In 10 Words or Less
The fictionalized end of Bertolt Brecht's polyamorous life
Likes: Gratuitous nudity
Dislikes: Foreign political drama
I won't attempt to pretend that I know much about Bertolt Brecht, beyond a very general knowledge of his work. But after watching The Farewell I now know that Brecht was a stone-cold pimp. The playwright and director had several affairs going on at any given time, and didn't care who knew it. In fact, he even shared his friend's wife sexually. Such was his power as a creative force.
Though Brecht's life was a study in the interplay of art and politics, the film is a more intimate look at the man, as portrayed by Josef Bierbichler. In this movie, Brecht is a compact, burly bear of a man, one who dominates those around him through sheer strength of personality. That group includes his wife, the dutiful Helene; their daughter Barbara, a pyromaniac; a beautiful young actress named Käthe; his older confidente, partner and lover, Elisabeth Hauptmann; a drunken former lover, Ruth, and his revolutionary friend Wolfgang and his wife Isot. The gang is wrapping up a lakeside vacation, as Brecht prepares to return to the theater, addled with a serious fever.
A sense of Brecht's life as king among this loosely-connected court is presented simply via a meal. He sits proudly at the head of a table where he's been intimate with five of the seven people present, and the only reason it's not seven is because one is a guy and the other his daughter. Not surprisingly, there's a tremendous sense of stress and tension, but Brecht eats with his head down, raising his eyes only for political discussion or to yell at Barbara for talking back at Ruth. Brecht's disconnect from the emotional turmoil, despite him being the very cause of it, is a perfect microcosm of the film.
While Brecht is busy preparing for a rehearsal, his wife keeps from him the presence of the German secret police. This simple betrayal is just a symbol of the unraveling, decreasing control the ailing Brecht holds, and the effect his health has on the people who love him. As a younger man, he was certain to have been a dynamic, charismatic person, but here is a shell of that man, with a mindset that can no longer be suffered by his hangers-on.
Though the events of the film, which takes place on a single day, never happened this way, they do present a pressurized version of the story. Thus, bringing together his various lovers illustrates just what kind of life he was living, juggling women who undoubtedly served as muses, especially Käthe. The interplay between the ladies is one of the best parts of the film, with Ruth, a lush unable to let go of Brecht, delivering the most over-the-top performance; a mix of pathetic sadness and slapstick comedy.
The rest of the writer's harem play their parts to the limits of the characters on the page. The end result is a film that walks a tightrope of drama and laughter, despite the serious story that lies on the edges of Brecht's life. By the final frame, it seems like the filmmakers wanted the viewer to remain as blithely oblivious to reality as the film's "hero" is.
New Yorker Video has released The Farewell on one DVD, in a standard keepcase, with a four-page insert that has chapter stops, Web links and an essay (see The Extras). The disc features a static, anamorphic widescreen main menu, with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the subtitles, watch the theatrical trailer, and view extras. A promotional area for New Yorker Video, with four trailers, is also included. The scene selection menus have still previews and titles for each scene, while subtitles are available in English only. There are no language options or closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen video on this DVD leans towards the dull end of the spectrum, with plenty of video noise and a generally soft look. Though the color is generally good, but drab, the level of detail isn't very high for a film just five years old.
The audio, presented in the original German in a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, is of a higher quality than the picture, with nice sound effects and well-recorded dialogue, in a mix that's strong and clear. Nice touches, like a woodpecker in the distance, make for a quality stereo soundfield.
The best special feature on this DVD probably isn't on the DVD. An essay, "Facts and Fiction," by theater professor Gitta Honegger, helps explain the differences between the truth of Brecht's life and the events in the film, which help compress the themes of his life into one day. Honegger also wrote a series of biographies of the people portrayed in the film for the DVD. It could be said that she's a bit enamored of Brecht (the phrase "the most influential playwright/director of the 20th century" seems a bit like hyperbole to me), but her writing is useful as an introduction to the players.
The historical photo gallery is a nice touch, as its 10 still photos show locations represented in the film and the people being portrayed, providing a link between the film and the real story. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer. Unfortunately, it is not subtitled, and it gives away the ending of the film.
The Bottom Line
The Farewell, a film about such popular topics like mid-20th century German playwrights and the politics of communism in Cold War Germany, didn't start out ahead of the game in terms of connecting with viewers. But despite the subject matter, the film is extremely accessible, thanks to relatively universal concepts like relationships and sex, though the subtitles will limit the audience anyway. The DVD is of a decent level of quality, with a few useful bonuses, but a purchase should be limited to fans of Brecht or similar foreign films.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.