“We all live off the war, whether or not we acknowledge it,” Meryl Streep explains at the start of John Walters’ handsome, messy documentary Theater of War. “She’s just more dirty and in the trenches. But we all live off the war.” The she, in this case, is Mother Courage, the titular character from Bertolt Brecht’s epic play, which was retranslated by Tony Kushner and staged in 2006 by the Public Theater with Streep in the lead role. Streep’s sentiment is appropriately Brechtian in spirit—if we wish to judge Mother Courage for trying to make a profit from the Thirty Years War we must also realize that we, too, profit in some measure from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though Walters tries a little too hard throughout his film to connect Mother Courage and Her Children to our fraught political moment (a dubious exercise, since Brecht himself deliberately avoided contemporaneous political intervention by setting his play three centuries in the past), Streep’s brief, cynical aside manages to make the point far better than most of what follows—the stock footage of antiwar protests or newspaper clippings about Iraq or Kushner tut-tutting about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. This is because Streep, like Brecht, reminds us with cold clarity that we are all a part of a system that feeds on suffering and death, a system that makes each of us complicit in violence and war.
The Public Theater production of Mother Courage functions as a starting point for Walters’s sprawling look at the history and meaning of the play. He divides his film into five loosely structured thematic acts (e.g., “Marx and Coca Cola”, “In Search of Bertolt Brecht”) that cover, among other subjects, Brecht’s discovery of Marxism, his inspiration in writing the play, the original 1949 production of the show in Berlin, and the relevance of Mother Courage to the contemporary political landscape. This is an admirably ambitious intellectual agenda for any documentary, but even setting aside the film’s structural problems—it jumps from thread to thread and theme to theme without a clear sense of direction—Walters has probably set out to cover too much ground.
Click here to read the rest of Chris Wisniewski’s review of Theater of War.