Tag Archives: Bertholt Brecht

Film of Brecht’s “Galileo”

The adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” directed by Joseph Losey is one of the more cinematic of the series of major 20th-century plays filmed in the mid 1970s as the American Film Theater. In that Losey directed a staging of the play in 1944 while Brecht was in exile in Los Angeles (translated by and starring Charles Laughton), it has a special importance as a Brecht document. As a recurrent alienation device it has an annoyingly off-key and poorly articulating trio of boy sopranos introducing most scenes. Sometimes there scene setting is supplemented by showing the text on top of the picture.


There is also a lengthy sung burlesque of the story with an effigy of Topol (I mean of Galileo). Although these two devices break up the biographical story, it is shown in chronological order (i.e., without flashbacks) and mostly looks like a conventional low-budget biopic, albeit about a selfish, cowardly “great man.” When Andrea, a disillusioned former assistant played by Tom Conti, tells the scientist who recanted what he knew to be true at the prospect of torture by the Office of the “Holy” Inquisition that his followers hoped he would be a hero, and sighs, “”Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” Galileo responds: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.”

(Brecht himself was unheroic, slithered through one inquisition (HUAC) after writing the play, and failed to side with the workers in a 1953 revolt that was crushed in East Germany, where he was a major cultural personage supported by the Stalinist regime. He could have pointed back at this play as fair warning of what he would do, even recognizing, as his Galileo does in retrospect, that he was too prominent to be tortured and caved in not under torture but at the mere thought of physical pain after being showed the machines of torture.)

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Brecht’s Galileo as played by Topol (with all his “Fiddler on the Roof” baggage) is a sly opportunist eager to sell out, unconcerned about ruining the life (specifically marriage prospects) of his daughter, but with a curiosity that he indulges as he indulges in good food and fine wine (but not lechery, one of the forms of bribery the Holy Mother Church offers him in exchange for not pushing the Copernican doctrine that became a heresy that the earth revolved around the run, augmented by his own discovery through the new-fangled technology of a telescope of “the Medici stars” that are moons revolving around the planet Jupiter).

Topol is good at cunning and handles the aging thirty-plus years convincingly with a minimum of special make-up (he discusses this in a 2003 interview included on the DVD). He is a Brechtian scoundrel who is far from lovable (and, fortunately, is not one of those who sing in the movie!). He is a secular monster too greedy to stay out of the reach of Rome (orthodoxy was less easily enforced in the Republic of Venice, but early on, he moves from the University of Padua to Medici sponsorship in the University of Florence, and does not flee when help is offered by the rising merchant class).

For drama (epic or realistic), there needs to be a worthy opponent. Brecht and/or history supplied none. John Gielgud’s aged cardinal splutters through one scene (he was on hand for one day of shooting). Patrick Magee’s Cardinal Bellarmin is chilling enough, but there is no development of his character in general or in relationship to suppressing Copernican heresy in particular. Edward Fox’s Grand Inquisitor also is a shadow who has no confrontation onscreen with Galileo (though he intimidates Michael Lonsdale, as Cardinal Barberini, later elevated to the Throne of St. Peter as Pope Urban VIII, is not a villain at all. He knows that Galileo is right and limits what the Office of the Holy Inquisition can do in breaking him. Galileo’s wife, daughter, and rich student (also prospective son-in-law, ably played by Tim Woodward) want him to go along to get along.

The horrors of the Inquisition methods was not necessary in the case of Galileo Galilei. Years later, he recognized he had a unique opportunity: “In my days astronomy reached the marketplaces. In these quite exceptional circumstances, the steadfastness of one man could have shaken the world. . . . I am not convinced that I was never in real danger. For a few years I was as strong as the authorities, And I surrendered my knowledge to those in power, to use, or not to use, or to misuse, just as suited their purposes. I have betrayed my profession. A man who does what I have done cannot be tolerated in the ranks of science.” Andrea is not convinced by this self-flagellation as he carries off the manuscript Galileo has hidden (the Discorsi that was then published in the Netherlands). Losey dropped Brecht’s sardonic final scene of Andrea crossing the border, though generally adhering to the text.

There are multiple sets (unlike most of the other AFT productions). There’s some but not much camera fluidity, but there are not static proscenium-like scenes. Galileo’s asides are in close-up.


The DVD has a 20-minute interview with Topol, a faded theatrical trailer, and four essays that may be scrolled through. The image transfer is excellent. The sound transfer is not, though perhaps the problems are the original filmings (particularly the choirboys’ articulation) rather than audio transfer ones. The lack of development of other characters derives from Brecht, the unwillingness to excise more Losey’s.


Both Brecht and Losey believed that undercutting the belief in the stability of the universe revolving around the earth led directly to destabilizing belief in the “natural” order of social inequality, a correlation the accuracy of which I am less convinced than were they. Brecht’s view (expressed in notes on the play) is that “by discrediting the Bible and the Church, these sciences stood for a while at the barricades on behalf of all progress” and that “the new astronomy gave impetus to the revolutionary social current of the time.” Given the situation of Galileo, Brecht concluded that “one can scarcely wish only to praise or only to condemn Galileo” and contended that his play was neither tragic nor optimistic. This ambivalence seems to me preserved in Losey’s filming. And Topol’s characterization seems to fulfill Brecht’s aim “not at establishing the sympathetic identificaiton and participation of the audience with him [Galileo]; rather, the audience should be helped to achieve a more considering, critical and apraising attitude. He should be presented as a phenomenon, rather like Richard III, whereby the audience’s emotional acceptance is gained through the viatlity of this alien maniefestation,” giving free rein to humor.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray



Spying on Bertolt Brecht in East Germany

Jaques-Pierre Amette’s 2003 novel La maîtresse de Brecht became the hundredth book to win the Prix Goncourt. It was translated into British English in 2005 not as Brecht’s Mistress, but as Brecht’s Lover. The young and beautiful actress Maria Eich at no point in her assignment by the KGB (The German Democratic Republic’s Ministry of State Security [Stasi] was only officially formed in 1950, though continuing to co-ordinate with the KGB until 1990) to spy on Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who has come to communist East Berlin after 15 years pereginations to Scandinavia and Hollywood is in love with Brecht, nor he with her. He uses her sexually and, for a time, promotes her career in the theater company, the Berliner Ensemble that he heads with his wife (used to his philandering with younger actresses) Helene Weigel. Maria’s KGB/Stasi handler, Hans Trow, is grateful for her zeal at copying every scrap of paper Brecht writes, including those he throws away. That Hans is in love with Maria is more plausible to me than that she is in love with him, but he is determined not to have sex with one of his agents, especially one whose assignment centers on keeping the sexual attraction of the most prominent cultural star of the East German state’s otherwise fairly dim firmament.

The novel opens with Brecht’s return to German soil in October of 1948. The “lovers” have little in common, including one-way (old to young) sexual attraction. “For Maria EIch, Germany was a new country, a series of green hills lined by birch forests, ruined motorways, clouds; for Brecht, it was a country to be rebuilt with money. A field for experimentation, a laboratory for an ideological revolution aimed at the younger generation. Neither of them had this country in common…. They would both eat at the same table, sleeping the same bed and never think the same thing at the same time.”

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(1988 German Democratic Republic stamp with Galileo, the subject of Brecht’s last major play, written and performed in his LA exile not in the GDR/DDR)


When that delight waned, by 1952, Hans Trow provided the funds for Maria to go to West Berlin, where her tubercular daughter and mother had been all along. She becomes a celibate teacher of German, most enamored of earlier German poets, Hölderlin and Heine, not paying much professional attention to the German poet she had lived with for four years. Brecht’s best-known plays other than the musicals with Kurt Weill were written in LA; he theorized and directed plays after returning to Germany, but wrote mostly poems and no major plays.

The novel captures the grayness of East Berlin and the dread of the whims of Stalin in his final years that even the secret police in far-away Berlin constantly felt. The title character is Maria, who is not an intellectual.

Though doubts have been cast (especially by John Fuegi) on how much of Brecht’s oeuvre was actually written by him, he was a gruff intellectual and an avowed Marxist, though of the heterodox Karl Krosch variety rather than a communist subservient to Moscow. Brecht’s most notorious support for the German Democratic Republic’s suppression of dissent came after the period covered by the novel, the GDR crushing of 1953 rebellion using Soviet military force. (He praised the regime for “safeguarding the socialist achievements,” even while living a life of relative privilege that included subscription western publications generally banned in the GDR.)

The characters in Amette’s novel are attempting to understand what Brecht really thought, especially about Stalinist communism. He chose to live (in comfort denied most residents) in the Soviet zone, but had an Austrian passport and Swiss accounts accruing his royalties. Many have considered him a hypocrite. I think that in a bipolar world he managed to prosper as a heterodox (usually) Marxist capitalist, and if he was a sexual predator, much of the prey, including Soviet-sponsored spies was willing to work with and submit to sex with him.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray