Lang (Fritz) and Brecht (Berthold)

By Wood, Robin | CineAction, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Lang (Fritz) and Brecht (Berthold)


Wood, Robin, CineAction


It is not clear to me just how well Lang knew Berthold Brecht: there is evidence that they met in Germany, but they collaborated only once, in Hollywood (Hangmen Also Die, 1943), and Brecht disowned the result. Yet I have the sense that Lang's work (at least from 1931 onward) owes more to Brechtian theory and practice than has been generally recognized. Only one film is fully and rigorously `Brechtian' on every level, but that one (M, 1931) is certainly among his greatest, and indeed is considered by many his masterpiece. Yet I find traces of Brecht's influence (invariably beneficial) in many of the Hollywood films, and especially in the finest of them. Another way of stating this would be to posit not so much a direct, consciously cultivated, influence, as Lang's discovery of an affinity of aim and outlook.

I must confess to having no great interest in the two American films in which one would expect this influence to be most apparent. Hangmen Also Die I find surprisingly and disappointingly dull, weighed down by too many uninteresting actors (Gene Lockhart's is its one memorable performance); and the film with the most obvious Brechtianisms, You and Me (1938)--didactic songs, the explicit use of lecture, complete with blackboard and chalk, to point a lesson--bafflingly uses these most superficial of Brecht's devices in the service of a safely capitalist moral, teaching criminals to be good citizens and obey the law, because that way they will make more money. (I feel very uneasy about this film: is there a level of irony that I have missed? Is the use of these Brechtian flourishes itself intended as ironic? The film could work like that only for the most intellectually sophisticated of viewers, which was scarcely one of Brecht's intentions).

Too much emphasis, in fact, has been placed on the obvious Brechtian devices, rather than on the underlying aims and impulses they were elaborated to express. It is possible to argue that they do not represent the only means by which those aims can find expression; it is also possible to argue that they are more appropriate to theatre than to cinema. The aims--the essence of Brecht--should be familiar enough, but it seems necessary to reiterate them here. Their basic premise is the hatred of capitalism and the denunciation of the manifold miseries it has produced: its emphasis on competition (rather than cooperation); its elevation of material wealth as the dominant human need; the resulting implicit endorsement and encouragement of greed and possessiveness as the essence of human desire; the setting not merely of class against class but of individual against individual, resulting in massive exaggeration of the drive to dominate, hence in the destruction of positive human relations. Arising directly from this premise is the necessity of challenging and radically transforming the characteristics of the dominant capitalist fictions (most directly theatre, as that was the area within which Brecht worked, but by implication the novel and the cinema). Brecht saw those characteristics (correctly enough, though art is never as monolithic as this may seem to imply) as an important part of the machinery with which capitalism keeps its subjects in a condition of chronic mystification, `realism' (the creation of the illusion of reality) consequently being the chief focus of attack. `Realism' held its spectators at the level of the individual: though the existence of problems was of course acknowledged (without them how could there be drama?), the problems were not with `the system', the rightness of which was a given, but arose from `human' (rather than culturally produced) needs and drives, which could be resolved (not necessarily happily, though the `happy end' was the commonest conclusion) without any need for social/political change (beyond, perhaps, a superficial reform or two, as in the typical Hollywood `social problem' movie).

The basis of Brecht's response to this was the substitution of critical distance for full involvement in the fiction and identification with its characters. …

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