“It’s the only place he ever slept with his wife,” a German friend remarked as we stood at the grave of Bertolt Brecht, in a leafy cemetery of East Berlin. Helene Weigel, the Austrian actress whom the poet and playwright had married in 1929, lay interred beside him. If Frederick Engels proclaimed monogamy to be the ultimate expression of private property, the radical Brecht took the lesson to heart, maintaining multiple mistresses throughout his long career.
The Farewell, German director Jan Schütte’s poignant and delicately complex chamber piece, focuses on a single day near the end of the author’s life, when private melodramas and political disappointments threaten to overwhelm him. It’s August 1956; Brecht, Weigel, and their daughter, along with a scattered assortment of his past and present lovers, friends, and coworkers, are spending a final summer afternoon at Buckow, the lakeside retreat where Brecht penned his late elegies.
Current flame Käthe Reichel (Jeanette Hain), a nubile, antisocial actress, leaves wildflowers on his windowsill; Isot Kilian (Rena Zednikowa), another of his young squeezes, skinny-dips with her husband, activist-philosopher Wolfgang Harich (Samuel Fintzi). Rounding out the party are Brecht’s ex-girlfriends Elisabeth Hauptmann (Elfried Irrall), a self-effacing scribe, and Ruth Berlau (Margit Rogall), an aging, alcoholic thespian. Chain-smoking, hard-nosed Weigel (vividly portrayed by Monica Bleibtreu) presides over this unruly harem, deflecting the aggressions of both the couple’s grown daughter, Barbara (Birgitt Minichmayr), and the Stasi officer who drops in for a surprise visit.
Marvelously grizzled and tender, Josef Bierbichler’s Brecht wheezes and grumbles through it all, making graphs of his own temperature, and impossible demands upon everyone. “Be glad that I’m happy,” he says to Berlau, a lovelorn wreck, when she reproaches him for his endless dalliances. His omnivorous talent feeds off others; the lives he’s ruined or irrevocably altered surround him like so many blighted creations. Whether imperious or petulant, he’s the radiant center of their small universe. But twilight is fast approaching.
In 1948, Brecht had returned in triumph to his homeland after over a decade of penurious exile in Europe and America, years during which he wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mother Courage, and most of his great dramas. The infant East German state gave him a theater, the Berliner Ensemble, and made him its literary icon—”a king on a beer mug,” Harich calls him—but it also watched him closely. Schütte’s film perfectly captures this ambivalence: the author grateful for the intense attention, and the former refugee acutely aware that Germany’s fascist past lay just beneath the surface. Only a few overly broad characterizations (a self-righteous activist, a snarling drunk) mar the skillful ensemble performances, which convey the frightful mixture of egotism, guilt, and utopian longing that governed Brecht’s personal relations.
Throughout Brecht’s life, lyric impulses vied with epic forces. He was both a poet of evanescent, private experience and a political dramatist, spinning out his fantasies on the great stage of history. Now that the very state whose existence he toiled for has itself become a phantom, Schütte’s film (aided by John Cale’s pensive score) focuses on the small moments punctuating a lazy summer afternoon: a lover’s embrace, a passing cloud, a poem recited by a schoolchild. They are what remains, it seems to suggest, in a life’s final hours, when all ideals and bitterness are gone.