Scene From The Fall: Mental Ward US Military Hospital, Nuremberg, Germany

Here we present an excerpt from a screenplay to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.

LOOKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

Here we present an excerpt from a screenplay to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.

Introduction and Setting: In this fictional scene from The Fall-set in late 1945 at the end of World War II-a US Army Sergeant in the Counter-Intelligence Corps, who is now an in-patient in the Mental Ward of the US Military Hospital in Nuremberg, Germany, is interviewed by a Military Psychiatrist. In later life, this Sergeant becomes a famous, reclusive novelist and short-story writer.

Characters:
Army Psychiatrist
Army Sergeant

(Lights up). A hospital interview room with a small table and two chairs. Jug of water and glass on the table. Sergeant is sitting at the table on his own. He wears a military shirt and leans forward on the chair, gently rocking himself to and fro; his eyes are closed. Knock on the door, heard off-stage. Sergeant startles and sits upright. Army psychiatrist enters wearing a long white medical coat; he carries a clipboard chart and pen.)

Psychiatrist: Sergeant?
(Sergeant looks up at psychiatrist, blinks a few times, dazed.)

Psychiatrist: Sergeant?

Sergeant (Yawning, not fully awake): Yeah, yeah . . . Have I met you before? Like yesterday or a couple of days ago?

Psychiatrist: Yes, Sergeant . . . I’m Captain O’Brien . . . Army Medical Corps psychiatrist. I’ve had you on sodium amytal for a few days . . . to help you catch up on your sleep. You’ve been up for meals and the john I’m told . . . but most soldiers won’t remember too much on this dose . . .
(Sergeant becomes a little more attentive, leans forward in his chair. Psychiatrist leafs through the chart.)

Sergeant: Problem is, Captain . . . I still remember everything I wanna forget … drug or no drug.

Psychiatrist (With a note of questioning in his voice): You’re 4th Infantry Division, Counter Intelligence Corps . . . landed on D-Day, Omaha . . . then the Bulge, Hurtgen Forest, Dachau . . . five battle stars . . . Presidential Unit Citation for Valor. That’s one helluva run, Sergeant.
(Sergeant yawns, looks away)

Psychiatrist (Lowers chart to his lap, pauses): What brings you to the hospital? We didn’t get much out of you the night you came in.
(Very long pause, so long it’s uncomfortable)

Sergeant: I scared the hell out of myself . . . Captain.
(Psychiatrist nods but doesn’t speak. Another long silence.)

Sergeant: It was four in the morning and I was sitting at my table (slams hands onto table) . . . back in my place . . . eaten up by nightmares . . . the worst type . . .

Psychiatrist (Interrupting): The worst type?

Sergeant: Yeah Captain . . . the worst type . . . the ones that don’t go away even when you wake up . . . That night I was jumping out of my skin . . . Couldn’t get back to sleep . . . So I had a few shots of whiskey . . . The booze didn’t help . . . Never does . . . Kept on looking around me . . . Kept thinking there were others there . . . Close . . . Real close . . . Moving . . . Whispering . . . in the shadows . . . At first I couldn’t see them . . . And then . . . the shadows started to look like my dead buddies . . . I’m shaking like a leaf (holds up two shaking hands to show psychiatrist) . . . My heart’s pounding like it’s gonna explode in my chest (Clutches joined hands to chest) . . . like a goddamn hand grenade (Opens hands and extends arms to simulate explosion). So much fear. Just want this pain to stop. So I pick up my .45 (makes his right hand look like a gun; rests index finger in palm of left hand) . . . and I just sit there like that . . . looking at the gun (Looks at right hand) . . . thinking if I pull the trigger the nerves will stop. And then I hear my voice somewhere in my head saying, “This is crazy!” . . . so I just call up HQ to get me to the hospital . . . fast! Funny thing is . . . if I hadn’t been in Intelligence, I wouldn’t have had a phone. One good thing about being a Nazi-hunter, Captain.
(Momentary silence)

Psychiatrist: You were thinking of ending it all?

Sergeant (Irritated): It wasn’t clear to me what the hell I was gonna do . . . except I needed to get . . . into some place safe . . . like here.

Psychiatrist: You’ve never tried to kill yourself? No family history of suicide?

Sergeant (Even more irritated): No, no, it’s not about suicide. It’s about . . . I can’t fully explain it . . . everything just seems like it’s . . . falling . . .
(Psychiatrist nods, another silence.)

Sergeant: All my nightmares are the same . . . They’re all about falling . . . Everything around me is falling . . . EVERYTHING BUT ME (Raised voice) . . . I see my buddies falling . . . Sometimes they just crumple and fall to the ground right where they are hit . . . Sometimes they’re blown fifty or sixty feet up in the air . . . then come falling back down . . . in bits and pieces . . . arms . . . legs . . . tangles of guts . . . heads . . . falling . . . (Pauses). There’s more . . . do you want me to continue?

Psychiatrist: Please do, that’s why I’m here . . . to listen to you and to help.

Sergeant (Pauses to gather his thoughts): When we came off the beaches . . . inland . . . we discovered a few of our guys who’d been dropped in a few nights previously . . . goddamn awful sight . . . to see them still hanging from their parachutes . . . caught up in the trees before they hit the ground . . . I keep seeing them . . . One of them was strangled by the parachute ropes twisted around his neck and the other guy had been used for target practice . . . goddamn riddled to shreds. They were too high for us to even cut them down . . . so we left them there. Dangling . . . hanging . . . falling . . . like these puppets I once saw hanging in a shop window when I was a kid. I keep thinking of these guys jumping out of the planes and never making it to the ground . . . It’s like they’re still falling . . . falling for eternity . . . Don’t even know what the hell that even means (Pauses) . . . There’s more. (Pauses again. Psychiatrist opens his right hand indicating to Simon to continue.) Then up in Hurtgen . . . when we thought we were safe in the forest . . . the Germans started firing shells that exploded up in the tree tops . . . so that the falling branches . . . big as goddamn telegraph poles . . . came crashing down on top of us . . . with leaves and branches on fire and jagged points where they’d been ripped from the tree trunks . . . falling in volleys like giant cocktail sticks . . . sticking guys into the ground through their chests and bellies . . . sometimes as they stood there . . . looking up . . . to see what was falling. WHOOOSH . . . right through the kisser (Pauses). When I’m not seeing my buddies falling . . . in the water . . . on the sand . . . in the trenches . . . out of the goddamn sky . . . I’m seeing bombs . . . and bridges . . . and churches . . . you name it, I’ve seen it blown up and fall down (Pauses). Came over here with three thousand guys . . . only a thousand of us left to tell the tale (Pauses). Hurtgen was a fucking disaster movie . . . Pardon my French, Captain . . . (Psychiatrist waves hand to dismiss). The Germans were well dug in . . . tough as fucking hell. And if the constant shelling and gunfire and falling trees didn’t kill you . . . the freezing cold was sure trying hard to . . . It was like being locked up in a goddamn freezer there. We didn’t even have the right coats. Guys just shivered to death. The Brass had no idea what they had got us into. But I kinda handled it OK . . . it was no worse than what a lot guys were going through.

Psychiatrist (Interrupting): Tell me about Dachau.

Sergeant: I was coming to that (Pauses, gathers his thoughts, shifts nervously in his seat). Mind if I? (Points to jug of water.)

Psychiatrist: Sure (Sergeant pours a glass of water-shakily).

Sergeant: When we arrived there . . . there were bodies everywhere . . . thrown into piles . . . twisted . . . mangled . . . some half-eaten by dogs and vermin . . . corpses starved to death with bones sticking out through the skin . . . heads like skulls . . . covered in sores and scabs . . . teeth ripped out . . . bullet holes in the backs of heads . . . throats slit open . . . some half-burned . . . rats squeaking and scurrying around inside rib cages and bellies . . . goddamn awful (Pauses). When the bulldozer we had broke down, we made the SS guards put the bodies into the pits . . . I can still see them throwing the dead from the trucks . . . One guard would grab the legs . . . another the arms, then they’d swing the body back before flinging it into the air . . . one by one . . . falling into their final resting place . . . sometimes the bodies collided with other bodies that had been thrown in at the same time . . . I can still see them falling . . . one after another . . . men . . . women . . . children . . . falling. We should’ve made those bastards show more respect . . . but the stench was so goddamn awful that we just let them . . . if it meant getting them buried as fast as we could. And I’m all the time wondering, “Why them and not me? Why them and not me?” Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat, and all I can remember are severed arms and legs and rotting corpses and flaming tree branches and church steeples and factory chimneys and bombs . . . falling . . . falling . . . falling. Everything falling around me . . . EXCEPT ME (Raised voice) . . . like I’m the goddamn epicenter of the hurricane . . . Do you have an answer to that?
(Psychiatrist sits still, does not answer the question.)

Psychiatrist: How long have you felt this way?

Sergeant: I was OK up until Dachau . . . I suppose I bottled it up. Then I saw what those bastards did . . . it all fell apart . . . literally. You’ve seen the survivors?

Psychiatrist: Yes, I’ve seen some of them . . . in the main hospital. Horrifying. Tell me more about your experience there.

Sergeant: Horrifying. That’s the right word, Captain. Just piles and piles of bodies . . . burned . . . rotting . . . diseased . . . and the living . . . skeletons . . . zombies . . . with numbers tattooed on their stick-arms (Pulls up left shirt sleeve and points to inside of left arm). And I’m thinking “I’m a Jew . . . I could’ve had a number tattooed on. This could be me” (Pauses). You know they had Catholic priests there? The priests who came out against the Nazis? They tortured and killed them too. You’re a Catholic, Captain . . . so you can guess how I felt. And there was the stench. You could live a lifetime and never really get that smell of rotting and burning flesh out of your nose. I kept on puking my guts up . . . it was so goddamn awful.
(Momentary silence)

Sergeant: Here’s another scene that really sticks . . . Paris. We were interrogating Nazi collaborators . . . Had this one guy . . . but we weren’t sure about his role . . . so we let him go . . . You just couldn’t catch everyone . . . there were so many . . . so you only caught them if you were sure. Anyway, there was a crowd waiting outside our building . . . and when he left . . . they were on him. Beat him to death . . . just tore him apart like dogs . . . nothing we could do except watch . . . Heard afterwards we’d got him mixed up with someone else . . .

Psychiatrist: Nothing can prepare a man for any of that. (Pauses) You were drafted?

Sergeant: Yeah, in ’42. Took me out of Columbia. Was studying to be a writer. Got the draft notice . . . they put me in Intelligence ’cause I know German. We were supposed to catch Nazis. . . and weed out the collaborators

Psychiatrist: And what did your family think about your going over?

Sergeant: They were for it. Scared, but for it.

Psychiatrist: Tell me about them.

Sergeant (Sarcastic tone): I figured we would get to this part . . . eventually.

(Psychiatrist shows no emotion, nods.)

Sergeant: You’re not from New York, are you?

Psychiatrist: Kansas. Farm boy.

Sergeant (Smiles): My neighborhood’s pretty far from Kansas. Kind of ritzy. East Side. There’s a building on Park Avenue we call “The Freud Hotel.” Must be fifty shrinks in there . . . couches . . . oriental rugs . . . African masks. You guys crack me up with the Freud-worship thing. You might wanna set up shop there . . . after the war that is. Half my parents’ friends are patients there . . . not mine though. They don’t think they need it.

Psychiatrist: Do they?

Sergeant: Maybe . . . don’t we all? (Pauses) Guess I should start with my mother, right? I know you guys think, “If it isn’t one thing, it’s your mother” . . . the root of all love . . . the root of all that screws you up as well . . . (Pauses) But my mother’s all right. (Psychiatrist smiles) In fact she grew up Catholic. Converted to Judaism . . . for love . . . to marry my father. She’s a real Jewish mother. Already knew all about guilt from Irish nuns . . . so joining The Tribe wasn’t a big leap for her . . . Makes a good pot roast too . . . loves bagels and lox and gefilte fish more than my old man. He’s in business . . . manufactures coats. (Takes on an expression of disgust.) Making a fortune off government contracts. He won’t admit it . . . but he’s cooking the books. Has a two-floor factory downtown on Broadway and Houston (pronounces as “Howstun”). He’s always telling me, “Simon, the business of America is business.” He wants me to work with him when I get back to the States. No way . . . I’m gonna be a writer.

Psychiatrist: Writing must be a tough business.

Sergeant (With an expression of disdain): I won’t make the kind of dough my father makes. (Brightens) I’ve had some stories published, and I’ve been working on a novel. (Laughs). Yeah, it’s gonna be the Great American Novel. Brought the first chapters over in my kit . . . on D-Day. Got Omaha Beach sand between the pages to prove it. I’ve written some more since I’ve been here. Maybe your sodium-whatever-it-is even helped, Captain (Smiles). Anyway it’s gonna be a sad little comedy about a prep school boy on Christmas vacation. (Pauses). This is gonna sound a little crazy . . . but there were times we were being shelled and I’d be under a table . . . writing about flunking exams and college ice-hockey and making out with girls. Somehow, all the commotion helped me focus on something a million miles away . . . or maybe it’s being close to death that sharpens the senses. (Pauses) You know, they drilled us for months to get us ready for D-Day . . . (Looks angry) . . . but they conveniently forgot to tell us about what it was gonna be really like when the shit hit the fan . . . excuse my expression, Captain (Psychiatrist waves hand to dismiss). They never told us about how you’d be pissing in your pants in the landing craft before you hit the beach . . . or how you might drown under the weight of your own goddamn gear . . . or get cut in two by a Gerry machine gun before you’d even set a foot on dry land . . . or how you’d be cursing all the time under your breath at the lieutenant screaming at you from behind “Keep moving”! “Keep your heads down!” “Keep moving!” Keep your heads down!” as you scrambled blindly up the beach . . . through a blizzard of cross-fire . . . covered head to toe in the gasoline and blood that floated on the top of water like scum . . . (Pauses, re-focuses). Wrote a story about landing on D-Day . . . wrote it in Paris in a hotel . . . when I’d run out of steam on the novel . . . I can give you the gist of it if you are interested.

Psychiatrist: Sure . . . I’m interested.

Sergeant: It’s about this character, an army chaplain, who’s been hit in the face with shrapnel and had both his eyes ripped out . . . Now he’s crawling around in the sand . . . on his hands and knees . . . crying out that he can no longer see . . . Has no idea where the hell he is . . . Before this all happened this padre had 20/20 vision and could once see the work of God in all creation . . . now he’s one of the lost sheep himself who’s totally fucking blind. (Pauses) Begs an answer to the question, Captain, “Where the hell is God? . . . Doesn’t matter to me if he’s Catholic or Jewish . . . Just like to know where he’s been hiding out when a lot of people have been looking for him . . . This goddamn war sure makes you wonder about things like this. (Pauses again, lightens up his tone) There was another good thing that happened in Paris . . . apart from writing the story.

Psychiatrist (Interrupting): Glad to hear.

Sergeant: I met Hemingway at the Ritz . . . He was covering the war for Collier’s . . . We drank champagne together, and he read some of my stuff . . . Said I showed real promise. Said to look him up when I get back home. One other thing he said to me that stuck was “Write for yourself, buddy, and forget about everyone else.” That meant more to me than anything I’d ever learned at Columbia. Gave me real inspiration to hear that. It’s what I want to do . . . more than anything else . . . more important to me that this whole goddamn war. (Pauses, looks away, looks down, fidgets, then looks directly at the psychiatrist). I’ve gone on for too long. Are you going to write me up as crazy? I don’t want to go home and be the crazy writer. They never publish nut cases. Drunks, yes . . . crazy guys, no.

Psychiatrist: Crazy? No. What you’re going through, Sergeant, is what we’re seeing in all the units. We’re calling it “Operational Fatigue.” A good rest and getting you home is the best medicine. You’re gonna be okay, soldier.

(Sergeant lets out a deep breath.)

Sergeant: Thanks, Captain . . . that’s a big relief. With shrinks, you never know what they’re gonna say. Lock you in a nut house and throw the keys away.

(Psychiatrist looks at his watch.)

Psychiatrist: You’ve done a good job, Sergeant . . . We’ve covered a lot of ground here today. Is there anything else I should know?

(Sergeant smiles)

Sergeant: Well, yes. I just got married.

Psychiatrist (Surprised): Married?

Sergeant: To a German girl . . . Isolde . . . as in the opera. Met her a few months ago. Brunette. . . a real knock-out beauty. . . love at first sight . . . smart as a whip, too. And oh, the way her perfume smells . . . like rose petals. We talked for hours, all day, every night, looking into each other’s eyes like we’re mirrors for each other. It’s almost like I don’t need to speak and she understands. (Pauses, laughs.) The sex isn’t bad, either. Sorry, Captain.

Psychiatrist (Interrupting): Only glad to hear all’s well in that department, Sergeant!

Sergeant (Pauses, looks away, then makes eye contact with psychiatrist): Some of the guys in the unit who haven’t met her think I’m a kinda traitor . . . refused to sit with me in the NCO’s mess. “Who cares how beautiful she is, you married a German? You’re an American Jew! You don’t think her family knew what was going on in the camps?” Not to mention . . . her parents don’t approve of me. She has an uncle who was a POW in Normandy . . . didn’t like the way we treated him. But Isolde and I don’t care. She’s coming back to the States with me.

Psychiatrist: What do you think your parents will say?

Sergeant (Laughs): You’re marrying a shiksa? A German shiksa? Some of my relatives think I’m crazy . . . but not my mother . . . she seems OK about it . . . maybe it’s something about the way she was a Catholic and became a Jew.

Psychiatrist: And do you think it’s a little crazy?

Sergeant: Yeah, it’s a little crazy, but it feels so good to have someone hold me . . . There was just this moment, Captain (Almost forgetting where he is) . . . this one moment when I fell in love with her. I had just told her about my nightmares . . . about everything falling around me . . . and when I was done, she started to cry . . . and after she had dried her tears . . . she started to whisper . . . in the sweetest voice I’d ever heard . . . like the voice of an angel . . . (Imitating voice)

“Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,

als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten . . .”

(Psychiatrist looks like he doesn’t understand.)

Sergeant: You don’t speak German, Captain?

(Psychiatrist shakes his head to indicate “no”)

Sergeant: It’s a poem by Rilke called “Fall.” I’ll recite it for you in English, if you’d like.

Psychiatrist: It means a lot to you . . . this poem?

Sergeant: It means the world.

Psychiatrist: Then let’s hear it, Sergeant . . . with all that’s going on . . . maybe sometimes we gotta listen to what the angels say . . . (Sits back and listens to Sergeant)

Sergeant (Poetically):

“The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,

as if orchards were dying high in space.

Each leaf falls as if it were motioning ‘no.’

And tonight the heavy earth is falling

away from all other stars in the loneliness.

(Sergeant’s voice fades as his wife’s comes in, overlapping Sergeant’s voice and finishes the poem)

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.

And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands

infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.”

 

(Lights fade to blackout.)

MORE ABOUT Richard M. Berlin, MDon next page >>

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"52403","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_9211399910818","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"6503","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"177","media_crop_scale_w":"150","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"font-size: 13.008px; float: right;","title":"","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]About 8 months ago, I received an email from a complete stranger: Irish physician (obstetrician) and playwright, Chris Fitzpatrick. Chris told me about his background in literature and the arts, that he had read my poetry (including a poem about poet Paul Celan’s suicide [http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/treating-paul-celan]), and invited me to collaborate with him on writing a play about the Holocaust to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.

My first response was to look in the mirror and do the Robert De Niro scene in Taxi Driver: “Are you talkin’ to me? There’s no one else here, so you must be talkin’ to me.”

I have never written a play and had never even thought about writing a play, much less, a play about the Holocaust. But over the next month, Chris sent me his rough outline of the play, how he imagined my contributions as a poet and psychiatrist, and I dived in head first. Working entirely by email communication (a story in itself!), we have finished a very solid draft (2 acts, 14 scenes, 3.5 hours running time), and have started to submit scenes for production by various theater companies.

Chris and I are also collaborating on a musical score with Mark Ludwig, an internationally renowned viola player with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the President of the Terezin Music Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation of the music created at the Terezin concentration camp. The Nazis imprisoned great musicians and composers from all over Europe in Terezin, allowed them to write and perform, showed off the camp to the Red Cross as evidence of how well they were treating the Jews, and then sent the prisoners for execution.

Our play (working title, The Fall) is inspired by the lives of J. D. Salinger and Primo Levi, 2 writers whose lives were shaped by the Holocaust. Salinger landed on D-Day with a few chapters of The Catcher in the Rye in his kit bag and ended up participating in the liberation of camps near Dachau. He developed what we would call PTSD and required treatment in an Army psychiatric hospital in Nuremberg. Levi was an Italian chemist and writer who was imprisoned in Auschwitz during the last year of the war, survived, and wrote a first-person account of his experience. For the rest of his life, Levi worked as a chemist in a paint factory, wrote fiction, and continued to write about the Holocaust. He suffered from recurrent depression, had psychiatric treatment, and at age 67, soon after prostate surgery, fell down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin, Italy. Although he did not leave a suicide note or give any indication he was contemplating suicide, many people believed his death was a suicide. His fall (and all the connotations of falling-in love, the fall from grace, etc) are reflected in the title of the play.

Researching the characters has been fascinating, and writing dialogue (instead of poetry) has been a pleasure and a challenge, especially our 2 scenes with imaginary psychiatric interviews of each character. I thought a great deal about Glenn Gabbard’s work on psychiatrists in movies (especially Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos) and how rarely we are portrayed accurately. Now I understand the challenge when trying to dramatize our work in a way that honors our professional skills while at the same time holding the interest and attention of an audience. I hope we have succeeded.

Disclosures:

Dr. Fitzpatrick is a Consultant Obstetrician & Gynaecologist/Clinical Professor at the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital, Dublin with a significant interest in the Arts & Medicine. Dr. Berlin is Senior Affiliate in Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. E-mail: Richard.Berlin@gmail.com. His most recent collection of poetry, PRACTICE, is published by Brick Road Poetry Press.

The authors are looking for a producer for the play; please contact Dr. Berlin at richard.berlin@gmail.com if you are interested.