Lockdown reviews: Mother Courage and Her Children

The Berliner Ensemble have located a jewel in their theatre history and made it available until 21 May, so if you’re quick you can catch it.

Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage is a modern classic of the German theatre. Written in 1939 it is often described as “the greatest anti-war play of all time”, and when produced on stage it still has the power to connect with audiences due to the characterisations, the folk songs, and the humanity shining through the appalling tragedy suffered by one woman standing for many.

Screencap from Mother Courage (1957)

Set during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, we meet Mother Courage, pulling her cart. She seeks to profit from the conflict but her bargaining has a heavy price. In this version (available with English translation), Helene Weigel portrays the leading role in a production based on the 1949 staging by Brecht himself and Erich Engels.

Never before available to a wide audience, this proves to be a piece of theatrical gold and perhaps a definitive rendering of the play as its author intended. Played on German television and running 175 minutes, the production boasts music by Paul Dessau and is directed for the screen by Peter Hagen.

Screencap from Mother Courage (1957)

Weigel is astounding in the role of Mother Courage, as you might expect from an actor who played the role some 200 times. I opted to watch without translation and work from a synopsis and my memory of previous productions to follow the plot and savour the performances, and I feel this is a more rewarding experience.

A complex play written as Fascism took hold of 1930s Germany, this focuses on one small group of people but never loses sight of the broader picture. War makes people lose sight of who they are; so do natural disasters and pandemics. Brecht’s vision might apply to some factions even today, who would sacrifice the vulnerable for monetary gain or moral superiority.

Screencap from Mother Courage (1957)

As the three children who are effectively discarded for trade by the very woman who should protect them, Ekkehard Schell (Eilif), Heinz Schubert (Swiss Cheese) and Angelika Hurwicz (Katrin) give finely judged performances. In fact all supporting parts come across well and each small contribution helps the play build to a horrifying climax concerning the youngest child.

The songs are woven in and out of the action perfectly (this is harder to do than it sounds – I remember the National Theatre’s interminable revival in 2009 making the production intolerable due to an unsuitable score).

This film is a welcome addition to the streaming scene and can be viewed on the Berliner Ensemble website until midnight on the 21 May.

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