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Heinrich Breloer on Fusing Documentary and Drama to Tell the Story of ‘Brecht’

Variety — Stewart Clarke

When “Brechtlaunched at the Berlinale, with a premiere attended by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany, it was the fruition of long-gestating project for German director Heinrich Breloer. He had met the associates of the German playwright decades earlier, but only now has used his trademark drama-meets-documentary approach to filmmaking to make a biopic of Brecht. As buyers come on board the Bavaria Fiction-produced series and it finds international homes, Breloer talks about making the miniseries.

Was “Brecht” many years in the making?

Back in 1977 I met Paula Banholzer, Brecht’s first love, and some of his friends from his early days. I made a documentary film about Brecht’s early years entitled ‘Bi and Bidi in Augsburg.’ Since then, while making a range of other films I found myself thinking about this story again and again.

Was it easy to find the subjects for the documentary segments of “Brecht”?

A lot of them are still alive, the people who were young a few years after the Second World War and were Brecht’s assistants at the Berliner Ensemble. They told me stories about Brecht’s return from exile in America, and about the development of a new kind of theater in the eastern part of Berlin. It also emerged that many of the questions Brecht posed in his day have lost none of their contemporary relevance 63 years after his death.

How did you capture the story of the Brecht the man?

Brecht deliberately concealed his private life, his persona. He wanted to be perceived only in terms of his work. He loved the masks of the classics. My intention, the subheading for the film, was ‘a legacy comes alive.’ The genius everyone worships comes down from the pedestal and faces us, beyond any form of ideology, and as a constantly productive individual who was very demanding of the people around him, especially his mistresses.

What is the look of the show, with its mixture of forms?

The look arises from the montage of various materials: the high-gloss staged scenes using state-of-the-art techniques, combined with older elements from the 1970s research, and the newly-filmed conversations with Brecht’s former colleagues from the last years of his life. There’s also amateur footage, which shows Brecht in a way we’ve never seen him before. This in turn creates the look of a double exposure between drama and documentary.

In this way the film is constantly narrated on different levels at the same time. And all of this comprises the search for the Brecht that is unknown to us.

What can you do with docu-drama that you can’t with drama or documentary alone?

In his epic theater Brecht developed a kind of language and acting technique that creates distance and makes what is depicted strange, in order to break the illusion of the theater and address the audience directly. That ensures that members of the audience are prompted to think and, from a distance, become able to recognize themselves, their own failings and possibilities – in order to prompt a change in their lives and in the society outside the theater.

And you employed a similar technique in “Brecht”?

When I employ documentary material to interrupt the illusion of the high-gloss cinema elements, I am establishing a similar distance. When the fiction is broken by means of reality in this way, it can prompt the members of the audience to think. Sometimes the documentary confirms the drama and vice versa, while sometimes the documentary contradicts the re-enactments. The old Paula reads the diary written by the young Brecht, where he claims he taught her to swim and she says: “The liar.”

When I intercut a dramatic re-enactment and an interview conducted 60 years later with one of the real people depicted in that enactment, the two levels can give a particular perspective. In the ideal case magic moments can develop from the encounter between the present and the past, fiction and reality, creating an authenticity that could not be achieved with staged scenes or documentary elements alone.