We would have achieved a lot if at least the distribution of

artistically acceptable film stories were to be organized.

Bertolt Brecht

 

 

Berlin, Chaussestraße, n. 125. Going up the stairs and into the second floor, after crossing an entrance hall and a library, one finds a large room, a 90-square meter Wohnzimmer with four round tables, one on each corner, grazing the walls. On each of the tables there is a text, a few notes, maybe a play, maybe a script. We are entering Bertolt Brecht’s creative studio uninvited at the house where he spent his last years. As readers, we can picture a few scenes. Maybe Brecht, in this room, would be revising one of the melodic phrases of The Threepenny Opera. Maybe he would be considering some cinematographic scenes for characters such as Mother Courage or Saint Joan of the Stockyards. Maybe he would be flirting with concepts such as epic theatre or the estrangement effect. Even in this fictional scenario, in a moment of speculation, the undisputed fact is that Brecht would have been writing or creating concepts and images; and his words would go on to be quoted, enacted and debated for decades to come, in the most diverse media.

While Brecht is an ubiquitous presence on the theatre world, the same does not hold for cinema – on the contrary. While there have been partnerships with some projects and filmmakers, only a small number of those experiences has conveyed what Brecht really wished to see on screen. Brecht’s film trajectory is defined by conflict, failure and a decade-long gap, between the forties and fifties, until, at last, his ideas on theater started to influence young modern filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Tomás Gutierrez Alea. Conflict and failure are most evident in Brecht’s repeated attempts to relate to the standards of the film industry, either those of the UFA in Weimar Germany, or of Hollywood, during his passage there between 1941 and 1945. Those failures would become benchmarks of Brecht's film trajectory because of the several problems he faced: screenplays and arguments he wrote were completely altered and disfigured, such as in Fritz Lang's film Hangmen also die; he had legal problems – Brecht discusses this in his famous essay The Threepenny Lawsuit –and he got embroiled in quarrels with directors or collaborators, such as the one with G. W. Pabst and Béla Balázs.[1] Brecht did not adapt to the collective dynamics for writing and directing particular to the mode of production of Hollywood and Germany. Biographical anecdotes aside, it is worth paying attention to this transitional work that oscillates between the muses of the theatre and the technical standards of the film industry.

Few are acquainted with Brecht’s vast and varied film work. His work as a screenwriter lies in the shadow of his playwright notoriety and at the margins of his attempts at collaborating with the film industry. We are looking at a kind of film work beyond the standard screenwriter's resume of released and commercial movies. Brecht was quite the secretive screenwriting-type. He began in his twenties, still under the influence of the cinema of Charles Chaplin, to write scripts for silent movies, some of which have been compared to contemporary scripts by the likes of Carl Meyer, for instance. In total, up until his death, Bertolt Brecht elaborated around thirty scripts that could easily have become materialized works on screen.[2] These works include “arguments” for movies, complete narratives with detailed characters, dramatic developments, elaborate images, well-outlined conflict and climactic resolutions.

Before sketching out a first – and brief – presentation and a summary of this screenless oeuvre, it is worth thinking about what motivated this reclusion, this exile and this silent choice by the German playwright. Why would he opt for writing inconspicuously with no proper agenda to see this work materialised on the screen? What is the meaning of this secretive activity? Unlike the dramatic refusals to continue to write following difficulties, refusals compiled and investigated by Enrique Vila-Matas in his essay, Brecht kept on writing almost incessantly for the screen.[3] On paper, the scriptwriting appears as provisional as a burning flame, and it is insufficient, even sometimes unnecessary, in the genesis of a movie. Still, the question stubbornly persists: why did Brecht choose to record his dramatic ideas for film only on paper?

The negation and reclusion that was part of Brecht’s slowly withdrawal towards cinema is ambivalent. Firstly, he strives to retrieve some creative autonomy that had been fragmented by the film industry standards with which he needed to work. Then, he refuses to partake and to be the accomplice of a writing industry that is alienated from his own values. His refusal is, above all, an ethical and political one. It is a radical and silent choice refusing to negotiate with the values of the film industry. As a writer, he will favor the creation of visual dramaturgies his own way instead of accepting the rules of a standardized and fragmented way of writing. On the other hand, his insistence in keeping to the writing  and finding his bearings on the page and not engage with the standards of filming reveals other aspirations. His focus on writing can be read in terms of a cinema-becoming. Although incomplete and riddled with gaps, this state of becoming is potent and open to new historical arcs. He is pointing toward a future event, to latent movies still awaiting their materialization. So, part of Brecht’s screenplays adheres to a “cinema of the No”; the other is aligned with a distinct ramification, namely a quasi-cinema, which collects strokes of incomplete attempts that call for a fulfillment yet-to-come, amidst renunciations and refusals.[4] His denial, his refusal, his muteness when it comes as film might be interpreted as a peculiar act of resistance against the screenwriting standards of his time. The immediate attraction of the screen is relinquished in favor of a practice of filmic reveries, of continuing to dream of a different cinema. This yearning within the filmic imaginary, with its potential images, is at the center of his hidden screenplays.

What have we found upon opening his cinematic Pandora’s box and reading some of his unfilmed scripts? What styles of film did I glimpse when reading the more than thirty screenplays that he wrote? Looking carefully into the core of those screenplays that he signed and elaborated, I detected a conspicuous absence, that of his most widely known dramaturgical concepts. Out of over thirty written screenplays, very few of them directly apply his most celebrated theatrical premises. It is as if, turned into script, his dramaturgy embraced a potential for images that are distant from the imaginary he created for the stage.

Brecht’s screenplays may be divided into three distinct groups: silent movie screenplays; adaptations and attempts to enter the film industry, which ended up as projects riddled with disputes, feuds and a constant feeling of failure; and, at last, an interesting set of movie projects that address, directly and in the heat of the hour, the historical context of the Second World War in Europe, the dilemmas of the heroic resistance against Nazi-fascism, with a critical inside look upon the period.

The first group, created between 1920 and 1930, consists of works produced entirely within the context of silent movies, of which the standouts are Drei im Turm, Der Brillaintenfresser and Das Mysterium der Jamaika-Bar. Those are youth writings, provisional notes, salutary cinema daydreams, inspired more by a cinephile fever than actual artistic or professional ambition. As Wolfgang Gersch has argued,

Brecht’s silent movie screenplays are, in a manner entirely different from his plays – only presentations for possible works that should be assessed later […]. Brecht was very careful about using captions, which spread like a plague through the silent movies of the time, and, for that reason, he stressed the optical quality of his screenplays. However, Brecht did in fact use captions. This is a primary difference from Carl Mayer’s silent movie scripts, with which Brecht’s should be compared. On one hand, few silent movie scripts have effectively been published (something that, curiously enough, did not happen with Carl Mayer). On the other hand, we now have the possibility of measuring the effective and possible performance and contribution of Brecht’s text to silent movies, German cinema and classic film in general[5].

As Gersch points out in these lines, the silent screenplays are, in a way, the first attempts, the first visions by Brecht of his own future films, which he himself would probably want to direct. Those silent screenplays dwell at the limits between sketch, archival script and filmic potency. Gersch stresses the presence of screen ideas there as a continuous relationship between image and captions, between the scene and its commentary. It is also interesting to note how the simplicity of the fable, inherited from Chaplin, and the emphasis on short scenes and abrupt interruptions grow to be common and recurring style tendencies for the playwright Brecht and the screenwriter Brecht.

Larger in numbers, the second batch of Brecht scripts revolves around the singular experience of the Threepenny Opera and it is very interesting to note how a few themes and reflections of those experiences are present a few years prior and in the later productions closer to the shooting of the Threepenny Opera. The themes of marriage and money, for instance, are present in screenplays such as Marie Kommt, Die Mutter aller Seeleute der Welt, Geld ist teuer, Die Beule – which is Brecht’s short version of Pabst’s film, and Santa Lucia oder der Gelegenheitskauf, which is a sort of unfolding of the collective experience with Kuhle Wampe. There is, of course, a lot of difference between those scripts and projects, but, in general, Brecht’s effort to transpose his theatrical ideas over to film territory is noticeable, and it appears as if he still failed to find comfortable shelter amidst those comings and goings, but always with a view to the creative possibilities of provisional migrations.

Written just before of the Threepenny Opera feud, the Happy End screenplay is among the most revealing regarding those similarities. The action is set in Chicago and in the first scene we see a young man singing in the street, approaching the passers-by and imparting words such as “God is the finest gentleman, here in the world or elsewhere”[6]. Soon, the character presentation leads us to William Cracker, who pretends to be a flower vendor. He is actually a gangster and liquor smuggler in disguise, and the entire plot about the shenanigans, alliances and chases will involve attorneys, policemen and other gangster groups. The screenplay does not feature the details of all the scenes and visual sequences. Eight pages long, it would be considered today something akin to a long feature film’s argument, but also very similar to the scenic, imagistic and theatrical environment of Brecht’s plays. However, it is a screenplay by Brecht; unknown as of yet, not translated and still to be filmed. This set of film scripts by Brecht belong to an intermediary and limitary stage of his relationship with theater along with his yearnings to build a direct conversation with the cinematic possibilities of his time.

Many and diverse aspirations of Brecht take shape in those scripts. They have certainly guided his reflections on Threepenny Lawsuit (Dreigroschenprozess), the precursory and seminal essay that influenced Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer’s formulations about film.  Writing for and with cinema, in Brecht’s reflections, follows the trajectory of writing drama into a script, then going through the filming process and, at last, taking on montage. It is a holistic way of writing that, due to precisely to those fragmentations and unifications, could only be achieved and be in fact autonomous when executed by a collective, that is, by means of a constant horizontal conversation among a group of artists who converge upon similar aesthetic and sensitive goals.

There is, on the other hand, a Fordist model of production that fractures the writing process for the screen, implemented slowly, gradually but almost definitively by the film industry throughout the 1920s[7]. For Brecht, the fracturing of writing for film has afflicted also the unity of the literary you mean literary? writer, in the sense that the aesthetic composition of the film escapes writing and instead is ruled by standards more connected to technique and making revenue than to art.[8] In this obfuscation of writing and drama by the film producer, scripts began to be written by multiple people, frequently non-collaboratively, so that they tended to lose a sense of authorship or even an aesthetic unity. Those scripts were therefore riddled with amendments and developed far from the initial ideas of an author. Subliminally, what Brecht sheds light on in his essay The Threepenny Lawsuit is the direct confrontation between the primacy of a form of aesthetic realization and the industrial production and valuation of the work of art in the modern capitalist context.

Curiously enough, the third group of scripts produced by Brecht suggests a series of historical dramas with aspirations and aesthetic proposals that are singularly situated in his oeuvre. I am referring to the screenplays written during his exile or soon after his return to Europe, which address the issues of the occupation and resistance to Nazism and fascism in countries such as France, Italy and Czechoslovakia. In the screenplays written in 1944, such as Silent Witness or Goddess of Victory, we catch a glimpse of ambivalent characters who, in crime and detective-driven plots, morally oscillate between traitors and heroes of the resistance against the war and fascist occupation. There are intellectual characters, generals, tradesmen, ambiguous women, some similar to the femme fatale paradigm or the Maria Braun that R.W. Fassbinder would come to film in the same Germany of Brecht’s decades later.

Written in 1944 with two other collaborators, Silent Witness narrates the story of Jean Rivière, an attorney who returns to his country after the Germans are defeated in Paris. He fought, through the radio, to incite revolt and the uprising of the French. However, Toinette, his wife, sports a shaved head because of the post-war practice by the population of violently pointing to women who had had sexual relations with Germans. They all suspect that she had been a traitor of the French. Little by little, he realizes that in truth she had approached the Nazis in order to help the uprising and the resistance. The greatest proof would be the Joan of Arc painting that an abbot made of her. However, the abbot is dead and had been wrongly murdered. It is a script with several ethical implications. The silent witnesses are both the painting and the lack of evidence that Toinette is innocent. In this historical vacuum, the only thing left is faith, somewhat blind and faded, or the connection forged by imprecise and fragile affections.

Those same ambiguous and historical sentiments have marked the script of The Goddess of Victory, which happens precisely during the post-war period in Italy and could, perhaps, be easily filmed and compiled into one of the episodes of Rossellini’s Paisà. The script narrates illegal artwork negotiations between Italian dealers, American army agents and businessmen. The main plot goes as follows: a bomb has destroyed a church and opened up a mausoleum where a Roman statue that was thought to be lost, the Goddess of Victory, is found. Brecht’s irony is crystal clear as he stresses just how the war puts precious cultural heritage at risk. This time, the loss takes place in Europe, in Italy. However, perhaps, along with the war, they have lost something else, something that touches on ethics and aesthetics that are prior to capitalism. Curiously enough, in this script, the Americans become the invaders whereas the Italians find ways to live together with those new political and economic codes. On scene sixteen, which is described below, Giuseppe Fratti, an Italian colonel who was also an infiltrated spy, talks to Paolo, one of his colleagues:

'We are the conquered', Guiseppe teaches his former orderly, 'we must be stern but just. We must not deny pity to the weak. Let's not forget that if we had not had some luck, we ourselves would now be the victors. A victor will learn his lesson only slowly and painfully; so be patient with him, strict but patient. Remember, your enemy needs time to recover from his victory. In the meantime we must firmly put our neck on the victor's foot'. Paolo listens attentively, he does not understand the words but senses their wisdom.[9]

 

In those scripts with an epic narrative of resistance, the theme of dissimulation is a constant presence. Not by chance, there is always a family relationship permeating the characters. It is Jean Rivière’s wife who gets accused of treason in Silent Witness.In The Goddess of Victory, the brothers and relatives are the ones who cooperated with the fascists and go on to negotiate with the Americans the smuggling of important works of art from the Renaissance. More than mere treason, those Brecht scripts depict the tensioning and shredding of doubts about loved ones or relatives that could have betrayed or not. From doubt, they move over to ethical dilemma. We move from ethics to the contradictions of history. From the contradictions, we arrive at the appeal to the spectator to take a position. It is curious, though, just how those pressing themes from the Second World War do not appear, at least not explicitly, in none of his plays, and it is only through those few scripts that we can reach and interpret Brecht’s dramatic position and impressions of his time. Cinema, then, was revealed to Brecht as a clear possibility of expression for an aesthetic-political yearning; a yearning that interacted with the contemporary urgency of the crucial historical events that he witnessed.

Brecht’s experience with film is permeated by small abandonments but also persistence. It is a writing geared toward the screen by means of scripts and arguments that, directly or indirectly, have intersections with his theatrical production but still suffers from chronic ostracism. It is also interesting to stress how, within the vertiginous turns of history, Brecht’s theatrical experiments continue to echo in many ways in both theatre and film, even decades after his relationships with UFA and Hollywood. It is symptomatic just how Brecht has transposed several aspects of film over to his theater writing, such as the sequences of short scenes, the use of captions, the principle of montage with, for instance, distinct endings, the constant use of abrupt cuts and interruptions. We may notice that an entire generation of modern filmmakers from the 1950s onward has been an avid reader of Brecht’s plays, and, curiously, has brought over to the screen a good portion of his experiments. The conversation between theater writing, script and acting on stage is riddled with historical ironies, in which there is more tacit influence and subtle interaction that one might initially suppose.

Although interesting (and extremely important), it is not my aim here, within these lines, to address in more depth the possible relationships between Brecht’s work and film, or to delve deeper into the details of the dramaturgy present in his screenplays. This effort would call for another essay and would also warrant a specific work of translation. What I am proposing is far simpler, but something that may yield interesting results. I am pointing to a specific angle, a genealogical bias.  If understood as a major material and empirical basis, the script tends to unveil new conversations between dramaturgy and film. The screenplays, then, do not have to be read as complete works, as the majority of them, in Brecht’s case, have not even been shot; but they reveal latent aesthetic and cinematic ideas and possibilities that are related to the history of film in a negative or spectral way. It is from this point of view that the emphasis on the screenplay may contribute to the study of aspects of dramaturgy that the predominant modes of film analysis in cinema studies do not address. Screenwriting studies and the study of unfilmed scripts may take a step further beyond trying to interpret the dramaturgy of the movies, which has been done by film studies, and perceiving, in the transitions between paper and camera, possible threads of lost works, hidden stories that did not materialize on the screen.

As the theater man that he was, Brecht had a rare ability to stir up the stage muses. That is why he favors the fable genre so much, as well as the instant of the stage scene, the actor’s gestures and the estrangement from the audience. Had Brecht leaned more toward film dramaturgy and, with talent and ability, transported it into his work, he still would have been more vibrant as an author and artist interacting. He would have gone beyond a theatrical audience, which is very different from the film audience. The strength of his writing, then, which lies precisely in the ability to summon the stage muses, becomes his central weakness before the stiffness of technique, of the peculiarly imagistic narrative and the industrial forms of film production. In summary, the exceptional playwright did not make an efficient screenwriter. Luckily, his scripts, his ideas and arguments still survive and deserve further attention from film studies. Face to face with technique, the theatrical muse loses strength, falters and cannot engender its self-transformation. His scripts and cinema intentions, under this point of view, highlight the noise that remained untranslatable, in this passage from muse to technique. Noise can reverberate beyond a semantic and symbolic reading of film. Noise is, as Friedrich Kittler points out, one of the main aspects of writing in the age of media[10]. Noise makes sense in other moments, other contexts. Noise echoes and, while it hurts contemporary ears, it may sound like phrases and melodious chants to the coming generations.

In 1953, Bertolt Brecht moves to the house at Chausseetraße, number 125, in downtown Berlin, a few kilometers from the Berliner Ensemble, where his plays premiered, and where he rehearsed with his theater group. He lived there for the last three years of his life, with Helene Weigel, his wife and actress in his plays. I walk again into the same room whose description opened this essay, where Brecht flirted with the Pandora’s box that we are also trying to begin to open. He said that the best way to take time off from a text, exactly where it would get repetitive and unproductive, is to stop and turn your attention to another text, also in progress, also growing in between intervals and creative insights. From biography over to speculation; from facts over to historical fiction; but, given the over thirty scripts that Brecht wrote, it would not be an exaggeration to suppose that at one of those four tables, perhaps, the German playwright would rest his pen while enjoying cinematographic reveries and scenes. The moment of rest, in this imaginary table, would also represent a sort of pleasure, a sort of refuge from a kind of cinema in which he had never believed.

Pablo Gonçalo

 

APPENDIX: List of Screenplays by Bertolt Brecht:

         The Mystery of the Jamaica Bar

The Jewel Eater

There in the Tower

Kuhle Wampe oder Wem gehört die Welt

Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder

Robisonade auf Assuncion

Marie kommt

Die Mutter aller Seeleute der Welt

Happy-End

Die Beule

Santa Lucia oder Der Gelegenheitskauf

Semmelweis

Der Hamlet der Weizenbörse

Kartoffel-Jones

Die Judith von Saint-Denis

Der Gallische Krieg oder die Geschäfte des Herrn J. Cäsar

Cäsars letzte Tage

Rich Man's Friend

Die seltsame Krankheit des Herrn Henri Dumant

Die Fliege

Uncle Sam's property

Giulio

Safety First

Die Frau des Richters

All our Yesterdays

Die Sigesgöttin

Silent Witness

Der Mantel

Der große Clown Emaël

Offenbachs “Hoffmanns Erzählungen” in einer neuen Version

ps: All these screenplays can be found and read in Bertolt Brecht, (Ed.) Wolfgang Gersh. Texte für Film: Drehbücher,

      Protokol 'Kuhle Wampe', Exposés, Szenarien. Suhrkamp, 1971. 

 

 



[1] I am referring to the lawsuit by which Brecht contested Nero Film AG, the producers of Threepenny Opera, as the holders of his play's intellectual rights. Even though Brecht had written a screenplay for the movie with the title of Die Beule, it suffered alterations by screenwriters such as G.W. Pabst. During the trial process, Brecht wrote the essay Die Dreigroschenprozess, The Threepenny Lawsuit, summarizing his political and critical ideas on the industrial film apparatus. His arguments help understand the reasons for his gradual withdrawal from Hollywood and the film production ways he criticizes. See Thomas Elsaesser Transparent Duplicities. IN: The Films of G.W. Pabst. Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[2] See Mar Silberman (editor), Bertolt Brecht on Film & Radio. Bloomsbury, London, 2000, 09 – 15.

[3] See Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby y compañia. Anagrama, fifth edition, 2014.

[4] This expression was inspired by the title Quase cinema, by Hélio Oiticica and Néville D'almeida. It is a group of film installations, in which the film effect is perverted by projections in slides, music performances as well as an invitation to the audience to experience new audiovisual affects by watching the movies in hammocks instead of theater seats. Those installations reveal potential aesthetic experiences that do not come through by official cinematographic devices. See Carlos Basualdo (ed.), Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-cinemas. Kolnischer Kunstverein, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, 2001.

[5] Wolfgang Gersch, Film bei Brecht. Bertolt Brechts Praktische und Teoretische Auseinandersetzung mit dem Film.  Hanser, 1982(pp. 33-34)

[6] Bertolt Brecht, Texte für Film: Drehbücher, Protokol 'Kuhle Wampe', Exposés, Szenarien. Suhrkamp, 1971 (p. 320)

[7] See Steven Maras, Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. London, Wallflower Press, 2009 and Steven Price, A History of the Screenplay. London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[8] Bertolt Brecht,  Bertolt Brechts Dreigroschenbuch. Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1960.

[9] Bertolt Brecht, Texte für Film: Drehbücher, Protokol 'Kuhle Wampe', Exposés, Szenarien. Suhrkamp, 1971 (p. 236)

[10] See Friedrich Kittler,  Aufschreibesysteme. 1800. 1900. München, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2003.