John Walter labels his film Theater Of War “a documentary about art and politics,” which is the kind of blatant provocation meant to pay homage to the film’s ostensible subject, Bertolt Brecht. In 2006, Walter was allowed to film the rehearsals for George C. Wolfe’s Central Park production of Brecht’s anti-war play Mother Courage And Her Children, starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Austin Pendleton, with a Tony Kushner translation and songs by Jeanine Tesori. Walter was also granted extended time with Streep, who allowed a rare and reluctant glimpse at her process in deference to Brecht, an artist who favored exposing his own artifice. Walter intersperses his coverage of the Mother Courage production with biographical sketches and analysis of Brecht—much of it provided by post-modern novelist Jay Cantor. At one point, Walter shoots some stock footage of Cantor working at his computer, then cuts to a shot of what Cantor is writing: a few idle lines about how much he hates pretending to work for the sake of a movie.
Though Theater Of War is informative—both about Brecht and about the effort it takes to mount a big New York production—Walter overreaches in trying to connect Brecht’s anti-war sentiment with contemporary protest movements, and doesn’t do more than dabble with the themes of truth and representation in documentary filmmaking. There’s an interesting section about how in Brecht’s 1947 appearance before HUAC, he used his own theatrical techniques to throw Congress off the scent of his Marxist leanings; for the most part though, Walter is unable to make the intersection between art and politics in Brecht’s work really come to life. The problem is built into the documentary’s design. While Theater Of War contains a few direct, empathetic moments—like Kushner describing how Mother Courage changed his life when he read it in college, or Streep explaining that she sees her role in theatrical revivals to be “the voice of dead people”—Walter would rather we care about the ideas this film raises, not the people we meet. Which is very Brechtian, to be sure, but not always so engaging