Shira Piven’s The Performance throws us onstage and behind the scenes of a fateful artistic choice. This period drama, adapted from an Arthur Miller short story, follows Harold May, a Jewish tap dancer invited to perform for Hitler himself in 1937 Berlin.
Though initially hesitant, Harold talks his troupe into staying in Germany to stage an elaborate dance spectacle, refusing to acknowledge the rising danger. As swastikas and grand theatrics flood the screen, we’re left pondering our own blurred lines between ambition, identity, and integrity. Would we compromise so much for art and a spotlight too?
Tap Dancing into Danger
Harold May has some fancy footwork, but not enough gigs. We meet this gifted tap dancer in 1936 as he tours Europe with his scrappy dance troupe, desperately seeking paying audiences. Despite their talent, Harold and his team of hoofers – including ladies’ man Benny, closeted dancer Paul, and Harold’s on-off flame Carol – waltz from one stingy club owner to the next.
But in the Balkans, the troupe taps its way into an unusual fan: Damian Fuglar, a soft-spoken German mesmerized by Harold’s skill. He offers the dancers an expenses-paid trip to Berlin’s elite Kick Club, with a handsome payout to perform for a packed theater. Despite Benny’s warnings about Germany’s hostility, dollar signs dance in Harold’s eyes. He convinces the group that his Jewish heritage won’t be an issue – he’s passed for gentile before.
Touching down in Berlin, Harold and company relish VIP treatment from eager hotel staff. As opening night nears, however, the club suddenly shutters. Panic sets in…until Fuglar reveals the coveted “guest of honor” – none other than Adolf Hitler himself. Now, Harold faces a choice: flee or provide the show of a lifetime, even with a monster in the audience. Ambition wins out – refusing danger, Harold talks the hesitant troupe into staying in Germany. As swastikas multiply around them, they begin intense rehearsals for Harold’s swastika-tinged magnum opus, willfully blind to reality’s tap on the shoulder.
“Venture into the dark side of love with our Alice and Jack review, a unique but mostly joyless immersion into the complexities of a tumultuous relationship.”
Balancing Acts: Identity, Art, and Morality
The Performance examines Harold’s balancing act between identity, artistic passion, and moral compromise. To chase his showbiz dreams in anti-Semitic climates, he hides his Jewish heritage to “pass” as gentile – already performing an off-stage role. Meanwhile, Fuglar argues that art “unifies” despite politics. He serves up Hitler’s applause, funding, and facilities – appeasing Harold’s driving question: isn’t any audience better than none?
Harold takes Fuglar’s bait through rationalization and willful blindness. Despite surrounding swastika flags and violence against “undesirables,” Harold convinces himself that the Third Reich couldn’t possibly condone such brutality forever. “These aren’t some freaky moon people,” he declares bizarrely. “They have refrigerators.” Through incremental denial, he talk himself into not just performing for Hitler – but becoming his de facto artistic director.
Ultimately, the film probes: what would we sacrifice at ambition’s altar? How far would we skew identity or minimize injustice to grasp long-denied success? Piven poses these questions not through speeches but through her protagonist’s descent. We cringe as Harold, drunk on attention, continually dismisses danger to his troupe while polishing his swastika-tinged masterwork. The Performance suggests that complicity with oppression often stems not from overt support, but from an inability to cease small surrenders. When normalized, rationalization creeps slowly – much like Harold’s willingness to exploit artistic liberty in Berlin before ultimately trying to tap dance his way out.
Jeremy Piven taps into a career-best turn as Harold, conveying emotional complexity through dance and difficult choices. We watch Harold’s facial ticks and body language communicate internal rationalization costuming his decisions. While best known for snappy comedic roles, Piven’s background in theater serves him beautifully to navigate Harold’s moral minefield. His extensive tap training also gives raw authenticity to Harold’s signature skill, even while dancing with broken ribs.
Equally chilling is Robert Carlyle’s Damian Fuglar, harboring nefariousness in gentlemanly tones. As a failed performer himself, Fuglar lives vicariously through Harold’s art, puppeteering his troupe with contracts and kindness. Carlyle terrifies precisely by underplaying evil as mere devotion – to Hitler, and to producing Harold’s grand artistic vision.
Supporting players establish troupe rapport, but pale beside the central duo. We believe Harold and Carol’s romantic past; Benny and Paul’s personalities provide sparks. But for runtime given to dance sequences, more dimensionality for these backing dancers could better raise the stakes. Still, enough is etched to believe their camaraderie – and make their unraveling behind enemy lines more tragic. What truly captivates is watching Piven and Carlyle toy with truth through art, external success shielding internal instability…until one final revealing performance.
Visual Vibrancy on a Budget
While The Performance tackles weighty ideas, director Shira Piven infuses stylistic verve fitting its song-and-dance spirit. Dynamic camerawork keeps the film’s motion fluid, while rapid editing amplifies both dance spectacle and creeping unease in Berlin. Grimes’ impressive choreography takes center stage, with tip-tapping feet made thunderous through sound design. Production designer Lucia Škandíková also crafts decadent 1930s interiors on a modest indie budget.
Piven took a stylish risk shooting partially with 16mm film alongside digital footage, interspersed with actual 1930s archival material. This fusion of textures casts an immersive, old-world spell while retaining modern crispness in dance segments. Despite financial limitations, creative editing gives dance numbers enthralling dynamism – seen especially in the sinister climax, where glitzy spectacle and trauma collide.
Location shooting in Slovakia fills in convincingly for Berlin, with Ukrainian war refugees included as background extras, poignantly tying past human rights atrocities to those still unfolding. Through crafty design, camerawork, and editing, The Performance squeezes impressive technical mileage from its lean budget. The film’s layers of illusion comment slyly on Hitler’s own staging of political theater – where nothing is entirely as it seems, either onscreen or off.
Relevance Through the Ages
While The Performance pulls its story directly from 1930s history, its themes resonate far beyond that period. The film provokes timeless questions about ambition’s tipping points, identity’s fluidity, and integrity’s grey areas that still speak volumes today.
In mining this moral territory, The Performance joins a long lineage of films grappling with silent complicity and ambition’s costs, from Cabaret to Mephisto. Like its characters, we may flatter ourselves that “it couldn’t happen today” when witnessing their rationalizations. But while its setting may be pre-WWII Berlin, the film holds up a disquieting mirror to human contradictions at any point in history.
Indeed, The Performance lands amidst no shortage of modern stories examining slippery slopes, from exotic dancers justifying problematic policies to celebrities booking controversial private gigs. As Piven’s film underscores, every age brings different “stages” upon which these ethical balancing acts play out.
But certain provocative questions endure across all generations and backdrops, which The Performance poses potently: What prices will we pay for success? How far could we distance ourselves from truth for the sake of survival or status? And if given the chance at forbidden spotlights, would any of us truly refrain from that siren song’s spectacle? By exploring timeless human foibles alongside unique historical horrors, The Performance suggests perhaps not.
For all its glamorous dances and 1930s flair, The Performance contemporary resonance endures. As Piven demonstrates, incremental rationalization rarely announces itself with fanfare – but through palatable concessions mushrooming into calamity.
Harold stands among many artists and entertainers who traded principles for patronage or visibility – some even collaborating actively in oppression. While Piven never equates Harold’s choices to such extreme complicity, she underscores how the path there beginsgradually, fueled by understandable human desires.
Uneven pacing and thinly-drawn players briefly distract. But compelling work from Piven and Carlyle anchor the film’s chilling power. Through them, The Performance emerges a technically impressive period drama on a modest budget – and a disquieting mirror reflecting our own bargaining with ambition. As its finale questions, if given the chance for success by standing silently amid injustice, how long would we dance? And at what cost to our humanity?
By confronting muted complicity’s dangers, The Performance sounds its cautionary horn for dreamers and sellouts alike. Because occasionally, talent and virtue must break from choreography…and tap out their own beat.
The Performance is a haunting, visually vibrant drama that confronts our complex relationship with ambition and integrity. Shira Piven deftly guides an emotionally complex story between the toes of history, brought to life through Jeremy Piven's phenomenal lead performance. Uneven pacing and thinly-written characters dent the shine in moments. But the film's thoughtful themes, technical artistry, and chilling turns from Piven and Carlyle make The Performance impossible to ignore. A confrontational showstopper for our times.
Phenomenal lead performance by Jeremy Piven
Chilling and nuanced supporting turn by Robert Carlyle
Impressive period recreation and visual style on a modest budget
Thought-provoking themes still resonant today
Strong dance choreography and energetic editing
Uneven pacing slows momentum in parts
Supporting characters lack dimensionality
Some plot elements could be developed further