Film: Brecht

Review – Phil Butland

Berthold Brecht was perhaps the most important writer of the 21st Century. He was also a Communist and an Anti-fascist. His second play Drums in the Night was about the Spartacus uprising and he rewrote the Communist Manifesto as a poem. Later, he was forced to flee both Nazi Germany and the United States – the latter after he was charged, alongside the “Hollywood 10” with anti-Americanism.

Heinrich Breloer’s new television film Brecht is an ambitious attempt to show 2 parts of Brecht’s life – as a young writer in Bavaria and Berlin and his last decade in East Germany. With a mixture of drama, archive footage and eye witness interviews, the film tries to emulate the truth of a documentary.

The result is only partially successful. In particular, the first part suffers from a prurient obsession with Brecht’s love life, that is apparently more interesting than his ideas, or how he came to them. Granted, there is a short scene where he is nearly expelled from school because of his opposition to the First World War. But after that, we do not see any political activity from Brecht.

Brecht declares himself to be a Communist, because he has read Marx and Lenin. But we don’t learn anything of the experiences of the medicine student from Augsburg that brought him to such reading material. The largest experiences of the time – revolutions in Russia and Germany – are absent from the film. And as poverty rises in Germany, Brecht observes the growing influence of the Nazis from his attic window.

The second part of the film, which concentrates on Brecht’s complicated relationship with the East German state – is much more interesting. The film shows that he supported East Germany as the “less bad system” (a decision that is easier to take when you own a luxury villa in Weißensee). But this belief was always limited – for example, he kept an Austrian passport, just in case he would ever need to flee.

We see how the actors and workers in Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble had different reactions to the 1953 Uprising (something that Günter Grass looked at in his play “The Plebeians rehearse the Uprising”). Brecht argues that the régime must be defended against Germans who haven’t yet lost their old Fascist ideas. But a worker for the Ensemble ends up at the Stasi jail in Höhenschönhausen because of ideas that are less acceptable to the ruling SED party leadership.

Meanwhile Brecht writes his famous poem in which he advises the government to dissolve the people and elect another. He locks the poem in a desk where no-one can read it.

In the Berliner Ensemble, the “Life of Galileo” is re-staged, this time with a new ending, where Galileo smuggles his writings out of the repressive state. One quote from the play is repeated on several occasions: “’Your hands are tainted’ we said’. You say ‘better tainted than empty’”

This quote explains a lot about Brecht’s attitude. Many characters in his plays, like Mother Courage, or Jaroslaw Haseks Schweyk, who Brecht resurrected for his play “Schweyk in the Second World War”, are opportunists. Survival is more important to them than political principles – “first comes food and then morality” (quote from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera)

You could accuse Brecht of the same. His principles were always flexible. He was the 1920s Communist who could honestly tell the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee that he was never a party member. Similarly he was the East Germany critic whose criticism remained secret. Thus, the second half of the film shows how Brecht’s social being determined his consciousness.

Like many of his characters, Brecht was a flawed hero, not least in his approach to women. Although I do believe that the film spends too much time on Brecht’s various affairs and relationships, at least this shows Brecht’s weaknesses and refrains from depicting him as an unproblematic hero. Not least, we see how Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel often hat to suffer in the shadow of her younger rivals.

Thus we see a flawed Brecht, but one who’s play we can enjoy. Which isn’t a bad start, is it?

Der Film Brecht is running in Germany cinemas until 20 February. On 22 March it will be shown on the arte television channel, and on 27 March on die Ersten channel