Though the song is not his style, Judge Bill Gibron would rather sit through a dozen versions of "Mack the Knife" rather than sit through this slow, somber film again.
Partial portrait of a real life artist as an eccentric sketch.
On the last day of their summer vacation in the country, the friends and family of German writer Bertolt Brecht are facing a series of minor crises. As the matriarch of this unlikeliest of clans, Helene Weigel worries about her famous husband. In addition, she must contend with a dour daughter who loves to play with fire. On the outskirts of the tribe are Brecht's various mistresses, including a new, outrageously young lover, an older, disaffected staff member, the wanton wife of a political agitator pal, and a drunken slut who slams the writer and his life every chance she gets. When the Secret Police show up to announce that determined dissident Wolfgang Harich will be arrested that night, preparations are made to keep Brecht out of the fray. But when you're an artist of keen observational skills and human intuition, it's hard to be sheltered from very much at all. As his health weakens and his time by the lake runs out, Brecht tries to break a case of writer's block by reflecting on life. Sadly, this will be The Farewell to more than just a holiday by the water. As the sun sets on the writer's day, it seems to drop below the horizon of his tender, tortured time on the planet.
Say the name Bertolt Brecht to a number of people and it is likely you will get one singular response, if any—"Mack the Knife." Thanks to Bobby Darren and dozens of other nightclub crooners, this signature song from the writer's classic Threepenny Opera (music by Kurt Weill) has become an unlikely lounge lizard staple. You might even find the occasional English major who recognizes the name from other notable works (plays Mother Courage and her Children and Galileo) or a Hollywood historian (Brecht fled Nazi persecution in 1933) who can chronicle the poet-playwright's tenure in Tinseltown. Still, as with all international artists, there is much more to the man than the cultural cornerstones that the mainstream can name.
Brecht was a contentious figure in his day, a controversial commentator on declining social norms and a theatrical revolutionary who used his theory of Verfremdungseffekt (read: avant-garde staging) to remind audiences that what they were witnessing was not reality, but a false representation of same. Up until his death in 1958 from heart failure, he was a god to his fans and a substantial grain of sand in the shoe of the East German government (he would not settle in the West, as former Nazis had been given positions of power). The last days of his life are the focus of Jan Schütte's subtle The Farewell. Unfortunately for an American audience, this film will have little or no resonance.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Brecht is not our hero. Had the subject been, say, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, we might be more inclined to connect. Brecht's life up until the timeline of this film is filled with storms—personal, public, and private—and since this movie is making its point about the end of his existence, we don't get a lot of the backdrop necessary to understand and appreciate it. Similarly, the odd lifestyle the man led—one wife, a firebug daughter, several strange mistresses—is chalked up to a kind of artistic ambience, as if every well-known individual like Brecht gets to live in a fantasy world of social and sexual bohemia. Again, without some filmic foundation as to why this female-heavy home life is supposed to be relevant, the movie meanders when it should mean something. Finally, there is the character of Brecht himself. Since he's a man of few words—at least from a dialogue standpoint—we are supposed to gain our appreciation of him through the opinions and explanations of others. Yet there again, the screenplay by Klaus Pohl is all insinuation and innuendo. There is talk of aborted or miscarried children, sexual control, political intrigue, and a kind of crazed corporeal need, but clear lines of demarcation are never established and we end up as mystified about what this all means as we did when we first walked into the story.
Some of this is Schütte's fault, but the acting is no help either. As Brecht, Josef Bierbichler is more tired than tantalizing. He turns the aging artist into a man of minor madness (there is a strange, Alzheimer's-like scene near the end) and all-encompassing comforts. He whines for his hat. He interrupts meetings to mess with his collection of concubines. He occasionally raises his voice, but his weak words have little or no meaning. When we get to an emotional denouement toward the end, Bierbichler appears to be phoning it in, using his character's own infirmity more than his own performance skills to sell the scene. Even more troubling are the women. Young actress-as-object-of-desire Jeanette Hain (playing Käthe Reichel) is a total void, given nothing but "come hither" stares to round out her slim sexual symbolism. As Helene Weigel, Brecht's all-important wife (she would continue his work in the theater long after his death), Monica Bleibtreu is Frau Blücher without the famous horse whinny to make her comic. Without a doubt, the most troubling is Margit Rogall as the drunk and desperate Ruth. Longing to be back inside Brecht's circle of eros and influence, this blousy, blotto boil with a penchant for peeing in bottles and making up malicious lies rattles the narrative every time she's on camera. For most of its running time, The Farewell is a slow, almost static, story, but when Ruth arrives to slur her way through another set of personal attacks, the movie turns mean and messy.
Indeed, part of the problem with The Farewell is that its divergent plot points never seem to come together. We never learn why the Secret Police want to shield Brecht from the arrest of his friend Wolfgang Harich. There is some mention of respect for the old master, but nothing clever or concrete. Also, living with so many previous lovers never pays off. Sure, there is bickering, but that's par for the paramour course. Brecht's daughter Barbara is seen as a stuffy, priggish pyromaniac. Again, what's the point? The last-minute addition of some collaborators from Berlin just overwhelms the cast with one too many individual ciphers. If Brecht were more of a known quantity to an American viewer, if his beliefs and his ideals had been explained and exploited, maybe this would all make sense. But as it stands, The Farewell is a quiet, quaint movie that doesn't make the most of what it has to offer.
New Yorker Video has presented this fanciful foreign film in a decent DVD package. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image has a nice, organic quality, rendering the wooden wilderness around Brecht's home a natural, novel setting. The colors are mostly muted, and Schütte obviously relied on as much warm, autumnal lighting as possible. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 does a nice job of capturing the German dialogue while making plenty of room for John Cale's haunting piano score. Of the bonus features offered, the written material is the best. We get an insert in the keepcase which highlights the factual liberties taken by Schütte, as well as a nice set of text screen biographies that discuss almost all the important players. There is also a trailer and a historic photo gallery. Perhaps if you read all the extra material offered before going into this film, you'll have a better foundation from both an entertainment and educational standpoint.
Still, The Farewell will only truly affect those who saw Brecht as a brave man of letters battling the biggest evils of human and social disorder. That his own life was a wreck may seem easy to understand, but when presented in such an unusual, arch way by writer Pohl and director Schütte, the result is more meaningless than memorable. The Farewell should be a poignant look at an infamously influential playwright and poet. In the end, it's just 91 minutes of unexciting ennui.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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