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The Reeler Blog

'War' Heroes

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Years ago, John Walter has been heard to say, he decided to make a movie about Bertolt Brecht, the most famous German Marxist playwright of the 20th century who somehow had yet to be memorialized on film. An established documentary editor, Walter had made his directorial debut with 2002's acclaimed Sundance alum How to Draw a Bunny, also a story about an artist, Ray Johnson, whose enigmatic Pop Art perspective on '60s culture and society remained largely undiscovered by contemporary audiences.


Meryl Streep as the title character in Mother Courage, the Brecht masterpiece at the center of John Walter's documentary Theater of War (Photo: Michael Daniel/The Public Theater)

Not unlike Bunny, Walter's survey of Brecht would require more than a few interviews, biographical notes and third-party theorizing. Thus emerged Theater of War, a chronicle following the Public Theater's 2006 production of Brecht's 1949 classic military-industrial allegory Mother Courage and Her Children. The documentary parallels the evolution of Courage onstage -- a new translation by Tony Kushner, Meryl Streep rehearsing the lead role -- to that of its development over years in Brecht's decade-plus of wartime exile, evoking the perennial question of how complicit individuals are (or maybe even must be) in their governments' enduring military endeavors. Theater of War ambitiously tracks the influence of Brecht's life and art across three generations of dissent, ending in 2006 at the Delacorte Theater, where Mother Courage revealed the steep cost of that complicity among one family.

The film opens this Wednesday, Dec. 24, at Film Forum; The Reeler cornered Walter last week with a few questions.

THE REELER: So why Brecht?

JOHN WALTER: As a documentary filmmaker you're always looking for sort of uncovered ground. It was amazing to me that here's this world-famous, fascinating character, and there's not a single film about him for an English-speaking audience. It was an opportunity to tackle some really interesting material. I'm interested in artists who are in sort of a creative dialogue with their time and what I, as a filmmaker, can learn from that.

R: You did exactly that in your previous film, How to Draw a Bunny. How do Ray Johnson and Bertolt Brecht share that appeal?

JW: They're both real products of their times; you can't really imagine them outside of their times, and in order to really understand what they're about, you have to know something about their times. But in many ways they're sort of mirror images of each other. Ray Johnson was, as Richard Lippold says in the movie, indifferent to the machinations of life. And Brecht was preoccupied by them. You can't imagine Ray Johnson doing work that is meant to be an aid political organizing. You can't imagine Ray associating with a political party. Whereas Brecht was a little too eccentric and authentically an artist first and foremost to be a really good party member. They took almost opposite kind of strategies for dealing with their own creative mania.

R: America seems a much more cynical culture than it was in Brecht's time; you intercut footage of contemporary protests, but you also emphasize novelist Jay Cantor's perspective that dissent eventually dies off. Are we too cynical as a nation for someone like Brecht to remain relevant?

Filmmaker John Walter (Photo: Sarah Shatz)

JW: I don't know if that's true. I've shown the film to a lot of different audiences now, and the film doesn't get that response; the film doesn't make me feel that way. We showed it in a small town in Northern Michigan, and there were lots of people there who'd never been to a Broadway show, never heard of Brecht, and I guess went to the film hoping to see some fun Meryl Streep stuff. They were happy to get their dose of Meryl Streep, but they were fascinated by the life story of Brecht, and they also seemed to be really relating to his struggle -- how to be a good person in a bad time. There are all sorts of basic moral questions that everyone asks themselves: How complicit am I in the actions of my country? What's my particular responsibility as an artist or a storyteller? How does my perception of the world influence the stories I tell? The movie is kind of an investigation of what entertainment is.

R: That's certainly addressed in the interviews with Tony Kushner and Meryl Streep -- the latter in particular, who expresses her reluctance to expose her "process." What assurances, if any, did offer to secure her participation?

JW: I just told her hat my idea was. I think if you're showing somebody rehearsing and you don't explain the context or what it means to rehearse or work as an actor, than somebody watching that rehearsal may just think it's bad acting. But if you're watching these scenes in the context of, "These are people working together to put on a show, and each of them has their own craft and their own work to do," then it becomes a documentary about theater work -- working through the puzzle of how to breathe new life into an old text. Which has to happen every time someone puts on a play. The scenes are always doing two things at once: Documenting a rehearsal process, but you're also watching actors learn a part. In doing that, you, the audience for the movie, are also learning that part. You're learning the story of the play. That was basically my idea of how to approach Brecht as a subject: Pick one play and document the people putting on the play and the work they need to do to do that. And let the audience learn the play along with the actors. It was also a way around the problem of how you film a play. Theater doesn't translate to film; you need to stage for the camera.

R: The Public Theater likely had to persuaded to some degree. Had they ever welcomed this kind of behind-the-scenes attention?

JW: The first meeting we had was with Meryl Streep and [Public Theater artistic director] Oskar Eustis, and they liked the idea. They said they would do it if Tony and George [Wolfe, the play's director] signed up. So we sat down and talked to them about the parameters would be. We, the filmmakers, were very conscious of the fact that we were going into a situation where they had a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. So we were just being respectful. We kept our distance, which isn't so hard to do when you have zoom lenses. We didn't get up in anyone's faces. We never interrupted anyone. So no doubt about it -- we had privileged access, and I think that translates into the final film. Watching that movie, you really feel like you're in a place not a lot of people get to be in. I felt that when I was shooting it: These are high-level artists putting on a show for us. It was a privileged position to be in to observe that.

Posted at December 22, 2008 8:04 AM

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