FAREWELL, BRECHT’S LAST SUMMER (Jan Schütte, 2000)

More Chekhovian than Brechtian (and just as well, since it isn’t aiming for clever neatness), Abschied—Brechts letzter Sommer depicts the last day of Bertolt Brecht’s vacation in August 1956 before returning to East Berlin. Throughout the film, which Jan Schütte beautifully directed from Klaus Pohl’s superlative script, the German socialist—along with Pirandello and Beckett, one of the twentieth century’s three greatest playwrights—suffers from a diseased heart. Three days following the events here portrayed Brecht died. In every way Schütte’s film convinces. Ruefully funny, achingly poignant, and terrifying, this is a masterful piece of work.
     Soviet premier Khrushchev’s program of deStalinization was launched early in 1956, helping to unsettle the Eastern bloc. At his country retreat Brecht, 58, is surrounded by folk, including his wife, Helene Weigel, their daughter, Barbara, a young current mistress of his, an obstreperous not-so-young former mistress (Brecht tells her, “If I die tomorrow, you will be the cause”), and a couple, the Hariches, whom the Stasi plan on arresting as soon as the Brechts have left. (Brecht and Wolfgang Harich have been sharing Wolfgang’s wife.) The twice-seen but ever-present East German secret police account for the aspect of the film I described as “terrifying.” In this regard, Schütte’s film is far more compelling than Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006).
     Upon meeting the Stasi officer Helene recalls his having chauffered her to some destination years earlier. Taken aback, he tells her, “I didn’t think you would remember”—a moment where Helene’s humanity connects with a remnant of his.
     Pure poetry: the pier stretching above the water—a symbol of Brecht’s eternal achievement; a marker of his perpetual yearning to achieve more and more. Even to the end he is writing, thinking, being Brecht.

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