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Brecht in Hollywood

Toma TasovacAugust 11, 2006

Coming Monday, Aug. 14 will be the 50th anniversary of Bertolt Brecht's death. As such the year 2006 is being celebrated as "Brecht year". Here, Toma Tasovac takes a look at Brecht's Hollywood career.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) in the year of his death
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) in the year of his deathImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

He blamed the sunshine in LA, which "shriveled up the brains of gifted writers leaving them incapable of anything but film-writing." But when Brecht himself tried to become a Hollywood screenwriter, he failed miserably.

"I saw Brecht," composer Kurt Weil wrote to his wife Lotte Lenya from Hollywood on Oct. 1, 1942. "He was just as dirty and unshaven as ever, but somehow much nicer and rather pathetic."

German poet and playwright Bertold Brecht - author of "The Threepenny Opera" (1928) and "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" (1930) - came to California in 1941 as part of what one scholar called "that spectacular migration of art, culture, and intellect from Germany during the Hitler era."

During the six years of his Californian exile, the cigar-smoking Stalinist in unfashionable baggy pants, who spoke broken English with a heavy German accent, spent most of his time desperately trying to become a Hollywood screenwriter. From 1941 to 1947, he worked on more than 50 scripts and script ideas.

That some of them failed to be developed could surely be blamed on Hollywood's myopic understanding of what makes a good movie. But when it comes to Brecht's idea of turning the Communist Manifesto into a cinematic epic, the problem had more to do with Brecht's rather tenuous connection with the American reality.

The stuff that capitalist dreams are made of

It should really come as no surprise that Brecht never made it in Hollywood. Hollywood was then, as it is now, big business. The simple truth that it is money - not dreams - that make the world go around was as pertinent in the epoch of Rita Hayworth as it is in the age of Julia Roberts.

The audiences always wanted adventures with guns and romance rather than experiments in estrangement and anti-capitalist tantrums. This is exactly why Hollywood is to this day one of the greatest inventions of the capitalist system: a bitter ideological anesthetic disguised as an ice-cream sundae.

German émigrés participated as actors, producers, screenwriters or directors in approximately one third of the 180 anti-Nazi films which were made in the United States between 1939 and 1946. Only one screenplay, however, that Brecht worked on ever made it to the Hollywood screen.

A fight over the script

Brecht worked together with a more experienced Hollywood screenwriter, John Wexley, on the script for a 1943 Fritz Lang movie "Hangmen Also Die." The movie revolved around the assassination of the Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia Reinhard Heydrich, which took place in 1942, and the subsequent Nazi reprisals.

Brecht - whose journals are filled with pages describing his frustration with the movie - was in the end not even credited for the screenplay, but only for the idea that the film was based on. His attempts to get the Screenwriter's Guild to arbiter between him and his American co-writer ended in embarrassment because Brecht could provide no material evidence that he wrote any portion of the script.

"Every day, to earn my bread, I go to the marketplace, where lies are sold," Brecht wrote in 1941.

Abrasive and authoritarian

Yet the line separating the wronged genius from a petulant child is particularly fine. Most people who met Brecht during his difficult years in the United States were less than impressed. Poet W. H. Auden, who collaborated with Brecht on adapting Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi" for Broadway, thought Brecht was "an odious person", while theatre critic Eric Bentley described him as a scoundrel "without elementary decency".

Because of his abrasive and authoritarian personality, Brecht made no friends across the Atlantic. If anything helped him survive those difficult years, it was his unshakable and unflinching belief in his own greatness.

Brecht's relationship with the German emigration was no less tempestuous. Theodor Adorno -- sociologist, philosopher and prominent member of the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist social theory - wrote that "Brecht spends two hours a day pushing dirt under his fingernails to make himself look proletarian".

Brecht, in turn, referred to members of the Frankfurt Schools as "mandarins", "cultural elitists" and "prostituted intellectuals" whose "major revolutionary duty was to preserve the institute's money".

Brecht was a sincere believer in art as propaganda - not a mirror held up to reality, but "a hammer with which to shape it". That is why there was really no way for him - a practitioner of anti-illusionist estrangement in the theatre - to become accepted in a city built on the idea of turning chimeras into cash.

For Brecht, Hollywood was merely an epitome of the hypnotic capitalist machinery and his American period - a time of loneliness and cultural isolation. For Hollywood, on the other hand, Brecht was simply a shabby, bad-tempered and ill-mannered communist who lost his way in the city of angels. It was a mismatch of almost mythic proportions.