My daughter, Kathryn (a Tribeca festival volunteer), and I attended the showing of John W. Walter’s documentary Theater of War. As we walked out of the movie theater and began the long walk to the subway station, our conversation about the film was intense. The mental flashbacks of the film were so vivid that we talked incessantly about the impressive images, the style of acting and the detailed historical information presented.
Our conversation began with spontaneous, “Wow!” statements which led into full sentences describing our thoughts and interpretation of the film’s message. Since we had lived in Germany for eighteen years, we could identify with many of the findings from Walter’s documentary, including an amusing situation captured on archive footage. The Brecht family had moved to Santa Monica, California, hoping to find refuge and peace in order to pursue Brecht’s dream as a writer. Berholdt was hopeful that America could offer him a safe haven, but then he was called to testify before the grand jury in connection with his support for the Communist Party in the U.S. The raw film footage was comical as grand jury members, including a youthful president Nixon, made the inquiry. He was a master with words and languages and eloquently made his case, while at the same time he avoided a straight forward answer to any of the questions. He had the committee and those in the court room eating out of the palm of his hand. His performance was brilliant!
I asked Kathryn what impressed her about the film. She explained, “I loved the way the film told an elaborate story of Berholdt Brecht, while at the same time showing behind-the-scenes activities on the production of one of Brecht’s famous plays, set in an open-air theater in New York City. I appreciated how the background information about his play Mother Courage portrayed the spirit of the German people and the atmosphere in Germany during and after WWII. In Berlin, Mother Courage was produced and performed on stage in 1949. It was remarkable to imagine the kind of world the original play was brought into. The documentary gives the audience a sense of what Brecht’s play must have meant to the German people and the controversy of his picture of war.” I asked her if she had studied him while attending German school. She recalls, “Berholdt Brecht is a huge name within the German literary culture and therefore, I studied him a little bit but only later read a few of his plays in college. I really enjoy his work.”
The Germans confront their past by showing many documentary films that incorporate a multitude of original film footage describing their history. We had never seen so many disturbing visuals of the WW II’s aftermath taken in the city of Berlin. I was devastated when viewing the countless minutes of the archive film footage that featured consecutive aerial shots. It felt like I was watching miles and miles of ancient Roman ruins.
The Q & A session with director John W. Walter opened with a round of applause at the film’s end. Our discussion focused on the challenges he faced while filming the rehearsals. The famous play involved well-known actors and directors as they prepared for a performance of a lifetime, in New York City’s Central Park during the heat of summer 2006. So many variables! For example, the actors, including Meryl Streep (Mother Courage) were filmed while “process acting.” This looks like bad acting because they are just working through stuff. Streep would prefer to be judged by the final product. Walter was able to catch it all on film. He makes sense of a difficult historical piece of art and of the politics which remain relevant for a culture of today.