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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Investigation

Peter Weiss

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Title: The Investigation
Author: Peter Weiss
Genre: Drama
Written: 1965
Length: 232 pages
Original in: German
Availability: German Library collection - US
The Investigation - US
German Library collection - UK
The Investigation - US
The Investigation - Canada
Die Ermittlung - Deutschland
  • Oratorio in Eleven Cantos
  • The German Library edition is the 1966 translation Jon Swan and Ulu Grosbard translation, as revised by Robert Cohen
  • The other edition, published by Marion Boyars, is the translation by Alexander Gross (see links for excerpts)
  • The German Library edition also includes Marat/Sade (see our review) and The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman (see our review)
  • Based on the Auschwitz trials held in Frankfurt, 1963-65
  • The Investigation had its premiere on October 19, 1965, shown simultaneously on over a dozen stages in both East and West Germany

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Our Assessment:

A- : a stark, haunting drama, deceptively simple in its presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 3/11/1966 Elizabeth Hardwick


  • "The play may be an uncomfortable hybrid, but the concentrated recitation, in detached and precise detail, of the vilest atrocities is an overwhelming dramatic experience, and The Investigation remains for that reason a memorable piece of theater." - Peter J. Graves, in Encyclopedia of German Literature (2000), p. 999

Please note that this illustrative quote chosen here is merely one the complete review subjectively believes represents the tenor and judgment of the piece it is taken from as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual piece by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Investigation is Weiss' ruthless documentary drama of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which he attended. These proceedings, held in 1963-5, are not to be confused with the Nürnberg trials held right after the war. In Frankfurt it was the German government itself that held the war-crimes trial, focussing on the crimes perpetrated at Auschwitz.
       Using the actual testimony of survivors from Auschwitz, testifying as witnesses against those who exploited them and others, Weiss creates a riveting drama. The drama is based on the trial, but Weiss insists that it should not be staged as a courtroom-docudrama:

In the presentation of this play, no attempt should be made to reconstruct the courtroom before which the proceedings of the camp trial took place. Any such reconstruction would, in the opinion of the author, be as impossible as trying to present the camp itself on the stage.
       No names are used in describing the characters -- they appear merely as "Judge", "Witness", "Prosecuting Attorney", "Defendant" -- though the defendants do have corresponding names by which they are called. Weiss shapes the huge amount of material, reducing it to a compelling indictment of what happened at Auschwitz. The play is presented in eleven cantos, beginning with "The Platform" where the trains arrived, proceeding to "The Camp", and ending with two cantos on "Zyklon B" and then "The Firte Ovens".
       The stark, largely anonymous portrayal of this unspeakable evil is very effective. Weiss carefully shaped the text, culling, cutting, and changing very little from the original transcripts to create what is truly a poetic text. His dramatic sense and lyric ear allowed him to create a text that is also literary, and can stand on those merits alone. But of course it is much more.
       An important contribution to the literature about World War II, and an impressive drama in its own right.

       The Investigation also comes across better in translation than the marred Marat/Sade (because of how language is presented and used in the play). The translation in the German Library edition is that of Jon Swan and Ulu Grosbard, as revised by Robert Cohen; there is also a translation by Alexander Gross (see links for excerpts). This German Library edition is the first complete translation of Weiss' definitive version of the play.

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The Investigation: Reviews: Peter Weiss: Other works by Peter Weiss under Review: Works about Peter Weiss under Review:
  • Werner Schmidt's biography, Peter Weiss: Leben eines kritischen Intellektuellen
Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of Drama at the complete review
  • See also the Index of German literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Peter Weiss (1916-82) was born in Germany. A remarkable artist, he was a talented painter who then turned to writing. Only slow to achieve recognition with his fiction he burst onto the international scene with the stunning success of his play, Marat/Sade. Winner of many West and East German literary prizes, he was also the author of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, the most important German novel since The Tin Drum.

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