Looking the part – The Empty Plan by Anja Kirschner and David Panos

— Maija Timonen

Anja Kirschner & David Panos, The Empty Plan, 2010, still

Characters of TheMessingkauf

THE PHILOSOPHER wishes to apply the theatre ruthlessly to his own ends. It must furnish accurate images of incidents between people, and allow the spectator to adopt a standpoint.

THE ACTOR wishes to express himself. He wants to be admired. Story and characters serve his purpose.

THE ACTRESS wishes the theatre to inculcate social lessons. She is interested in politics.

THE DRAMATURG puts himself at the Philosopher’s disposal, and promises to apply his knowledge and abilities to the conversion of the theatre into the theatre of the Philosopher. He hopes the theatre will get a new lease of life.

THE ELECTRICIAN represents the new audience. He is a worker and dissatisfied with the world.

(Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues)[1]

The Empty Plan by David Panos and Anja Kirschner is a film about Bertolt Brecht. Set during his period of exile in Los Angeles, interrupted by flashbacks to a time before the war, the story is structured around tensions between Europe and America, and between his wife Helene Weigel and his lover Ruth Berlau. These tensions, though real enough in their own right, are shown also as related to a process of creative introspection and the film draws on two of his works to dramatize this.

The first of these, The Messingkauf Dialogues, is a book in which Brecht explores his theories on theater through a set of conversations conducted between an electrician, an actor, an actress, a dramaturg, and a philosopher. It is the character of the Philosopher who maintains the most classically “Brechtian” position in the book. The film shows Brecht in the process of writing this book with the Danish Ruth Berlau.

The second, The Mother, is a play concerned with the process of emancipation and radicalization of a working class mother, who through many hardships, with resilience and optimism finds her way to the 1917 revolution. The role of the mother connects itself in turn to Weigel, who played it in German productions of the play to critical acclaim. The film flits between showing scenes from different productions of this play and their rehearsals. One takes place in pre-war Berlin, another in 1935 New York and one happens in East Berlin after the war.

The differences between these productions measure a distance between what later became for Brecht and his fellow exiles, the Europe left behind and the adoptive America. An ex-pat disaffection from the ways of the latter belies a deeper human tragedy:  war, atrocity, and loss of life, but also the loss of a reality in which art could be a political project.

Though the film renders both stagings of The Mother with an element of deadpan humour, it is the rehearsals for the American version, during which actors use various exercises to access a more emotionally authentic performance, that are shown as simultaneously more comical and more alienated than the Germans discussing their political loyalties and how these relate to the plays’ political power as a way of fighting the rise of fascism. The American actors, prior to Brecht’s horrified intervention, are encouraged to search their memories and emote, while the German actors perform in-depth deconstructions of the politics of their gestures. In a way, the different productions chart and make sense of the shift between continents, but they also negotiate a relationship between the past—what was before the war—and the present of the film, the seemingly timeless limbo of life in exile. Indeed this successfully executed impression of timelessness elevates the film from being a mere historical drama and lends it a more contemporary relevance.

The film indicates that the exchanges taking place in the Messingkauf Dialoguesare, to an extent, introspective; ones between Brecht the theorist and Brecht the practitioner.[2]  It alludes that what is being dealt with here is Brecht exploring his own creative conflicts in the third-person. This ties in with what Fredric Jameson calls “third-person acting” when writing about Brecht’s tactic of instructing actors to approach their role as if they were quoting it. Jameson argues that this tactic and the estrangement effect ensuing from it, is both the direct result of a “radical absence of the self,” the constructed nature of the bourgeois conception of the self, as well as a way of coming into awareness of this.[3] “Third-person acting” then, is not predicated merely on representing a detached, object-like character, but on a separation between the role and the actual subjectivity of the actor, so that the two may coexist and this separation can become visible. To put this in more plain terms, one could think that to see the separation between the role and the actor is to see the separation of our own subjectivity and the roles we (are forced to) play.

Through the deconstruction of the various stagings of The Mother, different registers of performance are foregrounded as one of the film’s central considerations. The film might be read as being “about” performing. The modes of performance that are shown, in addition to offering a very articulated exposition of Brecht’s theatrical strategies, point to the increasing demands to perform in neoliberal societies, to self-consciously adopt various professional and social roles. It is this self-consciousness, and the way it is already inscribed into contemporary codes of conduct, that provides the crux of the relevance of discussing Brecht now, and allows the film to offer a narrative on the evolving issue of alienation of life under capitalism. Alienation effects having become alienated, they retain an affinity with our everyday life experiences. The question the film poses then, is whether Brecht’s formal strategies remain a viable tool to deconstruct the political dimension of these experiences.

The film’s portrayal of the creative process of writing The Messingkauf Dialogues, serves to blur the boundaries between the positions taken by its different characters. It reveals the definition between them as being the product of meticulous intellectual labour. This also reflects back on and serves to complicate the apparent division between the political devotion of the pre-war German production of Mother, and the flat layered surfaces of a green-screen Hollywood. One is productive and practical, another shows a more theoretical project being tackled, one which ultimately disappoints Brecht, who wants to go back to making. But as it comes to be shown, there is no going back. What is common to these intellectual and geographical positions is that they all come under the umbrella of experience attributed to Brecht. As a formal speculation on the experience of Brecht the man, these landscapes really work. They are also the reason why it comes across as a film about Brecht, as asserted earlier in this text, and not one about Berlau and Weigel, as it perhaps could have been the case. The film’s imagery plays a crucial part in conveying the affects (and disaffections) of The Empty Plan and consummates its potential for the expression of contemporary experience. It alternates between shots that use green-screen techniques, and the restricted realism of a documentary style, which nevertheless fails to make good on its promise of a more direct view, instead remaining purposefully obscure and partial.

Cinematographer Matthew Noel-Tod puts together an environment in which Los Angeles of the ‘40s becomes so many flat layers of images, more postmodern than modern. In a perhaps unintended simile of the experience of a contemporary international artist, who on endless travels encounters an exhausting stream of interchangeable faces, these green-screen images create a slick-shadow play of characters gliding across the screen. This effect is added to by the occasional difficulty of recognising these image-characters as the historical figures they are supposed to represent. As for the alienation of the alienation-effect, traces of it are detectable in these Hollywood scenes, in which the characters appear stylized and caricature-like. They are observed at a distance, and this is a contemporary distance, not the “art as a means of productive re-orientation”[4] of Brechtian distanciation. They are like sleek advertising images that may solicit a certain knowingness of the viewer, but do not invite them to actively make judgements about what they are shown. Except, of course they do, on the level of having their viewing experience map onto the alienation felt by the exiles shown, and attributed to the environment in which they are shown to exist. The difficulty of pursuing a critical practice in this environment stands out as an example of contemporary conditions of artistic production—with obvious differences.

The rehearsals for the 1935 American stage production of Mother in a way act as a premonition of the later and more hopeless derailment of exile. What is seen on the level of dramatic content is a mixture of limitations of individual experiences from which the actors draw their performative prompts and overacting. Brecht’s intervention, which disrupts the rehearsal and its retreat to the individual experience as a source of authenticity, seems compromised by its own authoritarianism. On the level of camerawork, all the pre-war scenes are shot with a hand-held camera, and this introduces a difficulty of seeing that differs from the impermeability of the pastel California. The images are dark, and the viewpoints they offer are partial, tighter, but also closer and deeper in feel, and retain a sense of participation, however constrained.

The discursive space that Brecht and Berlau inhabit while working on The Messingkauf is situated within the cut-out Hollywood. It is an environment as stylish and easy on the eye as it is obtuse. Much of their dialogue acts as an exposition of the content of The Messingkauf Dialogues, and this can at times be hard to follow. The combination of visual coherence and concentrated words feels like it is crying out to be penetrated. There is perhaps some missed potential here with regards to the portrayal of the vicissitudes of Brecht’s love life. It is as if there is a degree of repression present, not just in relation to the psycho-carnal reality of such passions, but also with regards to sexual and gender politics, which become a kind of sub-story prodding at the surface of the film.

The film’s depiction of Brecht’s relationships with the two women invokes popular mythologies revolving around him as an exploitative womanizer.[5] It treats this theme with a mixture of aloofness and melodrama. In a montage at the end of the film, Berlau is shown crying, getting on the train to New York, Brecht driving away. The determined pace of this montage adds an extra layer of sweeping drama to an already loaded sequence of events: the end of their romance.

In keeping with the aesthetics of the flat, sun-drenched surfaces of Hollywood, the roles of both Brecht and “his” women are drawn with sharp outlines and have a two-dimensional, silhouette-like feel. Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel’s experience of exile in America is shown to be one of confinement to the kitchen. Cheeks sunken, she is still wearing the stage make-up of the mother, as if she were the self-sacrificing, all-suffering caregiver to Brecht’s ideologically pious son. All the while on the stage next door, he is shown immersed in his process of intellectual introspection, floating through a somewhat indulgent creative project with his mistress. Nevertheless, it is not just the people there for him, and because of him, who are reduced by the exile experience. Brecht too is shown to clash with his surroundings in a scene in which he tries to explain a character from a script to a film producer over the phone. In clumsy English, he describes the role to be one of “a nice whore.” The overarching stasis and estrangement of life as a refugee, however high profile, and the irrecuperable loss that goes with it, is well depicted in the film. There is a sadness to this that at times translates into a eulogy for Brecht’s whole formal project.

The last scene, in which Brecht is being interviewed for West German radio about his production of The Motherin East Berlin, depicts a troubling scenario. While the interview is taking place, Berlau is shown taking photographs of Weigel, who is in full costume as Pelagea Wlassova, the eponymous mother, and is holding up a red flag. Brecht has just been shown, a moment earlier, instructing Berlau to take these pictures. The two women are effectively engaged in a face-off on Brecht’s say so. This play on the deeply compromising competition over Brecht in which the two are presumably engaged, however real (Weigel banned Berlau from the Berliner Ensemble after his death), is unsettling. Though Kirschner and Panos have not made up the overtones of Grecian revenge tragedy of the story, it does make one hanker a little bit for the underlying optimism and drive for change that Brecht’s own work is marked by.[6] This final set piece seems rather to point to the disenchantment of this aspect of his plays. The long, arduous journey to liberation that the play’s mother experiences, from a discontented oppressed worker to a revolutionary who gets to wave the red flag in the end, is repeated by Weigel, and this time to a more sinister effect. She travels from being an oppressed housewife to the wielder of power she has inherited from her husband. Abuse is shown to breed more abuse, revolution reduced to transferral of executive power from one set of hands to another. The centrality of a bloodline of sorts—the extended family created by the personal nature of Brecht’s relationship with his many collaborators—makes this succession almost feudal.

This circumvention of any potential for emancipation from the oppressive power dynamics of sexual relationships into a narrative of desire and vengeance, repeats the broader political disappointment depicted in the scene. In it, Brecht’s work has become closely tied to the East German state, and this had effects on his whole formal language and aesthetic belief system, not to mention actual political content of his plays. Traditional costumes and party-endorsed modes of socialist realism came to take the place of more experimental practices.

Anja Kirschner & David Panos, The Empty Plan, 2010, still

  1. [1] Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen Ltd., 1965), 10. 
  2. [2] A translators note in the English language edition of The Messingkauf Dialogues explains what a dramaturg is, like this: “A Dramaturg is a play-reader and a literary odd-job man, and is part of the staff in most German theatres. He may occasionally direct a play. Often he is the playwright himself, as Brecht was when he was one.” Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, p. 10.
  3. [3] Jameson, Fredric, Brecht and Method (London; New York: Verso, 1999), 68.
  4. [4] John Willett, Brecht in Context (London: Methuen, 1998), 237.
  5. [5] It chimes with John Fuegi’s book Brecht and Co., in which, with great gossipy detail, he recounts tales of Brecht’s intellectual, financial and emotional exploitation of the women in his life.
  6. [6] Or perhaps this interpretation is optimistic, in that the reality was far grimmer. Aside from being eventually excluded from working with Brecht’s theatre group, after leaving Los Angeles for New York, Berlau gave premature birth to Brecht’s baby, who died two days old. She was interned in a mental institution following a breakdown and underwent electroshock therapy prior to rejoining Brecht and Weigel in East Berlin. Berlau died in 1974 in a hospital bed from a fire caused by her own cigarette.
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