Bruce Dennill
3 minute read
5 Jun 2014
8:00 am

Fusing with the Fuhrer

Bruce Dennill

Tim Plewman is bringing Heiner Schmidt, the actor who plays Hitler during World War 2, back to the stage in a new run of Greg Viljoen's play The Last Moustache at the Fringe at the Joburg Theatre.

Heiner Schmidt (Tim Plewman) dons regalia for a role he has no choice but to get right

Plewman is best known for a role he repeated in several productions for nearly a decade – the narrator in Defending The Caveman. Has Plewman clicked with Heiner in the same way?

“With Caveman, I was playing seven characters within one person. You begin to pull on the skin of that person as you go. With Heiner, I genuinely felt I embodied the part, and that’s happened maybe eight times in my career.”

The Caveman is an everyman character; Heiner represents the leader of the Nazis, one of the most reviled men in history. Identifying with the latter must have been difficult.

“The Caveman was a specific identity I created that I loved. Everyone could recognise something of themselves in him, from surgeon to plumber’s mate,” says Plewman.

“In The Last Moustache, I walk on stage as a given entity; a monster; one of the great evils of all time. I start with that image and then break down the barriers.”

Does Plewman feel any compassion for Heiner?

“It’s affecting,” the actor admits, “because you can imagine yourself in that sort of situation, doing what you don’t want to but without having any options. Heiner’s case is simply the extreme. He knows he is being watched and will be killed if he fails, so he commits to his role.”

Plewman pauses, a wry grin on his face.

“So how – and why – would you extract humour out of this, as Greg Viljoen has? The answer is this: laugh at your monsters and they’re suddenly not as frightening. It’s a theme that’s horribly relevant to what we live with today.”

Heiner Schmidt is a professional actor, which means that, in The Last Moustache, Plewman is an actor playing an actor who’s a character who’s an actor playing a character. How does he keep everyone in line?

“You have to see the transition from Heiner to Hitler. When he becomes Hitler, you can see no trace of Heiner. He’s wonderful as himself: complex, grand and given to largesse. But now he’s trapped and to survive he takes great pride in his craft and makes the most of the role. Deep in the bunker is the only place he can face his private fears.”

Hitler had a well-developed sense of theatre himself, being – in a sense – a full-time actor and theatre director in his role as Fuhrer.

“He had an unlimited budget,” notes Plewman, “and he prepared down to details such as his hand gestures. It was a show.

“To match that, Heiner has his soul torn out of him, which allows the audience to have a ‘There but for the grace of God’ moment. People in all walks of life find themselves, for reasons outside of their control, pressed. It’s not their fault.”

Using art as propoganda has always been effective.

“Yes – and our new arts minister was the minister of police!” grins Plewman.

That doesn’t mean a performer necessarily needs to buy into the ideology of the system being promoted.

“No, and that’s what makes Heiner such a great actor,” agrees Plewman.

“He has to convince his audience of things he doesn’t believe in, and if he doesn’t the consequences are far worse than just a bad review. I can completely buy into him. It’s tremendous fun playing an actor who is overtly theatrical himself and who then has to contain and package that.”