A Couple of Genuises

By

Erwin Piscator, the famous German theater director, spent the 1940s
in New York, where I knew him slightly. One day in 1944, he invited
me to a reception he was giving for an old Berlin friend of his, a
playwright who was now living in California and was coming east for
a visit. I had met so many German and Austrian theater refugees in
the past decade that, heartless though it may sound, I thought I
could do without one more. I thanked Piscator but said I would be
busy that day, and this is why I did not meet Bertolt Brecht.Manifold are my regrets. Most of them are obvious. Though I knew
little of Brecht's work at the time, I am sure that I would have
profited from conversation between him and Piscator. But, odd
though it sounds, what I regret most is that I might have found
some hint on a personal matter--the source of his attraction. Here
was a man who, as I later read and heard, deliberately kept himself
slovenly, even dirty, who was utterly self-centered, who smoked
cigars incessantly without regard for the wishes of others, who was
imperious, demanding, flauntingly unreliable; yet around whom
people flocked. Women, particularly, fawned over him, fought for
him, sometimes in groups. Maybe an afternoon's meeting might have
given me a clue about the questions that came along later.

Jan Schtte, a German film-maker, has made The Farewell (New Yorker)
as if to answer my questions. (It opened at the Film Forum in New
York.) Schtte's film doesn't answer them, any more than my (missed)
meeting with Brecht could have done, but the purpose of The
Farewell is to show the Brecht court in action, its monarch and its
courtiers, and how it operated. If the film does not precisely
answer the questions, at any rate it dramatizes them by allowing us
to eavesdrop. With a screenplay by the acute playwright-screenwriter
Klaus Pohl, who wrote the memorable Otomo,The Farewell makes vivid
the Brecht atmospherics- -in art and in politics and in
dailyness.

The time is the last days of Brecht's life, August, 1956; the
setting is back in Germany at the summer place that the GDR has
given him at Buckow outside Berlin. Present with him--and this is
factual--are his wife, the actress Helene Weigel (the most famous
Mother Courage); Ruth Berlau, a former mistress whom he has driven
to alcoholism with his inattention and who begs for a return to
intimacy; Isot Kilian, a young woman whose politically dissident
husband Wolfgang Harich openly shares her with Brecht; a young
actress named Kthe Reichel, also a mistress, whom Brecht is
coaching for his theater company; and Elisabeth Hauptmann, his
secretary, who is believed by many to have contributed
substantially to some of Brecht's plays. Peripherally present, too,
is Brecht's beer-swilling daughter Barbara.

The fifty-eight-year-old Brecht is played with weight and quiet and
imperturbable authority by Josef Bierbichler. He gives us a man so
used to adulation that it no longer flatters or embarrasses him,
and whose main method of dealing with opposition is not to reply
but to examine the reasons for the questions. He is not a mere
sultan, but he tacitly uses his stature as a means to
gratifications, large and small. By 1956 he was a widely recognized
genius-- of drama, of theater directing, of theater aesthetics,
and, most particularly, of poetry. (The poems are lesser known here
than his plays, although, as Michael Wood has said of them, they
are "obviously major work.") Unkempt, unshaven, egocentric, he is a
sun around which planets revolve.

Brecht is now ill with heart trouble, though he continues smoking.
Eric Bentley, who had worked with him in America, visited him two
months before these last days and said he looked "physically
shrunken"; in the film he looks solid. Perhaps Pohl and Schtte used
dramatic license here to heighten the contrast between self and
fate. At the end of the film Brecht leaves for Berlin to rehearse
his company. A closing line tells us that three days later he died
of a heart attack.

Enough of his poetry, his thought, his theater is included in the
film to give him artistic and intellectual being. His political
difficulties, and those of the people around him, figure strongly
and show how, with Weigel's help, Brecht kept his head above the
police-state currents. But the film's best accomplishment is in
portraying the man as man. For any viewer, The Farewell is an
engrossing visit to the bizarre household of a sly yet candid
master. For those already concerned with Brecht, the film is
another occasion almost to chuckle at the sheer brass of a man,
justified--in his own mind, at least--by genius.

A Beautiful Mind (Universal) is another attempt to deal with genius
and its problems. This time the genius is mathematical, and the
problems are not political or social but mental. John Forbes Nash
Jr. did brilliant work at Princeton in the late 1940s, slipped into
schizophrenia, struggled recurrently with it, and was awarded the
Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1994.

But the screenplay by Akiva Goldsman is a glossy example of how a
troubled and troublesome life can be sanitized into a Movieland
saga. The messy dissonances of Nash's life, sexual and social and
otherwise (all publicly available), have been transmuted into a
homophonic drama--a protagonist battles an obstacle, with his wife
at his side, and wins through to success. In fact, Nash and his
wife were divorced and remarried, and he got the prize for work
that he had done years earlier as a young man. When Goldsman was
jogged about the omissions and alterations in his script, he said,
"This was never a biopic. " That is true. But what sort of pic did
Goldsman think he was contriving?

We follow Nash through his graduate-school days, then to his
employment both as a teacher and as a codebreaker for the U.S.
military. He marries and has a child; then the paranoia that
brought him to schizophrenia obtrudes past concealment, and we
learn that all his secret government work has been his sheer
fantastication. (The director, Ron Howard, tampers a bit with this
fantasizing: in the military scenes we occasionally glimpse actions
behind Nash's back that he couldn't possibly have imagined.) His
recovery, such as it is, and his subsequent life, and the Nobel
ceremony, conclude matters.

Jennifer Connelly, as his wife, is warm and proud, frightened and
brave. Ed Harris, as the non-existent secret agent who attends Nash
constantly, is granitic. Christopher Plummer, as Nash's
psychiatrist, is insufficiently used. Nash is played by Russell
Crowe, and I am quirky enough to say that, within the bounds of the
film, his dilemma as actor is more interesting than Nash's. The
latter's agony is confined to the sequences of mental unbalance.
Crowe's dilemma is before us for the film's entire
one-hundred-thirty-four minutes.

Crowe is an intelligent and searching actor. Whether he is the
careful complainant in The Insider or the robustious action hero in
Gladiator, we feel that he wants to know why he is doing what he
does and how he can unify everything into a cogent whole. He
certainly applies that intelligence and search to the role of Nash.
But one element that Crowe unfortunately does not have, not a dram
of it, is charm, appeal, charisma. He is not an intrinsically
attractive man, and in an unattractive role the problem is
compounded. When Dustin Hoffman played an autistic man in Rain Man,
when Debra Winger played a mentally impaired woman in A Dangerous
Woman, they took us with them because, sheerly as theater figures,
they compel. Crowe, despite his best efforts, doesn't move us much:
he only makes us impatient for the wheels of the story to turn more
quickly.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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