'Brecht': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
This revolutionary will be televised.

Director Heinrich Breloer mixes drama with documentary in his marathon TV biopic of radical playwright and leftist icon Bertolt Brecht.

Bertolt Brecht was lucky there was no #MeToo movement active at the peak of his mid 20th century fame. That is the main take-home message from writer-director Heinrich Breloer's gossipy but bloodless three-hour TV biopic of the revolutionary dramatist, which had its prestige big-screen premiere at the Berlin film festival last week, with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in attendance. Despite its heavy focus on Brecht's behind-the-scenes bed-hopping antics, Breloer's epic Germany-Austria-Czechoslovakia co-production seems oddly coy about exploring his political and artistic radicalism.

Interweaving glossy dramatic scenes with interview clips featuring former Brecht associates, some specially shot and others dredged from the archives, Breloer provides a wealth of material but never quite breathes life into his charismatic, contradictory subject. The blend of fictionalized and documentary elements is often deftly done, with interlaced scenes that rhyme and chime like music. But otherwise Brecht is thoroughly conventional and strangely un-Brechtian in style. Set to air on German and French TV next month, this solidly middlebrow armchair-theater marathon could potentially land on big or small screens in other markets largely thanks to Brecht's towering cultural reputation — especially since, remarkably, this is his first-ever full biopic treatment.

The first 90-minute chapter of Brecht is dedicated to the young playwright (Tom Schilling) and his rise to fame, from precocious schoolboy poet in rural Bavaria to literary shooting star in Weimar-era Berlin. Convinced of his own genius from an early age, he is also a serial womanizer who casually ditches fiancee Paula Banholzer (Mala Emde) to marry Marianne Zoff (Friederike Becht). He then discards both to live in the bohemian Berlin loft apartment of actress Helene Weigel (Lou Strenger), who becomes his second wife and lifelong creative partner.

Brecht has children with all three women, but has little time for fatherhood as he is too busy pinballing between various lovers while tirelessly promoting himself as the new boy wonder of German theater. Fortunately for him, the critics agree and he scores major breakout success with The Threepenny Opera in 1928. But just as his domestic notoriety as a polemical left-wing dramatist is exploding, the Nazis come to power, and he wisely escapes into exile.

Jumping ahead almost 20 years, the second act of Brecht stars Burghart Klaussner (The White Ribbon, Bridge of Spies) as the older playwright and Adele Neuhauser as Weigel. As Marxist idealists committed to the world-changing promise of Soviet Communism, the couple return from U.S. exile and open their own theater company in East Berlin, the fabled Berliner Ensemble, under the wary patronage of the political authorities. There they stage significant productions of later plays, including Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Life of Galileo.

While mostly turning a blind eye to East Germany's authoritarian regime, Brecht fully exploits his powerful position to continue his sexual adventures with young assistants and actresses. He finally pushes Weigel to breaking point when his Danish former mistress, the mentally fragile Ruth Berlau (Trine Dyrholm), turns up in Berlin with hopes of rekindling their old romance. This second section is slightly hobbled by its ungainly chronological structure, flashing back to Brecht's American exile from the depths of his postwar Berlin period with scant narrative logic.

Breloer's decision to concentrate on Brecht's private life would be a perfectly valid artistic choice in the right hands, particularly given its timely feminist angle of giving credit to the women who enabled his stellar career behind the scenes. But this soapy, sexed-up approach is rendered somewhat impotent by the fact that neither of the male leads radiates any of the erotically charged, Machiavellian magnetism that the real Brecht must have possessed. The boyishly bland Schilling seems to be auditioning to play Harry Potter while Klaussner has a creaky grandfatherly stiffness, perhaps inevitable for an actor almost 20 years older than the man he is portraying. 

The most entertaining and illuminating clips here are the interviews with former girlfriends and associates, who mostly appear to be still entranced by Brecht's guru-like power long after his death, even as they challenge his moral failings and self-aggrandizing lies. If only Breloer could have shone more light on why such a deeply flawed man inspired such ferocious loyalty. These juicy morsels will leave many viewers with a nagging suspicion that Brecht would have worked much better as a full-blooded literary documentary rather than a ploddingly literal docudrama.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Special)
Production companies: Bavaria Fiction, Bavaria Filmproduktion Koln
Cast: 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, Paula Banholzer, Walter Groos, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Theo Lingen, Martin Popper, Egon Monk
Director, screenwriter: Heinrich Breloer
Producers: Corinna Eich, Jan S. Kaiser
Cinematographer: Gernot Roll
Editor: Claudia Wolscht
Production designer: Christoph Kanter
Music: Hans Peter Stroer
Sales company: Bavaria Meida, Geiselgasteig
187 minutes