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From Oshima to Angelopoulos, through the production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, we recognize the many traces of the work of Bertolt Brecht, communist playwright, theorist and theater director, in the cinema of the second half of the 20th century. These eight films, made between 1967 and 1979, take up the complex and lucid scheme of political theater by Brecht, not merely adopting his subjects or replicating his techniques. Cinema is here a communication tool, through which reality is presented as changeable, “because it is animated from within by a dialectical tension that pushes to transformation”, and at the same time puts the viewer in an active attitude. By showing the socio-economic contradictions and the lacerating effects they cause on mankind, this legacy of directors has taken up Brecht’s ambitious challenge, managing to stimulate both critical activity in the audience and the emotional tension for change.

1. Baal di Volker Schlöndorff, 1970

Volker Schlöndorff transported Bertolt Brecht’s 1918 debut play to contemporary West Germany for this vicious experiment in adaptation, seldom seen for nearly half a century. Oozing with brutish charisma, Rainer Werner Fassbinder embodies the eponymous anarchist poet, who feels that bourgeois society has rejected him and sets off on a schnapps-soaked rampage. Hewing faithfully to Brecht’s text, Schlöndorff juxtaposes the theatricality of the prose with bare-bones, handheld 16 mm camera work, which gives immediacy to this savage story of rebellion. Featuring a supporting cast drawn from Fassbinder’s troupe of theater actors that also includes Margarethe von Trotta, BAAL the uncompromising vision of its director, a trailblazer of the New German Cinema. – The Criterion Channel


2. The Marriage of Maria Braun by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979

With “The Marriage of Maria Braun” Fassbinder overcomes the barrier of film “for cinephiles”. We can recognize many influences, from Godard to Douglas Sirk, passing through Brecht and Wedekind, but the author offers us a true fictional and poetic story whose troubled characters are treated with nobility. Another strong point of the film, which unites it with Visconti’s “Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa” or even Murnau’s films, is the way in which Fassbinder turns his gaze in an egalitarian way to women as well as to men, a very rare thing. Fassbinder loves women as much as men, and does not discriminate in showing their bodies: the nudity of a black American soldier, not obese but frankly overweight, possesses the same beauty as the naked witch in Dreyer’s “Dies Irae”. – François Truffaut

3. La chinoise by Jean-Luc Godard, 1967 

Towards the end of his pre-’68 appropriation of Brecht, Godard begins to be more explicit about his political affiliation with the writer. This is particularly evi-dent in what is perhaps the most iconic reference to Brecht in any Godard film, indeed in any Brechtian film: the blackboard scene in La Chinoise (1967). This film, one of Godard’s last before his rejection of “bourgeois” filmmaking and his establishment, with Jean-Pierre Gorin, of the activist film-making collective Groupe Dziga Vertov, is an agitational “comedy thriller” which tells the story of a group of young people who set up a Maoist cell in Paris to discuss Marxism and to translate revolutionary theory into practice. There are at least five explicit references to Brecht in the film: he is, for example, lauded, along with Shakespeare, as a dramatist of “un vrai theatre”, a Strehler production of Brecht in Milan is singled out for particular praise (via Althusser), and the early film pioneer Georges Melies is lauded as a “Brechtian” director. In the “blackboard scene”, finally, a role-call of canonical writers, including Dumas, Sartre, Sophocles, Voltaire, Albee, Cocteau, Aeschylus, Goethe, Pinter, Feydeau, Schiller, Chekhov, Duras, Goldoni, Marlowe, Giraudoux, Corneille, Calderon, Claudel, Genet and Racine, is erased one-by-one with a damp cloth, leaving “Brecht” standing alone and proud at the centre of a tabula rasa of Western culture. 

In La Chinoise Brecht is exalted as a revolutionary dramatist and ever-present as an inspiration for the film’s mise-en-scene (with its titles, fragmentation, songs, commentaries and so on). Here, more perhaps than in any other film by Godard, we have a correspondence of aesthetic appropriation and political allegiance. – from “Verwisch Die Spuren!”: Bertolt Brecht’s Work and Legacy: A Reassessment by Robert Gillett (Contributor), Godela Weiss-Sussex (Editor)

4. The Travelling Players by Theo Angelopoulos, 1975

It was filmed in Greece in 1974, at no small risk, under the hard-line rule of the Greek colonels’ junta. Why the military police who watched its progress allowed it to be completed is a mystery, since the film clearly examines the turbulent history of its country of origin from a radical Brechtian point of view. Perhaps the colonels’ men thought that this story of a troupe of itinerant actors touring Golfo the Shepherdess, a pastoral folk drama set to music and song, was harmless enough. But it wasn’t, since the period in which it is set (1939 to 1952) warmed the seeds of their masters’ military coup. [Read more] – Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

5. Death by Hanging by Nagisa Ōshima, 1968

Oshima’s unquestionable masterpiece, Death By Hanging is one of the great works of Brechtian cinema, wielding avant-garde anti-narrative and intense, absurd theatricality to deliberately rupture and restore cinematic illusionism and pull the spectator into a sustained and emotionally resonant dialectic on the death penalty and the responsibilities of the State. Death By Hanging‘s harsh critique of the Japanese justice system and the nation’s endemic racism was inspired by Oshima’s impassioned connection with the life and later published writings of Lee Chi-nu the young and precociously talented ethnic Korean convicted of murdering two Japanese school girls. With his talented wife Akiko Koyama as the young man’s sister, Oshima also perversely cast the maverick radical filmmaker Masao Adachi in the role of a hapless policeman. – Harvard Film Archive

6. St. Michael Had a Rooster  by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 1972

Giulio Maineri, an internationalist anarchist of bourgeois origins, around 1870 led a coup in a small town. The enterprise fails because it is immature and poorly prepared and the boss is sentenced to death. The sentence changed to life imprisonment, Maineri fills his cell with lonely fantasies. Speaking to himself he pretends to be in the midst of political debates and thus to witness the triumph of the revolution: he overcomes the dismay of segregation and continues to feel alive. After ten years, during the transfer to an island in the Lagoon, he crosses a boat that takes other subversives to jail and exchanges a few words with them. Just enough to disclose the differences between two ways of rebelling. While Maineri has remained a “spontaneist” who puts all his cards on the imagination, the younger ones have replaced the patient struggle for adventurism.

The defeated utopia, then? Even here the film is complex and problematically open, as clear and linear: on the other boat, it is true, political realism and scientific socialism travel, with their claims to universal validity, but also with the incipient risks of dogmatism and bureaucratization; the militant workers and the rebellious sons of the bourgeoisie travel, the long proletarian patience and youthful restlessness, the lucidity of the Leninist conception of the party and the greyness of the apparatuses. […] It remains to be discussed, in short, whether and to what extent the Manieri’s suicide “agrees” to those on the other boat: “We – say the Tavianis – are on Giulio’s side. But we’re also on the other boat’s side. Or maybe even on. We would like to be on a third boat, with a shape yet to be discovered, in which Giulio’s imagination joins the more scientific sense that is on the other boat ”. – Sandro Zambetti, «Cineforum 137», 1972

7. Geschichtunterricht by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, 1972

A young man meets a banker, a peasant, a lawyer, and a writer who lived through Julius Caesar’s rise to power – and a city that has survived it … The film tells the original relations between commerce, democracy, capitalism and imperialism.’ This is how Straub described this film adapted from a small section of Brecht’s unfinished Roman novel. It is constructed in two movements: in the first one, long takes of contemporary Rome shot from a moving car offer a reflection on the city and its historical and social development (‘To understand the street, you must see the street!’, said Straub). In the second one, a young German researcher engages in a series of dialogues set in Ancient Rome on the economic affairs and political opportunism that drove Julius Caesar to power. Straub: ‘Othon was also about Empire, but it dealt merely with the political games of a dominant clique, whereas here it’s not only about imperialism and questions of economy. It is about the origin of the capitalist system as it has been constructed against the Senate, as it functioned and developed. It is not by chance that Brecht was intensely reading Das Kapital when he was writing it.

Especially with Brecht’s prose, which we had to sing in order to find its content, to know what the dynamic of the argument was and how it worked … One must find the veins of the text. The veins in that marble block that is the text, be it a monologue or only a sentence. There are veins inside, as in a stone extracted from a quarry! These veins are the veins of the enunciation, of logic, etc. We need to know when it is best not to breathe, where you can breathe and where you should – and not in any old way.” – J.-M. Straub, Le chemin passait par Hölderlin, 1993


8. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion by Elio Petri, 1971

A paranoid police procedural, a perverse parable about the corrupting elements of power, and a candidate for the greatest predated Patriot Act movie ever, Elio Petri’s stunning thriller makes no attempt to hide the culprit behind the film’s grisly murder: It wants you to know that Gian Maria Volontè’s dapper killer is responsible for the beautiful corpse splayed out on those black silk bedsheets. The shocks here are (a) that the spaghetti-Western stalwart isn’t wearing a cowboy hat for once, and (b) that Volontè is not just the criminal, he’s also the homicide detective heading up the investigation. Deliberately hiding some clues while planting others in plain sight – bloody footprints, a strand of his tie purposefully inserted under her fingernails – the rising-up-the-precinct-ladder cop plays a game of cat-versus-other-dumber-cats, all while ordering copious wiretaps and amassing blackmail fodder against radical agitators. Is he toying with his fellow officers to demonstrate his sociopathic superiority? Or is he trying to take down a rotten system from the inside, debunking the notion that any citizen is above suspicion? – David Fear, Time Out

15 October 2021
15 January 2022

Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi

Curated by
Video Sound Art

Laura Lamonea
Chief curator

Thomas Ba
Junior curator

Daniela Amandolese

Francesca Mainardi

Lino Palena

Davide Francalanci
Editorial insights