I began watching Theater of War with low expectations. Documentaries about the making of plays usually disappoint me for a variety of reasons, not the least being that what works well on stage seldom works well on film -- in so many ways, the art forms are the opposite of each other. The process of making plays is also not inherently dramatic -- it's generally slow and repetitive, often frustrating, and the best rehearsal processes, at least in my experience, are ones all about doing as much wrong as possible in order to find, through experiment and elimination, what's right.
I often found Theatre of War gripping, however. Partly, this is because I'm interested in the people involved -- Tony Kushner, George C. Wolfe, Meryl Streep, and, especially, Bertolt Brecht. The film uses the opportunity of chronicling the 2006 production of Mother Courage and Her Children put on by the Public Theater in Central Park to chronicle much more than that -- to explore Brecht's life and work, and to meditate on essential questions of art and politics.
The Public's production starred Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, was directed by George C. Wolfe, and the translation/adaptation was by Tony Kushner, with music by Jeanine Tesori. Great actors, a tremendously creative director, and a script by one of the greatest playwrights of the last century translated/adapted by one of the greatest American playwrights of the last twenty-five years. As ingredients for productions go, that's a pretty marvelous mix, and part of my interest in the film was in seeing how all of those people worked together.
I don't know if the production was artistically successful -- I am inclined to trust Michael Feingold's judgment on things when it comes to Brecht, and he had only the barest praise for it. That doesn't really matter for the movie, though, because the film can sift and sort, showing us only the most interesting moments of the many hours filmed. Mostly, director/editor John Walter decided to focus on Meryl Streep's performance, and the judgment seems to have been a good one, because it lets us glimpse some of the development of the role.
All of that is fine and good, especially for someone like me, who prefers rehearsals to performances. But you don't have to be a theatre geek to get a lot from this film, because Walter opens things out effectively, bringing in discussions of Marxism, politics, culture, and history. It's not obvious why the filmmakers settled on having Tufts University professor and writer Jay Cantor talk about Marxism and Brecht, but the choice turns out to have been inspired -- Cantor is both insightful and funny, with good screen presence, and I sometimes found myself thinking, "Forget Streep and Kline -- let's get back to Jay Cantor and the labor theory of value!"
For me, though, the most exciting material was about Brecht, Helene Weigel, and the Berliner Ensemble. I could listen to Carl Weber reminisce about Brecht for hours, and Barbara Brecht-Schall's reminiscences of life with her parents were fascinating, though all too brief. (If only they'd been able to add Eric Bentley!) I doubt some of these sections would be as compelling to someone who was not particularly interested in Brecht. I spent much time during my undergraduate years in a love-hate relationship with his work; have, over the last fifteen years, read the majority of his plays, poems, and essays; and have seen quite a few productions, especially of Mother Courage. Brecht remains a writer I wrestle with more than embrace, but that in some ways makes him a writer of more interest to me than most others (indeed, among playwrights, I would rank him second only to Beckett in the 20th century). John Walter skilfully weaves together ideas and information that would have proved daunting to many other filmmakers.
Ultimately, there is too much information and too many idea for the film to really cohere, but that didn't bother me too much -- because I'd gone in with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the movie was interesting, and then I was willing to follow wherever it wanted to go. Any of its five sections could have been expanded into a film unto itself, but I was okay with that. Theater of War got me thinking about Brecht again, about art and politics, about fame and history and humanity. Most movies accomplish far less.