Bertolt Brecht’s grim tale of a woman for whom war is a source of income is committed to film with the definitive cast from Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in East Germany.
There have been many anti-war plays over the years, but none so well-regarded as Bertolt Brecht’s classic Mother Courage and Her Children (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder). Brecht wrote it in 1939, but kept tinkering with it right up until his death in 1956. Its themes of exploitation, forced migration, and the futility of and foolishness of attempting to stay neutral, Mother Courage remains as powerful today as it was when he wrote it.
The play is the story of Anna Fierling (Helene Weigel), who calls herself “Mother Courage.” The action takes place during the Thirty Years War and Anna makes her living by traveling across the war-pocked landscapes, selling goods to the soldiers. She doesn’t much care whether a soldier is a Catholic or a Protestant, as long as she’s making a profit. She has three children—Eilif (Ekkehard Schall), Kattrin (Angelika Hurwicz), and Schweizerkas (Heinz Schubert)—who travel with her across the battle-scarred countryside. At the beginning of the play her children are there to help her sell her wares, but by the end, she’s alone, still dragging her wagon from battle to battle.
There had been previous attempts to commit the definitive version of Brecht’s play to film. Wolfgang Staudte—who directed The Murderers Are Among Us, the first DEFA film—began working on a film adaptation in the early fifties, but he didn’t get along very well with Weigel, or the government in East Germany for that matter. He moved to West Germany and released an unfinished, abridged version of the play through Pandora-Film Stockholm. It featured Helene Weigel in the lead and Simone Signoret as camp prostitute Yvette Pottier. Part of the problem came from the very structure of the play. Brecht didn’t want people to identify or sympathize with Mother Courage—or anyone else in the play, for that matter, he wanted people to think about the issues the play presents.
The other problem was that Brecht and Weigel wanted the play’s theatrical aspects to remain intact. Transferring any play to film is a tricky proposition. As David Mamet once noted, movies are all about visual information, while plays are about the words. Any time you convert a play to a movie, you run the risk of ending up with a film that is far too talky to make for a good cinematic experience.1 Directors Peter Palitzsch and Manfred Wekwerth were theater directors, so they stayed faithful to the play and Brecht’s staging, but at the cost of creating an actual movie. (more on this later).
It’s generally agreed that Helene Weigel gave the definitive performance of Mother Courage. It’s a tricky part to pull off. On the one hand, she must be charismatic and interesting enough to carry the play. On the other hand, Brecht never wanted audiences to fully side with her. She was, after all, making a living off the carnage of war. In one moment, she’s making cogent observations about the folly of war, then celebrating how lucrative war can be. She’s neither likeable nor detestable. Weigel pulls this off, but even here, Brecht was disappointed with East German audiences for not recognizing Mother Courage’s criminality.
While not a musical in the same sense as Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, there is incidental music and a few songs in Mother Courage. These were written by Paul Dessau. Dessau was born into a musical family and who, after World War I, worked as a conductor and a Kapellmeister at various German theaters. He was also Jewish, which meant he had to get out of the country quickly when Hitler came to power. Like Brecht and Eisler, he went to the United States, and, like Brecht and Eisler, fled to East Germany when the House on Un-American Committee (HUAC) chased everyone suspected of being a communist either into hiding or out of the country.2
Cinematographer Harry Bremer got his start shooting Der Augenzeuge shorts for DEFA. These shorts were the East German equivalent of the Movietone News and March of Time newsreel that were shown before movies during the forties and fifties and later on television. He also shot several full length documentaries and movie versions of the Berliner Ensemble’s adaptation of Erwin Strittmatter’s Katzgraben and an adaption of Maxim Gorky’s Mother. Mother Courage was the last feature film that Bremer shot.
Since the film was shot in Totalvision, DEFA’s equivalent to Cinemascope, there’s a danger of missing important details on the first viewing. Film directors know this, and factor it into their movies allowing for new discoveries with each viewing. Palitzsch and Wekwerth, however, want to make sure that nothing is missed on the first viewing. They use a few cinematic tricks to focus the viewer’s attention on specific details, narrowing the screen size down to specific details to avoid having the viewers become distracted by other details on the screen, but even here it seems more like they are engaging in a cinematic equivalent of a spotlight. In one scene, where there are different activities on each side of the stage, they employed a split-screen, but blurred the center, creating a weird effect, where a crucifix blurs into Mother Courage’s wagon. There are only a few actual close-ups and virtually no cross-cutting At one point, the camera focuses on the rotation platform on which Mother Courage’s wagon is riding to show the viewer how it was actually staged by the Berliner Ensemble. In this respect, Mother Courage succeeds better as a record of the Ensemble’s performances of the play than it does as a movie.
The one exception is the scene with Kattrin on the roof, which has a nice, dynamic power to it and is well staged. Here, at last, we see a scene the way no theater audience could and it’s the most powerful scene in the film. Too bad they didn’t figure this out earlier.3
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1. Mamet encountered this problem himself when he tried to make a film of his play Oleanna. It’s a great play, but not a very good movie.
2. Being a member of the Ku Klux Klan, on the other hand, was perfectly acceptable. Nearly a dozen U.S. senators were sheet-wearers, along with at least one Supreme Court judge (Hugo Black).
3. I suspect this film was shot in sequence. The directors seem to get more cinema savvy as the film progresses.
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