Buried within Heinrich Breloer’s superficial and plodding two-part TV movie about Bertolt Brecht are old and new interviews with the playwright’s collaborators that hold a fascination light years away from the fictionalized elements clunkily re-created for the cameras. For the most part, “Brecht” is exactly the kind of “prestige” biopic one expects from public television, where acting is often arch, dialogue is impossibly dense, and historic personalities have the depth of a mint wafer. Yet extracts from a recent interview with actress Regine Lutz, her eyes lighting up with unfathomably rich memories, convey Brecht’s charisma and impact in ways Breloer’s script can’t get anywhere near. Broadcast will be limited to German-speaking screens.
The movie neatly divides into two roughly 90-minute episodes (screened together at the Berlinale with a brief intermission in-between) and go from his early years up to his death in East Berlin in 1956. While several of Brecht’s revolutionary plays are seen in their gestation periods, too often the focus is on his non-stop sexual conquests. It’s debatable whether the most interesting aspect of the great author’s life was his caddish behavior, but even were the title more accurately changed to “Bertolt’s Women,” it’s all made limp by the simple fact that the two actors, Tom Schilling and Burghart Klaussner, can’t manage to project even a shred of sexual magnetism.
When first seen, Brecht (Schilling) is an insufferably smug young intellectual courting Paula Banholzer (Mala Emde) and writing “Baal.” World War I intrudes, radicalizing the playwright as the carnage leads to revolution. Paula becomes pregnant, but he shifts attentions to actress-singer Marianne Zoff (Friederike Becht), who becomes his first wife and mother of his second child. All this is played out in an expectedly airless style, yet footage from the 1970s or ’80s of Banholzer reading from Brecht’s autobiographical writings and chuckling at the lies adds a welcome dose of reality as well as perspective.
A smidgen of his first play to be produced, “Drums in the Night,” gives no sense of why it made any impact at all, though an overeager critic naturally rushes to the telephone to declare a new era in theater history. As his success grows, Brecht takes up with actress Helene Weigel (Lou Strenger), with whom he has a son before finally divorcing Zoff in a nasty tit-for-tat legal battle that reinforces his most unpleasant characteristics.
The first part more or less ends at “Threepenny Opera,” while the second installment jumps ahead to the post-war period: Brecht (Klaussner) and Weigel (Adele Neuhauser) are in the U.S., and he’s fielding questions from the House Un-American Activities Committee (seen in actual newsreels). The following year he gets an invitation to East Berlin to present “Mother Courage,” and the Brechts move to East Germany, where he’s able to form his own theater troupe, the Berliner Ensemble, to move forward his visionary ideas.
Sorely lacking in this potted history is a sense of why the man took up the Marxist cause so forcefully, and how he squared his utopic political convictions with the brutal reality of communist dictatorship. Breloer doesn’t aim to gild Brecht’s reputation: He’s seen as dismissive of a colleague’s time in the gulag, and unwilling to criticize the East German state following workers’ protests in 1953. There’s even a line from Weigel that half of the award money he receives from the Stalin Prize in Moscow will be sent to a Swiss bank. Failing to develop this aspect, and falling back instead on tired scenes of Brecht’s hysterical mistress Ruth Berlau (Trine Dyrholm), diminishes the man and his significant legacy.
Thankfully, the interwoven interviews, not quite in the style of “Reds,” offer insights completely lacking in the humdrum script. Some, like the one with Banholzer and another featuring Brecht associate Elisabeth Hauptmann, come from the archives, while others were done specifically for the project, most notably that with the luminous Lutz, unafraid to paint her mentor as monster and savior, convinced his genius transcended significant personality flaws. Oddly, Breloer completely ignores the existence of Brecht and Weigel’s son Stefan and barely includes any of the other children, many of whom spent their lives working within their father’s orbit.
As the young Brecht, Schilling is a picture of one-note conceit, while Klaussner musters little enthusiasm for his role. A voiceover predictably fills in information gaps when the deadening dialogue misses an opportunity (which isn’t very often). Visually, both episodes seem satisfied in their ultra-clean, sunny, and unremarkable small-screen aesthetic, while the production design goes in for formulaic recreations, such as a Weimar-era party party where gender fluid creatures wear too much makeup and famous people gather to discuss Art.