Erst ließ Freude mich nicht schlafen; ('Twas joy that first kept me from sleep;)
Dann hielt Kummer nachts die Wacht; (Then worry held me till first light;)
Als mich beide nicht mehr trafen, (When neither more my soul did sweep,)
Schlief ich. Aber ach, es bracht (I slept. Yet sleep turn'd, out of spite,)
Jeder Maienmorgen mir Novembernacht. (Each May morn to November night.)
Bertolt Brecht, Wie es war (I)
It is August 1956; the wall that would separate a city and two countries and be symbolically demolished fewer than thirty years after its installation did not yet exist, but Germany, the worst and wickedest of twentieth-century nations, had been cloven. History books have varied in their assumptions as to why this all happened, yet they all seem to agree that Germany was once a wonderful place to live, work, and think, and that sooner or later it was bound to become that place again. And although what we glimpse of the eastern half of Germany in this film is hardly broader than a stage set, it is enough to extrapolate a horizon of details.
Our protagonist is a nearly-deceased Bertolt Brecht, but perhaps not the bookish, big-eared comrade with the bad haircut we recall from hundreds of photos. This Brecht (Josef Bierbichler) is a disheveled, ailing, and, frankly, fat and disgusting world-renowned playwright who has retired yet again to this lake, famous from his elegies, to do something akin to work. We say "akin," because considering the passel of women who follows him thither, no work of any value could possibly be undertaken much less completed. Brecht senses all this, of course, because he senses his coming end. A cigar-smoking rake until the last breath of life leaves him, Brecht has assembled, or allowed to assemble, his past, present, and potential future all at one scenic if bland East German resort. There we find his legal wife of twenty-seven years, Helene Weigel (the late Monica Bleibtreu); their hapless daughter Barbara (Birgit Minichmayr); his former lover, current alcoholic, and washed-up thespian Ruth Berlau (Margit Rogall); his current muse, the very young and very ambitious actress Käthe Reichel (Jeanette Hain); another lover, Isot Kilian (Rena Zednikowa), who happens to be married to the Marxist philosopher Wolfgang Harich (Samuel Finzi), the only other male at this girls school of hard love; and Elisabeth Hauptmann (Elfriede Irrall), who cooks, edits the ailing master's writings, and is generally ignored by Brecht, suggesting a very dear (to her) affair very long ago. Brecht's relationship to each is revealed in marvelous Chekhovian vignettes, so that we need not know how all these real people interfered in each others' real biographies. Some facts will be bent with artistic license, but one fact will be clear: Brecht is dying and to whom he allots his final months, weeks, or days will form his real testament, at least to those who have loved him.
There is, of course, a little more than that. After the introduction of all the planets revolving around one pasty, grizzled star, an unmistakable automobile pulls up and an unmistakable man approaches the house. He has a request that is much more of an order, and wishes, he claims, to spare Weigel and Brecht any hardships, which is to say he wishes them to stay out of it. We have seen the subsequent exchange a hundred times in a hundred films, but the upshot is that our unmistakable man has an unmistakable aim: to arrest Harich, unfaithful to the state, and the latter's spouse, simply unfaithful. Later monologues insinuate why the controversial thinker has fallen out of favor with the East German government, and these reasons will again seem hollow and useless since the cause that provides them was misbegotten ("We each have our own idea of socialism"; "I have Moscow's blessing"; "Ulbricht must go," and so forth). Apart from this grim inevitability, little of any import occurs. Ruth corners Brecht in a barn and says and does all the things drunk, jilted lovers with no self-esteem do at those fateful moments – Brecht cannot even bear to look at her, and neither can we. Later, she reveals her real connection to the master which, if she is telling the truth (we remember Ruth is an actress, and probably a very good one), justifies her behavior to a certain degree. When Brecht goes out to the end of the pier to apologize to Elisabeth, we cannot judge his sincerity since all he wants is Elizabeth's hand and consent to forgive him, much like the unmistakable man also wanted Helene to shake on it (which, in the latter case, is very odd). There is also a strange set of mistranslated subtitles, not so much wrong as misleading: the unmistakable man proposes the shibboleth "Was macht die Kunst?", slang for "what's up?", but the phrase is rendered almost literally and not in question form. After spying on Haring and Kilian coupling, Brecht quips, "Wir Schwaben müssen alles wissen," lost completely in "Some of us need to know everything," which seems to assert Brecht's arrogant prerogative as a writer, when in fact he is indulging in some self-deprecation about his humble Bavarian origins. Finally, Isot and Käthe are asked whether they have seen the master's cap, which I fear is a bit like its owner: burnt up, lost, and symbolically destroyed (later in the film it is likened to Helene, as the truest and oldest fit). They respond indifferently and suggest the boathouse because they are Brecht's current lovers and do not need symbols. They have, at least for a few more days, the real "monster" for themselves.
Despite some poems of startling beauty, I have never cared for Brecht. Whatever talent he may have had was outyelled by his insufferable political agenda, which while perhaps well-meaning was in turn deaf, dumb, and very, very blind. Bierbichler is not a well-known quantity outside the German-speaking world but, as many critics have noted, he is perfectly cast precisely because he does not really resemble Brecht in any significant way. What he represents is a bloated, fuzzy, unhealthy caricature, or what we might expect Brecht's death mask to resemble, if we didn't already have his death mask. That said, Bierbichler's pathological removal of his glasses and eye-rubbing may have been a tick he himself inserted, and it helps to remember that he is playing the great Brecht, not the real Brecht, who likely tended to confuse the two. The Lebensabend of the callous lothario is one of literature's oldest tropes, but rarely is it staged with such savage subtlety, abetted, one assumes, by the political climate in the erstwhile GDR, where there were roughly as many stool pigeons as there were real ones. There can be little talk of first-rate literature, none of religion, almost none of history; everything is about the now and the future, which means the sins of the rake mean nothing, and his life alternates between poems and muses, with no particular responsibility for either production. Brecht does not react overmuch to the appearance on his 'property' of what is unmistakably a Stasi agent because he intuits, correctly as it were, that he is not the target. If intentional and not simply plot acceleration, the detail, which epitomizes Brecht's selfishness, is of magnificent genius.
In The Farewell's sole predictable event, Brecht will fall sick and just as quickly convalesce, only to die offscreen shortly thereafter. During his illness he mumbles into a edifying conclusion about life and, specifically, the country of his citizenship ("Where there are no secrets, there are also no truths"). But love and life are the greatest secrets, as Brecht knows. He knows because, as his country well suspects, he is a poet before he is a citizen. If you still disagree, ask yourself what committed socialist would pen this poem, recited in the author's presence by a zealous pioneer:
An jenem Tag im blauen Mond September (One fine September when the moon was blue,)
Still unter einem jungen Pflaumenbaum (And still beneath the sapling plum tree's beam,)
Da hielt ich sie, die stille bleiche Liebe (Her pale mute love I held, I held it true,)
In meinem Arm wie einen holden Traum. (In my poor arms like the most golden dream.)
Und über uns im schönen Sommerhimmel (Above us in this lovely summer sky,)
War eine Wolke, die ich lange sah (Was but one cloud, at which I gazed so long.)
Sie war sehr weiß und ungeheuer oben (Up there so white, enormous to my eye;)
Und als ich aufsah, war sie nimmer da. (And when I looked again, so was it gone.)
The scene, commendably brief yet unrushed, adds the local color those perniciously afflicted by Ostalgie might desire; it also brings a tear to our playwright's eye. Why would such a wanted man grieve over a past paramour? Perhaps because September hovers precisely between May morns and November nights.