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Raising the Curtain on a Brechtian World

Theater of War (2008)

Michael Daniel/The Public Theater

No matter how one feels about epic theater and the application of dialectical materialism to the art world, there’s no mistaking the enormous, lasting imprint Bertolt Brecht left on all performing arts. One could convincingly make the case, for example, that there would have never been a French New Wave without him or an “Angels in America.” So it’s fitting that the hook director John W. Walter applies to “Theater of War,” his documentary about Brecht’s life, times and legacy, is to follow the development of the Public Theater’s recent production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” which played the second half of New York City’s 2006 season of Shakespeare in Central Park.

It’s fitting because Tony Kushner penned the adaptation, George C. Wolfe directed it, and Meryl Streep played the lead. This confluence of talent helps Mr. Walter’s fascinating film, one of unexpected dramatic power, transcend the dull, talking-head template too often applied to the documentary form. “Theater of War” never functions on less than three compelling levels. It provides candid insight into the enormous challenge of putting on Brecht’s seminal work, it directly engages with the historical record from his immigration to America through the play’s famous premiere performance in East Berlin, and it convincingly links the play’s timeless anti-war message to the global tumult of this decade.

In so doing, the film signifies a particular type of documentary filmmaking at its finest. In the best Brechtian tradition, “Theater of War” entertains without ever sacrificing its grounding in the world beyond the stage and the political significance of the play being rehearsed. While most documentaries would focus on a sliver of what the filmmaker takes on here, Mr. Walter ambitiously transitions through a host of disparate elements in his quest to paint the fullest possible picture of the man and his influence. In so doing, he’s made one of the definitive representations of the ways a canon of work lives and breathes far longer than its maker.


Opens on Dec. 24 in Manhattan.

Directed and edited by John Walter; directors of photography, Felix Andrew and Mr. Walter; music by Robert Miller; produced by Nina Santisi; released by White Buffalo Entertainment/Theater of War LLC. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. This film is not rated.


Great article. Big fan of Bertolt Brecht's work. Thanks

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