Director: John W. Walter
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner
An odd, but ‘must see’ film, Theater of War is a work of art about the staging of an extraordinary work of art, Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children, and the amazing odyssey of the man who created it. The woman, Mother Courage, in Brecht’s play, is both prophetic character and mythic symbol of a detached determination to overcome fear in wartime that ignores deadly consequences. In Walter’s cinematic documentary, the play becomes a character in its own right, immersing its viewers in the magical transport of theater. We watch Brecht’s play turn war into a timeless event that one must resist, to which one must never capitulate.
I read that Brecht went to great trouble to develop techniques of staging to minimize audience emotional identification in order to maximize intellectual condemnation of war. He failed. I, as his many audiences since 1939, was swept into identifying with Mother Courage. He also prevailed. No one can walk away from this film justifying war. As fertile ground as war proves to be for making money, it’s never just another way of doing business. Brecht makes the cost explicit. We lose our children. And so I recommend you take a couple hours, rent Theater of War and see Tony Kushner stage the production of Brecht’s play for The Public Theater in New York City, 2006, with notables, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.
But, be prepared for odd. Odd because there are so many elements spliced in with so many other elements without labels for clarification that time, place and character are elusive. This documentary covers a lot of ground, putting up scenes from Brecht’s play and filming backstage preparations as well as exhibiting historical war photos and mapping Brecht’s exile. In the midst of portraying the captivating work of actors – in particular, Streep immersing herself in the characterization of Mother Courage and attempting to avoid being her very entertaining self when she sings – rather dull professorial classroom lectures appear. In recurrent classes, the eyes of students are struck with black rectangles to prevent recognition as if they might be accused of participation in an illicit activity. Brecht’s life after leaving Germany did go around the world to Los Angeles and into HUAC hearings where he was questioned about being a communist but, as students, identification wouldn’t make them associated with Brecht’s life’s complications. However, Theater of War never strays from its purpose to look closely, not away from the message in Brecht’s play about adverse consequences of profits tied to war.
Therefore, ‘must see’. Where you will be drawn in, I can’t say. For me, it was Mother Courage. Personally and archetypally, I identified with the courage that Mother Courage – a tinker by trade – musters to protect her children in hostile circumstances only to discover that succeeding at business diverts her attention from her children and leaves them vulnerable. In other words, even the highly applauded, deeply held virtue of courage blinds its possessor when taken to an extreme. Not bravery, nor honesty, nor kindness averts harm. Looking at the fate of Mother Courage’s children, it isn’t difficult to reflect on a woman’s fear that a son will grow up to be a hero only to – or way too easily – fall victim to sweeping powers beyond his control. Mother Courage’s daughter gives up her own life to save other children. Another son, named Swiss Cheese as if to symbolize holes in his wits, throws away the cash box that would save him. Not all children have what it takes to survive in a world that survives by war.
Brecht’s messages are strong, important to our times when the future of children is much at stake. I’m in favor of emotional identification. It makes choice personal. It brings the large down to small where I can use Brecht to validate my own decision to work part-time while my children were growing up. At a time when money and time were ridiculously at odds, I often felt like a fool. I am one of many welcome benefactors of Brecht’s resistance, avoiding conscription into the army, escaping Germany while Nazi terror increased and writing for his life…and mine. His work reaffirms my belief that even a virtue taken to an extreme wreaks havoc, brings down its possessor and necessitates opposition. I especially like Brecht’s cautionary dramatization of the importance of reflection on virtue, his provocation to examine anything we label ‘good, great, wonderful’ because it requires being contrary to convention. To see hope in opposition is as important as the courage it takes but I believe, in moderation, we must. Real wisdom embraces uncertainty.
And Theater of War is a good ‘look see’ — well done, entertaining and engaging.