Brecht: from Hitler to Hollywood

 

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Bertolt Brecht

In the eyes of many, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was one of the great modern playwrights. He has been called “without a doubt the most important and influential dramatist of the twentieth century worldwide.” He was a central figure in the culture of the Weimar Republic – in other words, 1920s Germany, the Germany that was still reeling from the loss of World War I, that was struggling with economic depression and hyperinflation, and that had been plunged into in political confusion by the advent of Communism on its eastern border and the effort to maintain a working democratic government in Berlin in the face of a rising tide of Nazism. The Threepenny Opera, his 1927 collaboration with composer Kurt Weill (it included the famous song Mack the Knife), was the most successful German theatrical event of the decade.

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Max Reinhardt

Brecht’s plays – the first of which was produced in 1922 – were outrageously experimental and aggressively political. Working with legendary producers Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, Brecht spat in the face of the very concept of the “well-made play,” the sympathetic hero, the happy ending. Indeed he spat at a broad range of human concepts and behaviors, such as ordinary decency and respectability and honor. But one thing he didn’t spit at was the Soviet Union. After he’d spent some time reading Marx and following the actions of the Kremlin, Brecht became a Communist, and in his plays he celebrated collectivism, dictatorship, the idea of a strongman ruling over his subjects through the use of terror.

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Berlin premiere of The Threepenny Opera (1929)

Then, in 1933, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. The night after the Reichstag fire, Brecht hightailed it to Prague. (As the critic John Simon has put it, “Brecht…like the heroes of most of his plays, was no hero.”) Hitler banned his plays. Meanwhile Brecht, as one account puts it, “bounced around from Prague to Vienna to Zurich to the island of Fyn to Finland.” In May 1941, his U.S. visa came through and he fled to the New World. Like many European artists and intellectuals who had a Nazi target on their backs, he settled in Santa Monica, California, and tried to make a career as a Hollywood screenwriter.

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Brecht’s house in Santa Monica

That didn’t work out. Part of the reason was that Brecht, a radical propagandist with a consistently offbeat approach to drama, was the last playwright in the world who could conceivably be capable of writing a marketable Hollywood movie. Another part of the reason was that Brecht’s contempt for Hollywood – where he stayed for a total of six years – knew no bounds. Having escaped a country in the grip of Nazism, he despised the place he had come to and had no gratitude whatsoever toward Americans for having taken him in. Exemplary of the gulf between Brecht and the movie studios – and, for that matter, with American audiences – was the fact that he actually wanted to make a movie based on the Communist Manifesto. 

More tomorrow.

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