’s movement, Sam Gysel’s impressive score (from martial drums to melancholic piano), and extraordinary performances by the actors, giving it an epic and tragic scale.

NTGent intends to present the production as a live performance in May, but this filmed version is its own extraordinary achievement.


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