×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Berlin Film Review: ‘Brecht’

Revolutionary playwright Bertolt Brecht gets the standard-issue TV biopic treatment in this two-parter saved only by 'Reds'-style interviews.

Director:
Heinrich Breloer
With:
Burghart Klaussner, Tom Schilling, Adele Neuhauser

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6358156/

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.

Berlin Film Review: 'Brecht'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), February 8, 2019. Running time: 186 MIN.

Production: (Germany-Austria-Czech Republic) A Bavaria Fiction, Bavaria Filmproduktion Köln, SATEL Film, MIA Film, WDR, BR, SWR, NDR, ARTE production. (Int'l sales: Bavaria Media, Geiselgasteig, Germany.) Producers: Corinna Eich, Jan S. Kaiser. Co-producers: Barbara Buhl, Nina Klamroth, Cornelia Ackers, Sandra Dujmovic, Christian Granderath, Andreas Schreitmüller.

Crew: Director, writer: Heinrich Breloer. Camera (color/b&w): Gernot Roll. Editor: Claudia Wolscht. Music: Hans Peter Ströer.

With: Burghart Klaussner, Tom Schilling, Adele Neuhauser, Trine Dyrholm, Mala Emde, Franz Hartwig, Friederike Becht, Lou Strenger, Laura de Boer, Karolina Horster, Maria Dragus, Anna Herrmann, Oscar Olivo. (German, English dialogue)
Interviews: Paula Banholzer, Walter Groos, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Theo Lingen, Martin Popper, Egon Monk, Barbara Brecht-Schall, Peter Voigt, Barbara Bronnen, Gerhard Gross, Regine Lutz, Manfred Wekwerth, Ulla Monk, Werner Hecht, Hans Stetter, Charlie Weber.

More Film

  • The Good Girls

    Shanghai Film Review: 'The Good Girls'

    The economy’s a mess but Sofía’s hair is perfect in Alejandra Márquez Abella’s “The Good Girls,” a film that is all surface in a way that is not, for once, a negative. The primped, powdered and shoulder-padded story of the fall from grace of a 1980s Mexican socialite is all about buffed and lustrous surfaces [...]

  • ‘Midsommar’ Traumatizes Early Audiences (Who Totally

    ‘Midsommar’ Traumatizes Early Audiences (But in a Good Way)

    Ari Aster can likely cross off “sophomore slump” from his list of many nightmares. Distributor A24 let loose the follow-up to the director’s widely praised, commercial hit debut “Hereditary” with two buzz screenings, which ran simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles on Tuesday night. Response was almost unanimously positive, if not significantly rattled. “Holy [...]

  • Toy Story 4 Forky

    ‘Toy Story 4’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Disney Pixar claims the top spot in spending with “Toy Story 4.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.53 million through Sunday for 1,073 national ad airings on 38 networks. [...]

  • Nicolas Cage

    Film News Roundup: Nicolas Cage's 'Jiu Jitsu' Obtains Cyprus Support

    In today’s film news roundup, Cyprus is backing Nicolas Cage’s “Jiu Jitsu”; “The Nanny” and “Amityville 1974” are moving forward; “Milk” is returning to theaters; and Garrett Hedlund’s “Burden” is getting distribution. CYPRUS REBATE Nicolas Cage’s “Jiu Jitsu” has become the first international film to use Cyprus’ new tax credit-rebate program by filming entirely in [...]

  • Zhao Tao

    Zhao Tao Gets Candid in Kering's Shanghai Women in Motion Showcase Interview

    Zhao Tao is one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese art cinema thanks to her longtime collaboration with director Jia Zhangke, whom she married in 2012. From 2000’s “Platform” to last year’s “Ash is Purest White,” her work has plumbed the moral depths of modern China and brought stories of the country’s drastic change [...]

  • Skyline on the Huangpu River with

    Chinese-American Film Festival Seeks Particular Dialog

    With U.S.-China ties at an ever-sinking low, the Chinese-American Film and TV Festival on Tuesday pledged to improve communications between the two countries —  at a Chinese language-only press conference Tuesday that had few foreigners present. Most attendees who took to the stage to give congratulatory speeches that seemed more intent on heaping praise upon [...]

  • Murder Mystery

    Netflix Reveals Record-Breaking Stats for Sandler-Aniston 'Murder Mystery' Flick

    “Murder Mystery,” the latest Adam Sandler film to debut on Netflix, broke viewing records on the streaming service, the company revealed Tuesday. The film, which is co-headlined by Jennifer Aniston, was seen by close to 30.9 million households in its first 3 days, according to a tweet sent out Tuesday afternoon. 🚨ADAM SANDLER AND JENNIFER [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content