Fantastic Mr. Brecht



On stage and screen, ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ comes to life

On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin that housed the German Parliament was ravaged by fire. When he heard the news, the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht turned to his wife, actress Helene Weigel, and said: “Okay, let’s leave.”

Three short weeks earlier Adolf Hitler had taken over as Chancellor of Germany. In William L. Shirer’s words, “The gutter had come to power.” Dedicated revolutionist Brecht must have foreseen that the Reichstag fire gave the Nazis the green light to move in against not just Germany’s Communists but leftists of all persuasion.

In “Theater of War,” the fascinating if jumbled documentary by John Walter, we now see a dotted-line map of Brecht and Weigel’s hegira, first to Denmark, then to Sweden, then to Finland, to Moscow, to Vladivostok, to Manila, and – finally, on July 31, 1941, to Los Angeles (i.e. Hollywood) in the United States.

Years ago, writing about Brecht’s even more arrant skedaddle – away from the U.S. not 24 hours after he had bamboozled the honorable inquisitors of the House Committee on Un-American Activities – I called him The Cat That Always Lands on Its Feet. In Walter’s film, the playwright Tony Kushner, who worships Brecht, nonetheless pegs him as “a very slippery man.”

It is Pulitzer-winner Kushner who has done the new translation of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” that was staged by the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park in 2006, starring Meryl Streep – a play and a production and a bombshell (Brecht) and an actress (Streep, in the footprints of Weigel) that are the reason for Walter’s “Theater of War.”

Brecht, the hardboiled inventor of a ”theater of alienation” – educating, rather than moving or pleasing an audience – wrote this great but difficult play in 1939 in reaction to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland.

The role of Mother Courage is equally great – a tough, crass camp follower during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, dragging her wagon through shot, shell, and hell to haggle with the troops over the knickknacks and foodstuffs she offers for sale.

This is her income and her survival. Survival at all costs – even at the cost of the lives, one by one, of her three children: an idiot named Swiss Cheese, a thief (Eilif) and a lovely mute (daughter Katrin),

And all of that, and much more, is what is supplied, in speech and in song, grittily, sarcastically, pitifully, greedily, contradictorily, weepingly, scarily, boastfully, despairingly, ragingly, by Ms. Streep under a beat-up military cap cocked over one baleful eye, a “DIVA”-imprinted T-shirt mocking her cinematic fame. It is something to see, and hear. (Kevin Kline pairs with her in a later number.)

It is also thanks to her and to the show’s director George C. Wolfe and Shakespeare Festival director Oskar Eustis – but mostly to her – that Walter and his cameras and microphones were given unprecedented permission to sit in on the daily craftsmanship as well as emotional give and take of rehearsals.

But “Theater of War” ranges far beyond that – for better and, artistically (or thematically), for worse. It wants to be a sort of mini-biography of Brecht, which is well and good, starting with air views of bomb-flattened WW II Berlin, but then rides off in all directions with intercuts of (among much else) an endless wall of skulls in a crypt in Czechoslovakia; the voice of George W. Bush boasting of victory in the war on terror; peace marchers at M.I.T. and elsewhere; Tony Kushner bicycling through Greenwich Village; Oskar Eustis bicycling through Greenwich Village; Vietnam-era peace marchers on bicycles; an H-bomb explosion on a Pacific island; children in the U.S. hiding under their desks: a Goya painting of the horrors of war; the bust of Karl Marx in what I think is Central Park (but may be London), etc., etc.

Then of course there are the talking heads, in particular Kushner, who speaks (also with his hands) to many cogent points about himself, and us, and Brecht, including “that [complex] relationship Jews have to Germany.”

Less stimulatingly if tirelessly is a Marxist teacher and novelist named Jay Cantor, educating us about Brecht’s own lifelong debt to Karl Marx. There’s also a bit too much of Jeanine Tesori at the piano, educating Streep (and us) about Brecht/Weill music.

It is therefore of some relief when the film turns to stills of bits and pieces of the original German production of “Mother Courage” with Weigel in the title role. Supplementing this is one more (but enjoyable) talking head, a gentleman of years named Carl Weber who emerged from an Allied POW camp (where he learned acting) to become one of Brecht’s top assistants.

He tells us, for instance, that “you never, ever … never” discussed anything serious with Brecht. “His sign of approval was laughing.” The photos of a handsome, vital young BB bear this out, as does the testimony of Brecht and Weigel’s daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall.

Out of its pastiche, or mishmash, of all the above, “Theater of War” arrives at its gripping climax of footage from Bertolt Brecht’s 1947 appearance before HUAC, the Honorable J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey (a future jailbird for other reasons) in the chair.

They ask Brecht, flat out, the “Are you now or were you ever?” question. And flat out, cigar in hand, there before the microphones, Bertolt Brecht [1898-1966] answers them: “I was not a member and have never been a member of the Communist Party.”

They ask: “Is it true that you have written a number of revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings?” He answers: “They can be viewed as revolutionary” as he sticks the big fat cigar in his mouth.

And they praise him and thank him and dismiss him.

“Like a comedy written by Brecht,” old Carl Weber jovially remarks. In all the 98 minutes of “Theater of War” no truer words are spoken.

THEATER OF WAR. Directed and edited by John Walter. Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, (212) 727-8110, filmforum.org. Through January 6.