As an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's first play (first written in 1919 but revised several times after that), Schlöndorff's 16-mm television film Baal (1969) is a bow to German cultural tradition and in particular to the anarchism of late expressionism and Weimar culture. Drawing once again from the stylistic approaches of the French New Wave, Baal unites these German and French sources to map a path forward to the New German Cinema of the 1970s. The film is at once a highly literary presentation of the Brecht text and an exploration of the newer, freer film vocabulary that had emerged from the international young cinema movements of the 1960s.
The film follows Baal, a young, ingenious, and unstable poet-balladeer with a scandalous zest for life, love, and liquor, through multiple sexual encounters and cruel, shocking personal adventures that end with his premature death. Baal qualifies as a male counterpart to Frank Wedekind's Lulu—equally manipulative, equally fascinating to both sexes, but more dissolute, depraved, deviant, and even outright criminal. In normal narratives, Baal would be a villain, but the character acquires quasi-mythical dimensions and associations to French poets François Villon and Paul Verlaine. The hero becomes a kind of hedonist demigod who reverts to simple mortality as his lonely death approaches. In the role of Baal, Schlöndorff cast Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose strident productions had made him a controversial figure in the Munich underground theater.
One motivation for Schlöndorff to adapt Baal appears to have sprung from the comparable sense of hedonism and anarchism that the youth culture of the late 1960s shared with Brecht's figure. Brecht's Baal is a hippie before his time, a dropout who both profits from and disdains middle-class society. The