The Farewell

2000, Movie, NR, 91 mins


While not exactly a biography of Bertolt Brecht, the poet and playwright who revolutionized 20th-century theater, Jan Schütte's dramatic snapshot of the artist three days before his death offers an interesting bit of speculation as to the issues Brecht faced as his life drew to a close. The setting: Brecht's lakefront country house in Buckow, East Germany, on a hot midsummer's day in August, 1956. With summer vacation at an end, Brecht (Josef Bierbichler) is scheduled to leave for Berlin with second wife Helene "Helli" Weigel (Monica Bleibtreu); Barbara (Birgitt Minichmayr), his teenage daughter; long-time assistant and translator, Elisabeth Hauptmann (Elfriede Irrall) and young actress Kathe Reichel (Jeanette Hain), Brecht's latest mistress and muse. Also on hand are dissident philosopher Wolfgang Harich (Samuel Fintzi) and his wife, Isot Kilian (Rena Zednikowa), who, with her husband's consent, has become Brecht's lover. Given the assemblage of friends, spouses and mistresses, the house is relatively quiet, but as the morning mist begins to lift, storm clouds begin gathering as a most unwelcome visitor appears on the Brechts' doorstep — an agent for the East German secret police (Tilman Günther), who informs Helli that Wolfgang and his wife are to be arrested on charges of high treason. Helli begs him to wait until the evening when the great Brecht has left the house; his fame is too great and his health too poor to withstand such a scandal. The agent agrees, and Helli, while debating with herself whether to warn her guests of their impending doom, turns her attention to another crisis: the arrival of Danish actress Ruth Berlau (Margit Rogall, in a brilliant turn), the spurned lover who's been seething — and drinking — herself into a lather in the nearby village and whose sudden appearance disturbs the balance the ever-tolerant Helli has struck among her husband's women. Brecht, meanwhile, prepares for that night's rehearsal while countering accusations of political conformity from the idealistic Wolfgang. These scenes between the ailing Brecht and the younger man who essentially serves as his conscience are particularly gripping — suspenseful, even — explicating as they do the problems facing the older, perhaps wiser, firebrand who must negotiate a space between compromise and collaboration. Edward Klosinski's staid cinematography lends the film a feeling of late summer languor, a deceptive calm before a terrible storm. The spare, evocative piano soundtrack is by John Cale. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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The Farewell
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