He was a Jewish astrologer and hypnotist who purportedly taught Hitler how to control the masses. Erik Jan Hanussen, whose performances of occult magic were the talk of Weimar Berlin, was credited with foretelling the Reichstag fire and the rise of the Nazis. In Ildiko Nemeth’s new play, “Hypnotik: The Seer Will Doctor You Now,” Hanussen (Peter B. Schmitz) returns to life in all his mesmerizing glory. The play opens Dec. 28 at the Theater for the New City in the East Village.
Born Hermann Steinschneider in 1889 to Czech Jewish parents in Vienna, Hanussen posed as a Danish aristocrat in order to curry favor with the Nazis. He leapt to prominence after a sensational mind-reading and hypnosis act at La Scala in Berlin, which jumpstarted his performing career and enabled him to publish lucrative occult journals with astrological columns. But his “prediction” of the Reichstag fire, based on inside information, led to his assassination in 1933.
Hanussen has been the subject of a number of other works, including Mel Gordon’s 2001 book, “Hitler’s Jewish Clairvoyant,” and a 1988 film, “Hanussen,” starring Klaus Maria Brandauer.
“Hypnotik” was directed by Nemeth, and co-written with Colm and Marie Glancy O’Shea. It takes place in Hanussen’s own theater, the Palace of the Occult, in which members of the audience, including a lieutenant (Brandon Olson) and a baroness (Sarah Lemp), get up on stage and are hypnotized by the seer to reveal their darkest secrets. But ultimately the “patients” unmask their supposed liberator and seize power, becoming increasing pathological as they succumb to Fascist ideology.
The playwright, who grew up during the Communist period in post-war Hungary, began her theatrical career as a drama therapist for patients in a Hungarian mental hospital. This led to her play, “Some Historic/Some Hysteric,” which recreated a lecture of Jean-Martin Charcot, a 19th-century French neurologist who publicly “cured” women of hysteria through hypnosis. And in “All Those Beautiful Weimar Girls,” Nemeth showcased the life and career of Anita Berber, a bisexual dancer, poet and prostitute who scandalized interwar Berlin.
In an interview, Nemeth noted parallels between Hanussen’s Palace and contemporary TV shows like “Dr. Phil,” in which guests confess their sins and seek absolution. Hanussen was an “amazing showman,” she said, who exploited people by tapping into what she called the “desperation and euphoria” of the decadent Weimar period.
Author Arthur J. Magida, the author of a just-published book on Hanussen, “The Nazi Séance: The Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle,” said that while Hanussen and Hitler had a “brushing acquaintance,” there is no evidence that Hanussen taught Hitler anything about public speaking. And he could hardly have been clairvoyant, Magida said, since he had “no inkling that the Storm Troopers would come to get him. Hanussen was a fraud. It was all smoke and mirrors.”
“Hypnotik: The Seer Will Doctor You Now” runs through Jan. 15 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.