GDR lapdog: Brecht’s third act

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Brecht testifying before HUAC

After World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee caught up with Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, who’d fled his native Germany when Hitler took power and spent the war being tortured – namely, by what he saw as the hellish vulgarity of southern California. On October 30, 1947, he appeared before HUAC, accused of having written “a number of very revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings.” While denying  (correctly) that he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, he managed to avoid confessing that he was, in fact, a believing Communist. In any event he ended up being let off the hook, and the next day he left the country.

Almost exactly a year later, he returned to his homeland for the first time in fifteen years, settling in East Germany, where he was lauded as a local hero. For all his theoretical enthusiasm for Communism, however, and his eagerness to accept all the goodies that the Berlin government was prepared to hand over to him, Brecht was cynical enough not to convert the money he’d earned (and continued to earn) in the Free World into into soft Warsaw Bloc currency; instead, he banked his cash in Switzerland – a decision that enabled him to live high on the hog the rest of his life, a beneficiary of capitalist largesse surrounded by people immured in Communist poverty. He also made sure to hang on to an Austrian passport that he’d acquired after the war.

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Brecht with Hanss Eisler, 1950

But none of these lingering links to the bourgeois West kept the East German government from treating Brecht as a national treasure and as an iconic Communist author. In Berlin, he was given his own theater. In 1955, the USSR awarded him the Stalin Prize, its own equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In return, Brecht – who, as we’ve seen, carped constantly about the evils of California sunshine – was an obedient subject of the commissars. Champions of Brecht have emphasized his quiet complaints about various aspects of governance behind the Iron Curtain. These defenders distort the record. Stalin was one of the great monsters of human history, and Brecht had a pretty good knowledge of what he was doing and had done – but he never raised his voice in criticism of Uncle Joe. On the contrary, he outspokenly supported some of Stalin’s most brutal acts.

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Walter Ulbricht

He was, to quote John Simon, consistently “deferential” toward Communist leaders – and cowardly in his readiness to gang up on the system’s victims. Hanns Eisler, composer of the GDR’s national anthem, had a sister who was no fan of Stalin, and Brecht’s verdict on her was heartless and unequivocal: The swine has to be shot.” Brecht’s own wife was Jewish, but he didn’t complain about the Soviets’ treatment of Jews, either. His habit of sucking up to GDR authorities is reflected in a shameless, toadying letter to party leader Walter Ulbricht, written after the armed suppression of a popular uprising: “History,” Brecht wrote, “will pay its respects to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany….At this moment I must assure you of my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.”

Bottom line: however opposed Brecht may have been to Nazism, he chose to sit out the war in America – all the while constantly running down his hosts and neighbors, whose valiant sons were putting their lives on the line to liberate his homeland. And as fierce as his opposition to Nazism, apparently, was his nauseating readiness to kowtow to the Soviet variety of totalitarianism. Brecht – who died in 1956, a year after gratefully accepting the Stalin Prize – ended his life a useful stooge for Communism, as thoroughly barren of heroism as were the characters in his grim, misanthropic plays. 

Brecht’s L.A. inferno

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Bertolt Brecht

Could there be anything more anachronous,” wrote Charles Marowitz about German playwright Bertolt Brecht‘s wartime sojourn in southern California, “than a fiery Marxist and anti-naturalistic poet-playwright making the rounds of Hollywood Studios hawking screen outlines to the likes of the Jack and Harry Warner and Harry Cohn? Brecht in Los Angeles was more than a fish out of water; he was more like a beached whale.”

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The beach at Santa Monica, around the time Brecht lived there

Brecht hated L.A. In a poem, he compared it to Hell – this during the war, while Europe was one big battlefield and slaughterhouse. In southern California, he wrote, “something ignoble, loathsome, undignified attends all associations between people and has been transferred to all objects, dwellings, tools, even the landscape itself.” Apparently missing gray, grungy Berlin, he even accused the L.A. sun of shriveling writers’ brains. One perceptive biographer has described it this way: instead of approaching his new surroundings like a truly inquisitive writer, eager to plumb the heart and mind of a strange new place and perhaps even learn something from the experience and grow as a man and an artist, Brecht didn’t “examin[e] life in America to adjust his model of it” but was instead constantly eager to find things about the city, and the country, that confirmed his Marxist, anti-American biases.

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John Simon

Dante himself could not have found an apter inferno for Brecht than Southern California,” critic John Simon has written, noting Brecht’s view of Tinseltown as “Tahiti in metropolitan form” and his view of America as a nightmare of capitalism, obsessed with buying and selling. In a poem called “Hollywood Elegies,” Brecht wrote: “Every day, I go to earn my bread / In the exchange where lies are marketed, / Hoping my own lies will attract a bid.” He managed to contribute to one film, emigre genius Fritz Lang’s 1943 anti-Nazi tale Hangmen Also Die!, although Brecht didn’t get screen credit.

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Thomas Mann

With few exceptions, the people Brecht met on the West Coast, including fellow members of the emigrant community, couldn’t stand him. The novelist Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), according to Simon, “considered Brecht a party-liner and a monster.” Drama critic Eric Bentley said he lacked “elementary decency.” The poet W. H. Auden, who translated and collaborated with Brecht, labeled him “odious.” For Auden, Brecht was “one of the few people on whom a death sentence might be justifiably carried out”; the poet even added:  “In fact, I can imagine doing it to him myself.” The philosopher Theodor Adorno “claimed that Brecht spent two hours a day pushing dirt under his fingernails to make himself look proletarian; George Sklar called him a ‘real Hitler,’ who reflected the very Germany he had reacted against.” Screenwriter Albert Maltz, a fellow Stalinist, “found him contentiously arrogant and made more repulsive by his bodily stench (he disliked bathing).” British actress Elsa Lanchester, who was married to Charles Laughton and who was no dummy, cannily observed that Brecht “was anti-everything, so that the moment he became part of a country, he was anti-that country.”

Yet while he savaged America in general and southern California in particular, Brecht said nothing negative about the USSR. Thanks to well-off and influential admirers of his work, he had managed to make it to America; but he made no effort to save anybody else from Hitler – or from Stalin.

More tomorrow.

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.