Swans Commentary » swans.com June 20, 2005  



Brecht In Hollywood


by Charles Marowitz






(Swans - June 20, 2005)   After the German theatre of the twenties was galvanized by productions of "Baal," "Drums in the Night" and "Threepenny Opera", the Weimar Republic got rudely swept away by the coming of the Third Reich and Bertolt Brecht found himself hounded from Denmark, to Sweden, to Finland through Russia, winding up in California in 1941.

Could there be anything more anachronous than a fiery Marxist and anti-naturalistic poet-playwright making the rounds of Hollywood Studios hawking screen outlines to the likes of the Jack and Harry Warner and Harry Cohn? Brecht in Los Angeles was more than a fish out of water; he was more like a beached whale.

He was, though, no stranger to cinema. He had experimented with silent films in the early twenties. His first effort was an unproduced screenplay entitled "Hanna Cash" which dealt with the exploits of a female buccaneer. It was never made and the scenario has disappeared. In collaboration with Casper Neher, who eventually designed many of the Berliner Ensemble productions, he worked on "The Mystery of the Jamaica Bar," a fanciful tale of women being lured into the white slave trade by a nefarious planter. Finance for that film never materialized and neither Brecht nor his collaborator ever received their fee.

In l922, Tagbuch, a popular magazine, offered a prize of 100,000 marks (seriously reduced in cash value by the German inflation) for a film scenario which would then be produced by the Oswald Company. Working closely with an incipient Nazi collaborator named Arnolt Bronnen, the team came up with "Robinsonade on Assuncion," a kind of embryonic "Swept Away" fable in which a couple of predatory survivors on a Pacific island enter into a deadly rivalry to win the affections of a lone female survivor. Ultimately, the two men kill one another in their pursuit of the coveted woman and she promptly goes mad. It is rumored that the competition was fixed and that Brecht had an inside track to an influential jury member which virtually assured him of the prize. When it was finally released under the title "SOS Island of Tears," both authors repudiated it.

After the astounding stage success of "Threepenny Opera," G.W. Pabst acquired the film rights and Brecht managed to inveigle himself into the project as screenwriter. He came up with a highly politicized version of the musical and re-titled it "The Boil: A Threepenny Film." The transformation irritated Pabst who brought in another writer -- Leo Lania -- whom Brecht immediately attempted to steer towards the film he had originally envisaged. But Pabst, in concert with the producers, barred him from the project and ultimately, the collision of personalities and cross-purposes produced the scandalous "Threepenny" Trial in which Brecht tried, without success to, to assert the writer's proprietary rights to his own material.

It being the twenties, it may well have been the very first instance of a writer insisting on custodial rights to his own screenplay, and of course, Brecht lost the suit. It would be more than half a century later before the issue reappeared in Hollywood and today, of course, the writer is still no nearer to full possession of his rights than he was a century ago. The only other significant footnote to the Pabst film of "Threepenny Opera" is that Antonin Artaud was used as an extra. The one and only time that the fathers of Theater of Cruelty and Epic Theatre ever crossed paths.

The most successful of Brecht's movie efforts was probably "Kuhle Wampe," a film that grew out of the German Depression of the early 1930s. It succeeded in typifying the personal tragedies that bitter social conditions had created throughout Germany. It was also the first time that Brecht successfully blended documentary techniques, dramatic narrative and clear-cut political intentions; the same ingredients which would eventually go into his creation of Epic Theatre.

Once in Hollywood, Brecht threw himself into the émigré community. He could barely speak English but that didn't stop him from plugging away at film projects. His most useful ally there was Peter Lorre who had played the lead in "A Man's a Man" in Berlin, but he also hob-nobbed with Oscar Homolka, Herman Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht and Clifford Odets.

Brecht was part of the circle that met regularly in Salka Viertel's salon in Santa Monica and it was only among the émigré community and the literati that he could relive something of the notoriety he had known in the Berlin of the 1920s. It was only they who knew who Bertolt Brecht was, although to most of the Viertel circle, the name and persona were still somewhat fuzzy. One might have expected him and Billy Wilder to have hit it off because of their common background and similar temperaments, but all Wilder ever said of him was: "I met him two or three times at parties during the way. That's all I can tell you."

There was only one real film job and only one credit -- Fritz Lang's "Hangmen Also Die"; Screenplay by John Wexler; Story by Bertolt Brecht -- but behind that lackluster credit lie a storm of controversy and a great tangle of hurt feelings.

Lang was one of the more successful of the German émigré directors, a small group that included Fred Zinneman, Curt Siodmak William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, and of course, Wilder. In a sense, Lang had the strongest artistic credentials having created both "Metropolis" and "The Testament of Doctor Mabuse" before declining Goebbels' offer to head up the Nazified German cinema and then fleeing to America. In Hollywood, he had made creditable pictures such as "You Only Live Once," "Fury," "Thieves Like Us," "The Return of Frank James," and "Western Union." He certainly knew of Brecht's formidable reputation and also knew he was impecunious in California and so the offer to work on "Hangmen" was something of a hand out.

It was a frustrating experience for Brecht. He worked from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on what was generally referred to as "The Hostage Story." All of Brecht's creative suggestions were subject to the same litmus test by Lang: "Will the public buy it?" Anything the public "would not buy" got chucked out or heavily attenuated. The story concerned the assassination in Lidice, Czechoslovakia of Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler's closest friends and the Deputy Fuhrer.

From the start, Lang had decided that German actors would play the Nazi-roles and Americans the Czech freedom fighters. Today, the film comes across as a fairly standard propaganda picture of the 1940s. Brian Donlevy as the assassin is characteristically wooden; Anna Sten, emotionally overstated -- but Walter Brennan as a patriotic Czech doctor, is interestingly cast against type and Gene Lockhart, as the unmasked Nazi collaborator, flutteringly cowardly and comically hysterical when the patriots trick the Nazis into believing he is the actual assassin of the Nazi butcher. The most fascinating performance, as might be expected, is turned in by Alexander Granach; a spookily subtle and highly mannered German actor whose reputation was legendary in the German theatre.

For Brecht, the film was about the spirit of the resistance in Europe and the way in which it created a national opposition to defy, and occasionally outwit, the Nazis. For Lang, it was an adventure film which, in the best Hollywood tradition, consisted of unexpected twists and plot-wrenching turns. Writing about Lang's approach, Brecht neatly defines the difference between the thrill-seeking filmmaker and the serious dramatist: "Interesting," he writes in his Journal "that (Lang) is far more interested in surprises than in tension." In the theatre, of course, one moved gradually from one plane to another leading the audience by the nose to higher and higher ground. In the movies, one sensation was simply the forerunner to a lot of subsequent sensations, all carefully placed to maximize shock. Lang's objective was to stir the emotions of the audience; Brecht's, to insinuate ideas which would eventually enrich their perceptions.

If Lang, the monocled, Viennese aristocrat, was on a different planet from Brecht, John Wexley, his screen collaborator, inhabited another solar system altogether. Wexley was the author of "The Last Mile," a fabricated prison melodrama which made a star out of Spencer Tracy. Apart from "Angels With Dirty Faces," his screenplays included workmanlike efforts such as "City of Conquest," "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" and "The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse."

But Wexley, unlike Brecht, knew the studio system inside and out. Just before the film was ready for release, he insisted that sole screenplay rights belonged to him; this, despite the fact that Brecht had been brainstorming the movie with Lang from the very start. But Wexley had accumulated an impressive paper trail -- viz. scenes, notes and memos all bearing his name -- probably in anticipation of the Screen Writers Guild hearing he knew would ensue. Brecht had only oral testimony -- in broken English -- of the work he had contributed to the project.

Brecht wrote in his diary that when he asked Wexley's secretary for a copy of a sequence which had been translated into English, "he (Wexley) makes the most childish excuses" and doesn't provide one. When he takes a scrawled original copy of one home with him, Wexley "telephones around after me, -- it seems I may have taken a sheet with me that he may need, and he can't go on working without it. It appears," concludes Brecht "that these tricks are highly paid." The fact is Wexley was an experienced screenwriter and Brecht something of a tyro and so it is quite possible that the lion's share of the script was assembled by Wexley. But when one contemplates work sessions between one of the most imaginative playwrights of the 20th century and screenwriter John Wexley, it is hard to believe Bertolt Brecht did not make major conceptual contributions to the work in hand.

When it came to the hearing, the weight of tangible evidence was in Wexley's favor. Lang alleged that he championed Brecht in the dispute, but it is more likely that he wanted to retain neutrality -- particularly in regard to the studio. Being an émigré, no matter how supportive he might have wanted to be to his countryman, his abiding loyalty was to the studio bosses that saw Wexley as "one of their own" and the stuttering, Germanic playwright as something of an outsider.

The credit controversy waxed on for some sixty years. According to Bruce Cook, author of Brecht in Exile, a book that sets out to disparage Brecht and demystify his myth, it may be unfair to paint Wexley as "the heavy." Cook interviewed him in the eighties and despite a lot of rationalizing recollection, nothing very persuasive emerges from his testimony. Wexley via Cook claims he re-encountered Brecht in l948 just before he was about to leave for East Berlin and that the playwright was "a little shamefaced about it all." It remains a fascinating, unresolved dispute but, given the paltry nature of the film in question, not one that need be arbitrated with any great heat.

The Hollywood adventure was a brief, aggravating period in Brecht's life, significant mainly because it was during this period of exile that he wrote some of his most substantial stage works. Although he never made it in Hollywood, it was during this sojourn that he refined plays such as "Caucasian Chalk Circle," "Fear and Misery in the Third Reich," "Galileo," "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," and "Mother Courage." Not a bad track record for a failed screenwriter.

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Published June 20, 2005