A documentary about a play written by a man whose work revealed and manipulated the artifice of theater? How very Brechtian.
John Walter’s new film, Theater of War, traces the 2006 Public Theater production of Bertolt Brecht’s play “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Meryl Streep headlined the production as Mother Courage, an opportunistic war profiteer who makes a living off the Thirty Years’ War, but loses all her children in the process. The production received mediocre reviews that criticized the show’s uneven tone and heavy-handed attempts to create the “alienation” Brecht championed – what he called Epic Theatre. Brecht believed that a theatrical experience should never be so enrapturing, so convincing, that the audience believes the action on stage is real; rather, by using certain performance techniques, the audience should remain aware of the gap between performance and reality, allowing them to examine and learn from the characters’ decisions. Thus, a movie documenting the theatrical process seems perfectly suited to Brecht’s vision. For theater-geeks and Brecht-enthusiasts, Theater of War offers insight into the playwright’s biography, particularly his interest in Marxism, and compelling commentary from the ever-thoughtful and intelligent Streep. Unfortunately, the film also gets tangled up in the same theory-driven construction that plagued the New York production.
Cultural critics continually lament the tepid revolutionary energy of contemporary America. Where are the protests, the febrile spirit of dissent? In the summer of 2006, while there may not have been the organized outcry of Vietnam, the Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis used the tradition of political theater to voice opposition. As wars were fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, audiences gathered in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater to see a new translation of “Mother Courage” written by Tony Kushner and directed by George C. Wolfe – no doubt attracted by Streep’s star power. But who cares if they came for the celebrity sighting? Once in their seats, they were forced to confront the play, which as Kushner explains, doesn’t simply condemn war, it asks “What attracts us to war?.”
Walter structures the film in five acts, beginning each with a title image, a familiar Brecht technique. For Brecht, titles dissolve suspense; prior to the scene in which Mother Courage’s daughter is killed, part of the title card reads, “January 1636... Mother Courage loses her daughter and trudges on alone. The war is a long way from being over.” For Walter, the titles are an organizing device, one that’s neither helpful nor distracting. “Act 4 In Search of Bertolt Brecht” tells us that this section will focus on Brecht and little else. Walter tries to mirror the Brechtian style, but his method lacks purpose.
The film’s score is more effective. “Mother Courage,” like many of Brecht’s plays, features a handful of songs, most notably “The Song of the Grand Capitulation” in which Courage sings to a young soldier about the futility of dissent. The music is yet one more way to heighten the artifice of the experience. Robert Miller wrote music for the film that’s impossible to ignore. It’s not meant to fade into the background, creating subtle ambiance. Dissonant and repetitive, the score (and sound design by Felix Andrew) beautifully lays bare the theatrics of the movie. This is a documentary, a version of reality, but it is not reality itself.
In addition to interviews with the cast and crew of “Mother Courage,” Walter speaks with Tufts University English Professor Jay Cantor, whose dry tone saps his contribution of energy, which is particularly disappointing because he provides the bulk of the information about Brecht’s Marxism, an important thread in Walter’s story. But Carl Weber’s captivating anecdotes compensate. A Stanford University professor of directing and dramaturgy, Weber attended the 1949 production of “Mother Courage” which featured Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife, in the title role. His detailed description of the performance is enhanced by photographs and recordings from the post-World War II, East Berlin production.
To avoid the flatness of filmed theater, Andrew and Walter (who share cinematography credit) shot the production at sharp angles. The framing provides depth and awakens our eyes. But the interviews are filmed in black and white for no apparent reason. Too many “distancing” techniques create a discombobulated pastiche.
Although the Public Theater production stumbled, it nonetheless stimulated conversation about the entwined relationship of money and war. Likewise, despite getting weighed down in the idea of being a Brecht documentary, Walter shapes an interesting story. Mother Courage’s character ends the play as she began it -- her children’s deaths don’t stop her from selling. But she isn’t meant to change, we are. Theater of War is a way for us to think about our participation -- direct or indirect -- in the act of war and the unexpected ways we can protest it. Streep explains that “Mother Courage” gave her “an organism to speak through” because, as she explains, “We all profit from the war, we all live on its profits, whether we admit it or not.”