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The Many Incarnations of Bertolt Brecht's 'Baal'

"If you do Baal right, then no one can like it," says Ethan Hawke, who starred in a modern stage remake.

Volker Schlöndorff


20 Mar 2018


In one of the extras on this Criterion Blu-ray, Ethan Hawke invokes the opinion of playwright Tom Stoppard about Bertolt Brecht's first long play Baal, written in 1918 and revised several times after. "If you do Baal right, then no one can like it," says Hawke, who starred in a modern stage remake. In another extra, scholar Eric Rentschler calls this long-lost 1970 film version "fascinating and difficult" at the same time. The film justifies these provocative and paradoxical descriptions.

What is this thing called Baal? At heart, it's a play with a simple thesis designed to fly in the face of a certain dearly loved 19th Century Romantic cliché about artists and rebels. We're all familiar with projects that glorify the uncompromising artist, the one who flouts polite social conventions to follow his (rarely her) own course, the rebel who, perhaps dying too young and misunderstood, is now properly admired by all right-thinking aesthetes who like to consider themselves cultivated and perceptive.

It's the legend of Van Gogh, for example, who's been the subject of several novels and movies that more or less conform to the idea expressed in Don McLean's 1971 song "Vincent" that the artist died, Christlike, for our sins. Even when projects detail the most self-destructive behavior, as in Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy (1986) about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, or Agnieszka Holland's Total Eclipse (1995) about Rimbaud and Verlaine, the Romantic elements of personal love and/or artistic commitment remain, as though out of a novella by Goethe or Heinrich von Kleist.

The young Brecht was having none of it. Writing just after WWI had eradicated a generation, and in direct response to another play, Hanns Johst's The Loner, Brecht's episodic drama illustrates a double-bind for the original artist. One can either submit to the pampered success of patrons and official approval, or one can be untameable. In the latter case, however, the result isn't a valiant hero but an antisocial, indulgent wastrel "beyond good and evil" (to coin a Nietzschean phrase), living outside the bounds of polite society until he chokes on his own vomit.

It's rare to find an artistic work that alienates its audience with that vision. One of its most consistent expressions in film is Mike Leigh's Naked (1993) starring the same David Thewlis who played Verlaine in Total Eclipse (1995), although his character isn't an artist in this case but merely a willful and hostile gobshite determined to bite every hand that feeds him.

Brecht was about nothing if not alienating his audience, by which he meant a kind of emotional insulation against being swept into a satisfying escapist drama. He employed various devices to distance the audience from the drama, the better to analyze its messages critically and intellectually, not emotionally. In the case of this almost random collection of scenes, he provides heightened poetic language and songs amid the depiction of the squalor of his anti-hero, the least of whose qualities is that of the reckless womanizer. "Baal" happens to be the name of a demon or a god of storms and fertility, and the play is a famous case of the god spelled backwards as dog.

That brings us to this film, shot in 1969 as a TV movie from the birth of New German Cinema and virtually unseen since. In a lengthy interview, writer-director Volker Schlöndorff explains that he was regrouping after a disappointing third feature, Michael Kohlhaas (1969), an international co-production funded by Hollywood. He retreated into this small, intimate, all-German production, and he approached a young man named Rainer Werner Fassbinder to star in the film.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Baal (1970) (© Volker Schlöndorff) (IMDB)

Fassbinder had just completed his first film as director, and over the course of Baal he'd finish work on another and begin scripting a third in the whirlwind career he was launching with his troupe of loyal acolytes. Some of these, like young Hanna Schygulla, appear in Baal. It's also shot by his regular photographer, Dietrich Lohmann, who choreographs long takes with a handheld 16mm camera, Schlöndorff guiding him by the shoulders.

This was Lohmann's first color film, and his photography is absorbing from the bravura two and a half minute shot that opens the movie with Fassbinder simply striding down a country lane, accompanied by the star's voice-over recitation against Klaus Doldinger's hypnotic rhythms of organ, rock guitar, drums and harmonica.

This was the first of a few collaborations between Schlöndorff and Fassbinder, and also the first of several collaborations between Schlöndorff and his future wife Margarethe von Trotta, who became a filmmaker in her own right. As she discusses in her own interview, she plays the type of pathetic dishrag she couldn't stand in real life, a masochistic woman hopelessly in love with a brute. These are the kind of roles women were offered, she explains -- at least until she began making her own films.

One of the fascinating things about Baal is that it comes across unwittingly and perhaps deceptively as a psychodrama of Fassbinder, who throws himself so completely into the role that we may wonder if he continued to live it for 15 years. Although Baal sleeps with various women, it's clear that his strongest emotional attachment is to his male companion (Sigi Graue), to whom he declares his love even while assaulting him, since assault is an expression of this heightened feeling. This is also the project where Fassbinder met Günther Kaufmann, a bi-racial German who became his lover and appeared in many of his films.

So what we have is an unpleasant portrait in which the protagonist behaves monstrously and callously towards everyone for 90 minutes -- we wouldn't wish it longer -- while spouting poetry in a near-constant state of inebriation. While functioning as a portrait of the tortured and torturing artist pushed to the extreme of ironic parody and subversion, the film is also a rather breathtaking synthesis of talents, shot with self-conscious beauty in long takes, often with vaseline smeared around the edges of the lens to provide a mock-romantic warping and distancing.

Each of the 24 scenes is carefully numbered, introduced in large white numbers against a blue background. In his liner notes, Dennis Lim states that it's an "extremely faithful adaptation" of Brecht's play; "most scenes play out word for word, with utmost deference to Brecht's visceral language, by turns ribald and poetic." Even non-German speakers should be able to pick up on the heightened diction and delivery in many key scenes, and on the raucously rhyming "ballads" dropped upon us via Fassbinder's voice-over during transitions. These artificial gestures somehow fold into an almost documentary quality conjured by the woozy camera and noisy direct sound.

Brecht's widow, Helene Weigel, was appalled by the TV broadcasts and refused to allow the film any further distribution, although it appeared on French TV a few years later, according to an archival Schlöndorff interview. This difficult play had undergone so many incarnations in her husband's lifetime that one wonders what sort of production could have met with her approval, especially in light of some people's tendency to speculate on how much of Baal is a disguised projection of Brecht.

Now, this most obscure of Schlöndorff's films, which is also an obscure Fassbinder film, arrives in a 2K digital restoration from Criterion, no less. We dearly hope the next Schlöndorff/Fassbinder TV movie, The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach (1970), will follow, not to mention other currently unavailable films of Schlöndorff -- I'm still waiting for Michael Kohlhaas, and his "mod" Anita Pallenberg thriller A Degree of Murder (1967) -- as well as those of von Trotta. Is anybody listening?

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