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FAREWELL, THE (Abschied – Brechts letzter Sommer)(director: Jan Schütte; screenwriter: Klaus Pohl; cinematographer: Edward Klosinski; editor: Renate Merck; music: John Cale; cast: Josef Bierbichler (Bertolt Brecht), Monica Bleibtreu (Helene Weigel), Jeanette Hain (Käthe Reichel), Elfreide Irrall (Elisabeth Hauptmann), Margit Rogall (Ruth Berlau), Samuel Fintzi (Wolfgang Harich), Rena Zednikowa (Isot Kilian), Birgitt Minichmayr (Barbara Brecht); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Gesche Carstens/Henryk Romanowski/Jan Schütte; New Yorker Films; 2000-German-in German with English subtitles)
“A well-acted and quiet character study of Brecht that clearly shows why the author was so tired during his last days, but tells little of his art or politics.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Klaus Pohl is screenwriter while Jan Schütte directs this arty Chekhov-like sincere and straightforward fictional but authentic drama that is revealing about the family life of East German playwright, poet, philosopher and theater producer Bertolt Brecht–known at the time as Germany’s greatest living playwright. Josef Bierbichler plays Brecht, the physically ailing 58-year-old playwright of “The Threepenny Opera,” “Mother Courage,” “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahgonny,” with a convincing air of intelligence, world weariness, and conviction for the complex man. Brecht escaped the Nazis because of his Communist affiliation by moving to Scandinavia and later the U.S., but after 15 years of exile returned to Zurich in 1948 to work on Sophocles Antigone and on his major theoretical work A Little Organum for the Theatre and then to East Berlin in 1949 to run his state-sponsored theater group.

Brecht is set to return to East Berlin to open his new play and is spending the last day of his summer vacation in August, 1956, in his lakeside retreat near the north of Berlin Brandenburg town of Buckow with his overprotective actress wife Helli Weigel (Monica Bleibtreu) who is in charge of the messy household; his glum young adult daughter Barbara (Birgitt Minichmayr), who is first seen torching his favorite cap because she says it smells; Ruth Berlau (Margit Rogall) his embittered aging former Danish mistress, a chain-smoking actress who has been driven to drink and fits of snarling contempt by his inattention; his current young love interests, the nubile skinny-dipping hero-worshiping actress Käthe Reichel (Jeanette Hain) and the married young beauty Isot Kilian (Rena Zednikowa), whose devout self-righteous Marxist hubby Wolfgang Harich (Samuel Fintzi) bridles with anger because he can’t get Brecht to support him in his plans to oust East German Chancellor Ulbricht but doesn’t object to his wife’s affair because he’s not a bourgeois; and, assorted members of his staff (mainly his ex-mistress, secretary Elisabeth Hauptmann, who made significant contributions to his plays). We are led to believe that we could understand the artist better from observing this single day in his exhausting life, as Brecht is far from his acclaimed glory days as a playwright. Brecht is seen consumed by his work and political insights, attentively looking after his young mistresses, acting alternatively like a helpless child, a curmudgeon and a bully as he juggles his harem around demanding no disputes, and does this while suffering from a high temperature, a rasping cough and a sense of inflation over his status as East Germany’s valuable propaganda culture icon.

The secret police have informed Brecht’s wife, unbeknown to him, that at the end of the day they will arrest Wolfgang and Isot for high treason. The Stasi agent, as a favor to the great author, agrees to keep him out of it if Helli keeps silent. As the unkempt Brecht leaves his idyllic cottage, he spats with an angered Ruth who has been denied passage in his car. Three days later Brecht dies, with the up-shoot being that Helli keeps the name of Brecht alive by running his Berliner Ensemble theater group (still state-sponsored) until 1971.

The themes of compromise, creativity, jealousy, loyalty and betrayal are accurately covered but not in a substantial way, as the narrative centers on how the ladies swallow their pride and choose to remain in the company of such a genius even if they suffer greatly from humiliation. This is all accomplished in a snidely humorous way, which might leave you scratching your head about what all the fuss was about if you weren’t aware of Brecht’s stature as an artist.

The viewer becomes like the fly on the wall observing Brecht’s elegant house of dissension, which can be compared to the relationship he worked out with his split country. Brecht is given a pass on his human vices by his adoring ladies (it has been noted he never had less than three mistresses at one time), who fawn over him no matter how much he lets them down. It results in a well-acted and quiet character study of Brecht that clearly shows why the author was so tired during his last days, but tells little of his art or politics. In the little moments it suggests that all Brecht has left after his idealism and personal anger has long subsided, is his wistful memories, the elation felt from a poem recited by a uniformed schoolboy, and the warmth from a lover’s touch.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”