Theater of War, a 2008 documentary film directed by John Walter, uses the rehearsal process of a play production as a lens through which to investigate German playwright Bertolt Brecht's ideas on theater, politics, and war. The chosen production is a 2006 staging of Mother Courage and Her Children, a play that Tony Kushner calls "the greatest of the 20th century". Staged by the Public Theater in New York's Central Park, the production starred Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, and was helmed by George C. Wolfe.
Theater of War provides access to the work process of some of the greatest actors of the era as they work to convey Brecht's political and artistic insights. In parallel, the film considers the three wars that ground the Central Park production: the Thirty Years' War that forms the setting for Mother Courage; the World War II context in which Brecht wrote the play while in exile from Nazi Germany; and the current day Iraq war, which inspired Streep and her collaborators to stage the piece.
The film plumbs the many elements of preparing a stage production. Theater of War includes interviews with the composer of a new musical score, Tony nominee Jeanine Tesori, as well as with costume designer Marina Draghici, and the myriad artisans and prop creators who support the production behind the scenes. The play’s director, George C. Wolfe, discusses his own motivations and intentions for the piece, while playwright Tony Kushner describes his lifelong admiration for Brecht and his struggle to create a new translation of the playbook for this production. Oskar Eustis], the Creative Director of the Public Theater, also chimes in, sharing how Brecht’s political commitment informed his writing, and how these works can inspire change in America’s social context today.
Brecht’s own remarkable biography provides insight into the play’s themes – the devastating impact of war on ordinary people and the futility of individual vs. collective action. Theater of War follows Brecht’s journey through interviews with scholars and surviving witnesses, including novelist Jay Cantor, Brecht’s assistant director Carl Weber, and Brecht’s daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall. These interviews, in combination with archival films, photographs, and original materials from the Bertolt Brecht Archiv in Berlin, create a rich collage portrait of the man and his creative work. A prodigy who won Germany’s top literature prize at the age of 24, Brecht’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when Hitler came to power. As a Marxist and political dissident who was married to the Jewish actress Helene Weigel, Brecht was forced into exile in 1933 and stripped of his German citizenship. The Brecht-Weigel family then moved from Berlin to Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and finally Santa Monica, California, where he was subject to FBI surveillance as an “Enemy Alien” and a suspected Communist agitator. The House Un-American Activities Committee interrogated Brecht in 1947 on the same day that it called the Hollywood Ten, which spurred Brecht to return to Europe, where he settled in East Berlin. There, in the capital of the Nazis, Helene Weigel presented Mother Courage in 1949, only four years after the end of the Third Reich, in a city that was still in rubble.
Weaving the histories of these three wars together with Brecht’s own biography and the story of the Mother Courage production, Theater of War challenges audiences to think about the real impact of war, and how one might resist the drive to war through political action and art. For as Brecht noted in his commentary on “Mother Courage,” “No effort is too great in the struggle against war.”
Theater of War is distributed on DVD by Alive Mind in North America. In 2008 it was featured at the Tribeca, Rome, Provincetown, Silverdocs, Seattle, Williamstown, and Traverse City film festivals. It has screened at art house theaters around the United States, including a run at New York's famed Film Forum, where Ronnie Scheib of Variety and Manohla Dargis of the New York Times gave it rave reviews.