Abschied (The Farewell) (Germany, 2000) ***
Directed by Jan Schutte. Script and dialogue by Klaus Pohl. Photography, Edward Klosinski. Editing, Renate Merck. Set design, Katharina Woppermann. Music, John Cale. Cast: Joseph Bierbichler (Brecht), Monica Bleibtrau (Helene Wiegel), Jeanette Hain (Kathe Reichel) Elfriede Irrall (Elizabeth Hauptmann), Margit Rogall (Ruth Berlau), Samuel Fintzi (Wolfgang Harich). 91 minutes. In German with subtitles. Seen at the Cannes 2000 Festival.
One day in the life of Bertolt Brecht (1898-August 14, 1956), the protean writer whose influence on theater, stage techniques, cinema, literature and more is incalculable. Note that the film does not cover 24 hours but only the daytime hours.
It is the last day of a summer vacation for Brecht, who is in ill health. He has a holiday home north of Berlin, in a beautiful wooded area which includes a limpid lake. With the writer are his wife Helen Weigel; their teen-age daughter Barbara; his heavy-drinking ex-collaborator Ruth; Elfriede his assistant; Kathe, a rising young actress; political dissident Wolfgang Harich (the only other man in the group) and his young wife Isot.
Brecht is a mega-womanizer. The two older female guests had been his mistresses. The younger ones are his current mistresses. Isot even has the consent of her husband. One wonders what other ladyloves are waiting for Bertolt in Berlin. No, it is not a French bedroom farce but a serious work filled with discussions, reactions, antagonisms, alliances, politics, and other subjects and issues, all of which held my undivided attention..
In the late afternoon, the entire household are to drive back to Berlin, where Brecht will put finishing touches to his Caucasian Chalk Circle opening in his theatre. Ominously, a young man from Stasi, the dreaded Stalinist police, shows up to take Harich (the political dissident) back to Berlin, but Helen keeps this a secret from her husband...
1956 was a year full of political confrontations in the Soviet bloc. That's when Khrushchev gave his epoch-making speech criticizing the late dictator Stalin. In the summer, in Hungary, there was a massive popular and nationalistic uprising against the Soviet occupation. There were student protests in Czechoslovakia and Poland., and, in East Germany, for the first time since the end of World War II, voices were raised against the Walter Ulbricht communist regime.
While this widespread turmoil is not persistently spelled out in the movie, it is there as a permanent background reminder which affects the reactions of the charcaters and those of the viewers who are aware of the history and politics of the times.
The film's 91 minutes are a welcome return to the average length of most older movies. These are packed minutes, whether one does or does not realize this consciously.
"Abschied" was not filmed in Germany but in Poland, where its makers could find a remote, bucolic spot not subject to passing traffic sounds, other noises and interferences. Brecht's summer place (villa or datcha) was skilfully built by Polish workers, with removable partitions that helped with the camera movements. The cinematographer is also Polish. Edward Klosinski, one of the best anywhere, has worked with all major Polish directors as well as several Western European ones. In spite of the single location, photography and editing never induce claustrophobia in the characters or the spectators.
This work covers many bases, plays like expanded, aired-out Kammerspiel. Its hero-antihero is shown without any concessions to the man, his admirers, or his legend. Politically dyed-in-the-wool Brechtians may protest, yet whether revisionist or not, this is a strong, intriguing document.
I do not remember the film mentioning it, but Brecht died of a stroke three days after returning to Berlin.