Friday, February 27, 2009

The Hollywoodification of Bertolt Brecht

A few days ago I saw Fritz Lang's 1943 film "Hangmen also die". Bertolt Brecht is credited with scripting it. He is called 'Bert' Brecht in the titles. The great American gobbling trick. Gobble up identities. Gobble up cultures. Turn names from trousers into briefs.
The film keeps you riveted to your seat. The script is wound up tight. You don't notice the holes because you're catapulted over them. You are kept in suspense because you want to be in suspense--the delicious pleasure of not knowing when you are certain you'll soon know.
The acting is abominable. Brian Donlevy, as the assassin of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reich protector of German-occupied Prague is a non-starter. Heydrich was assassinated by Czech resistance fighters who parachuted down from a British plane. Keeping to its formula, Hollywood has replaced those proud and passionate fighters with a single hero. Fair enough. But why cast someone who walks and talks like a sleepwalker and is about as expressive as a smooth slate on which no word was every written? Aiding and abetting him is another blank slate, Anna Lee, who plays the daughter of a hostage. Her single expression for all emotions from fear to love is an open mouth and popping eyes.
But let's return to the script. Mr Brecht, was that really your doing? How could you have turned a people's fight into the heroics of a single individual? How could you have allowed his worth to outweigh the lives of the 400 hostages, all members of the resistance, who went to their deaths to keep him alive?
I turned to Brecht himself for an answer and found it on page 259 of his "Journals 1934-1955". Below is one of his many entries on writing for the film.
16 OCT 42
Not a bad week, that: Stalingrad held out, Wilkie in Chunking demanded a second front. US planes joined the attack on Germany--and Wexley and I are working 'to the best of our talents and ability' on the script of TRUST THE PEOPLE (our title). Just now, right before the shooting, Lang hauled poor Wexley into his office and screamed at him behind closed doors that he wants to make a 'Hollywood picture' and shits on scenes that show the people etc. The change in the man, once $700,000 is in the offing, is remarkable. He sits with all the airs of a dictator and old movie hand behind his boss-desk, collecting 'surprises', little bits of suspense, tawdry sentimental touches and falsehoods and takes 'licenses' for the box-office. For an hour or two--I am naturally condensing this--as I sit in my treacherously pretty garden and force myself to read a detective story, I feel the disappointment and terror of the intellectual worker who sees the product of his labours snatched away and mutilated."
Poor Mr Brecht. You should have known this would happen when they called you Bert. Anyway, the good news was that the money you earned from "Hangmen also die", enabled you to write "The Visions of Simone Machard", "Schweik in the Second World War" and your adaptation of John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi". Not your best plays perhaps, but all yours, nevertheless.

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