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Monday, 30 January 2012

Bertolt Brecht: Hollywood

Activists of the Ukrainian feminist nudity group FEMEN clash with Swiss police during a protest at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012.

Activists of the Ukrainian feminist nudity group Femen clash with Swiss police during a protest at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Saturday 28 January 2012: photo by Jean-Christophe Bott/AP

Every day, to earn my daily bread
I go to the market where lies are bought
I take up my place among the sellers.

A topless Ukrainian protester is arrested by Swiss police after climbing up a fence at the entrance to the congress center where the World Economic Forum takes place in Davos, Switzerland Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012. The activists are from the group Femen, which has have become popular in Ukraine for staging small, half-naked protests against a range of issues including oppression of political opposition.

A topless Ukrainian protester is arrested by Swiss police after climbing up a fence at the entrance to the congress center where the World Economic Forum takes place in Davos, Switzerland, Saturday January 28 2012. The activists are from the group Femen, which has have become popular in Ukraine for staging small, half-naked protests against a range of issues including oppression of political opposition: photo by Anja Niedringhaus/AP

Bertolt Brecht: Hollywood, 1942 (written to be set to music for voice and piano by Hanns Eisler), from Poems in Exile, 1944, reissued in Selected Poems, 1947; translated by Michael Hamburger in Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956, 1976


TC said...

The German text of this Brecht poem was set to music by Hanns Eisler as the third in a set titled Hollywood Elegies. At the time of its composition Brecht was living in Santa Monica, trying to sell film treatments to Hollywood studios.

This two-part documentary provides a very useful audiovisual complement to the writer's work; at 32:00 of Part I, Brecht arrives in California.

Bertolt Brecht: Die Kunst zu leben (I)

Bertolt Brecht: Die Kunst zu leben (II)



Great to see this, and hear that German (interrupted at 32:00 by "Hollywood, the movie capitol of the world! New talent is the constant pride! New faces for the screen! New names for the movie public!" (O O O)


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, silver of planet beside branches
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

can only reflect on it, its
beginning becomes the

bottom right corner to this,
which means, but also

orange circle of sun rising into cloud,
cormorant flapping across toward point

Nin Andrews said...

Wow--hopefully I take up my place among the sellers.
That's chilling.

We need the blonde here to help us out!

Artemesia said...

Unsettling photo: the Ukrainian feminist nudity group Femen clash with Swiss police during a protest at the meeting of the World Economic Forum…

I read about that January, 2012 meeting. where they feasted on black truffles, hummingbird’s tongues and discussed the inevitability of global doom from viruses and other looming disasters. I wonder if they bought shares in an underground bunker beside the vault where Monsanto and other future looking preservationists have stashed seeds for a resurrected Earth’s food supply:
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Norwegian: Svalbard globale frøhvelv) is a secure seedbank located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near the town of Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago.

Why do ‘they’ always feast in the teeth of ongoing famines, genocide, protest suppressions and other disasters….Where did all the money ‘they’ raised for Haiti go?
I guess it’s really about World Theater and which upcoming shows they have on their ‘Bucket List.’ Is this really 2012…or A.D. 476?
Thanks for the endless supply of great photos!

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Were he alive, I'm sure Brecht could have written a killer scenario for the annual World Economic Doldrum's hi-jinks in Davos including a scene where a bare-breasted blonde waitress comes out of a huge cake and starts squeezing off deadly spurts of radioactive milk right in the culprits' kissers--serves them right.

aditya said...


v honest

"Could beauty my lord, have better commerce than with honesty"

the economics in the poem somewhat
tends the economy of the poem

TC said...


Yes, new faces, and new cigars (Bert before HUAC, denying he ever was or for that matter ever knew a Red, shortly before -- with characteristic practical sagesse -- getting out of Dodge)...


...and new backs, yes... and new athleticism, new fence climbing skills, new courage, new posters...


Ah, a new use for the milk of human kindness. We can almost see it now: Fritz Lang directing, and Charles Laughton, in a toga (or pehaps a tutu?), lapping it up.


That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.


One wishes it were possible to say that the dwindling of the earth's resources brought about by the frenzied efforts of the very few to preserve and increase power and privilege at the expense of the very many, regardless of the sacrifices of the latter (for what else is Davos but the 99% strategizing new ways to retain and expand their wealth?), were something new. But latterly it has come to seem that the imbalance in human nature between altruism and selfishness, with the latter increasingly overwhelming the former, may be endemic in the unfolding (regressive) development of the species. One observes, studies, learns, grows more and more disenchanted with the entire homo sapiens project.

It happened a while back that certain obscure private studies -- impelled by observation of a particularly repulsive (yet unfortunately also depressingly routine) local spectacle of significant displayed excess and ridiculously conspicuous consumption (hummingbirds tongues and kerfuffled truffles, indeed!) -- led the stumbling nocturnal researcher down the time stairway into the sub-basement area of catacombs containing Mound 72:

"Mound 72 at the Cahokia site, a ridge-top burial mound south of Monk's Mound, where archaeologists found the remains of a man in his forties who was probably an important Cahokian ruler. The man was buried on a bed of more than 20,000 marine-shell disc beads arranged in the shape of a falcon, with the bird's head appearing beneath and beside the man's head, and its wings and tail beneath his arms and leg. Of the nearly three hundred skeletons discovered in Mound 7, the majority were determined to be sacrificial victims (including four young males missing hands and skulls, and more than fifty young women in a single mass grave, the remains segregated in two layers separated by matting)..."


And then followed that awful shock of recognition, 'twas ever thus... just more so, now.

The black comedy of the present is of course terrifyingly underwritten by the spectre of the approaching Bought Elections.

Whose billions can overcome the billions of the other(s)?

About Mitt's Midas-like private fortune and success in shielding it from taxation few who are interested can remain in doubt.

Meanwhile, interesting profiles of the key funder of his erstwhile adversary, the angry stay puft marshmallow man, are to be found here and here.

ACravan said...

Love the photos, the poem and especially the phrase "Allover Holidays," but this one sets up all sort of questions/disjunctions that could either be seen as dialectical, just confusing or possibly false equivalences, e.g., Brecht was trying to sell screeplays in Hollywood; most screenplays are works of fiction and, therefore could be seen as lies (are they? does that matter?); Hollywood commerce is often (but not always) sleazy; lots of (but not all) commerce is sleazy; is Hollywood commerce really comparable to Davos commmerce?; what isn't commerce (except for something like typing this now?); if that girl is poor, how did she travel from Ukraine to Davos and what money did she use to apply a false color to her hair?; etc. I'm sure I'm missing something here, probably a lot. Curtis

TC said...


Brecht's Hollywood period seems to have brought out the contradictoriness and complication of his nature, and the combination of cynicism and self-critical conscience in this little poem are evidence of that.

Certainly there must have been an element of "survivor's guilt" in his situation. En route from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Express, in flight from Hitler, he had learned of the death of "our comrade Steffin" -- Margaret Steffin, a person of some importance in his life. A few months later, while he was ensconced in that pleasant little bungalow in the German refugee writers' informal exile community in Santa Monica, and flogging his skills on the studio market, he was shocked to hear that Walter Benjamin had taken his own life on the French/Spanish border. Though Brecht was intent on earning a living in Hollywood, he felt entirely out of place there; petty antagonisms, even among presumed allies, seemed to flourish like oranges on the trees of Santa Monica; "and like the oranges, they have no seeds".

Working conditions in America confused, sometimes infuriated him. The fact that whatever could not be sold counted as nothing was disorienting. The American scene seemed governed entirely by the laws of the marketplace: the landscape of this seeming Eden, he noted, "stands there as if it were a showcase, and I involuntarily search every mountain chain and every lemon tree for a small price tag." He felt as if surrounded by an "all-depraving cheap pettiness"; and, of course, not only surrounded by it, but infected -- or at least negatively affected.

In February 1942 he was registered as both draft-eligible and an "enemy alien".

He worked every day on film treatments. With one story in progress, he related the plot-progress to friends, whose negative reaction caused him to stop work.

On the encouragement of the producer William Dieterle he worked up a film proposal based on his novel The Business Deals of Mr Julius Caesar. His outline, titled Caesar's Last Days, didn't fly. He then recast the script as Caesar and His Legionnaires. There is a sense of desperation, humiliation.

Poetry seemed to him something left behind, an anachronism, an ivory-tower evasion. "It's as though one were practicing the art of filigree. There is something eccentric, cranky, obtuse about it. Such poetry is like the castaway's note in the bottle. The battle of Smolensk, too, is fought for poetry."

He took up another film treatment, which began as a play, The Life of the Philanthropist Henri Dunant. He saw his hero variously as a terrible scold, à la Timon of Athens, and as a St. Anthony figure, ruined by his inability to to resist the temptations of Caritas; before long the script had morphed into The Curious Illness of Henri Dunant. Another failure. Whose illness was it, then, really?

Fritz Lang gave him work on a hostage story. This time the money was good. Locked in a studio writer's cell at United Artists, though, Brecht suffered from screen-hack's claustrophobia. "Hard labor," he called it.

He set to work with Lang on another script, for John Wexley. He was disappointed to find Lang discouraging originality and invention, and arguing in favor of anything that would satisfy the producers and "get to" the public. This kind of screenwriting appeared to him "primitive": "They count on it that the actors cannot act, and that the audience cannot think."

It was at this point, September 1942, that he gave Hanns Eisler the text of his Hollywood Elegies.

TC said...

By the by, to put this poem in context: around the same time Brecht wrote The Mask of Evil.

As for the Ukrainian women, Curtis, the lessons Brecht learned in America have not been lost on them. They are using marketing and advertising methods that rely on spectacle, oversimplification and stimulation of "low" impulses. But indeed Céline's depressing formula, Aim low Aim true, has yet to be disproven when applied to the human animal.

More power to them, I say.

Their travel fare from Kiev to Davos, and attendant expenses, could have amounted to no more than a microscopic fraction of what was spent by Romney and Gingrich to fling mud at each other and insult the intelligence of Florida voters. $12.8 million and counting -- that would be enough to save entire struggling nations. Utter obscenity.

About the hair color, a girl does what a girl's got to do.

ACravan said...

Thank you for both of these notes and the information and insight they contain. Draft-eligible AND enemy alien -- you can't get more dialectical than that. As for Romney and Gingrich's expensive imbroglio, it's not really theirs, it's all of ours. Sadly, the money being wasted there couldn't really save any struggling nation because that implies a situation where it wouldn't be stolen first, undoubtedly by the local official in charge of stealing all the money. Anyway, it's small potatoes in comparison with the waste that lies ahead in the general election campaign (not to mention money spent on Super Bowl advertising). It's been helpful to read all this during one the most absurd mornings I have ever had, which is saying a lot. Curtis



Thanks for all this which IS, "helpful," as Curtis writes here ("It's been helpful to read all this during one the most absurd mornings I have ever had, which is saying a lot.") Meanwhile, onward toward . . . Florida? Davos?


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, motionless leaf on branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

relation between length and
time, on the one hand

and what has been, may also
be, from which follow

orange edge of sun rising behind cloud,
whiteness of gull gliding toward point

Lally said...

Tom, I add my gratitude as well to this great post and comments stream, especially your addendum(s). Not to mention having lived in Santa Monica trying to sell "true" stories (from my life and others I know) to studios and producers after moving from NYC and many thinking I'd given up poetry just because I was trying to find at least a semi-creative way to feed my family (two kids I was raising on my own at the time). I got a lot of flack from some (many actually) in the poetry world for "selling out" to Hollywood. I wish, as they say. Nothing I wrote was ever made either but some lines were used here and there for which I received a few dollars at best and nothing at worst. And your description of the conditions and atmosphere there when Brecht was doing something similar echoed mine except there were, as there always are, good souls to offer succor and comradeship and like minded efforts to maybe impact the storyline and imagery reaching such wide audiences as well as those in your description of Brecht's experience.

TC said...


All too well do I remember (ah wincing recollection!) the days when daring to attempt making a living as a writer bought down upon one the opprobrium of those who had neither the goods nor the moxie to make the attempt, but preferred sitting around/idly making the scene until the grants and networking benisons rolled in.

Not till I gave up all that hopeless trying to make a living forever, sometime in the last century (the time-units all seem to run together, any more), did the outlines become clearer.

I guess the last hurrah came about twenty years ago when Peter Bogdanovich told me that if I prepared a précis of all Damon Runyon's stories and then flew down to LA to have lunch with him and Michael Douglas... not until then did the word "SUCKER" appear in my bedimmed mind, writ as large as the letters on the HOLLYWOOD sign.

Did the précis, declined the flight, had the phonecalls fielded by the secretaries...

The raven croaked "Nevermore", then. It was only about thirty years too late.

Free lunch, like free dinner, I had already learned, was always just a prelude to More Free Work.

Arbeit Macht Frei?

Not in the universe as I know it!

That's the beauty of working for oneself. One is always getting stiffed, of course, as ever.

But there's something about getting stiffed by oneself that softens the tight hook to the glass jaw and makes the xxx's in the thought balloon look like stars. Almost. If one is myopic enough.