Baal: The Nature of the Beast

The tale of an amoral, antisocial poet who leaves a trail of ruin in his brutish, ravenous wake, Baal occupies a privileged place in the careers of three of twentieth-century Germany’s most significant artists. This primal scream of youthful revolt and refusal was Bertolt Brecht’s first play, written in 1918 when he was all of twenty. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was twenty-four, on the verge of launching full-bore into a frenzy of productivity unlike any other, when he embodied the title character—his first starring role—in the 1970 film adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff. For Schlöndorff, who had just turned thirty and who had been instrumental in catalyzing the New German Cinema a few years earlier, Baal was an early and timely course correction in a long, versatile career that has been notable for its political commitment and openness to reinvention.

Brecht was a student at the University of Munich when he completed Baal. Anticipating a lifelong inclination of his, it was conceived in an oppositional spirit, in defiance of the then-dominant strain of expressionism in German theater, as exemplified by the eventual Nazi laureate Hanns Johst’s The Loner (1917), whose playwright protagonist was depicted as a solitary genius. Like many an expressionist play, Baal revolves around a wandering poet, but the prevailing forces here are anarchy and nihilism as opposed to romantic suffering. Named for a pagan god of fertility and thunder, Baal had a real-life model, a charismatic ne’er-do-well in the playwright’s Bavarian hometown of Augsburg whose hedonistic exploits were said to have led to a lonely death in the Black Forest. Although he wrote Baal nearly two decades before formalizing his doctrine of alienation, the young Brecht was already at pains to keep spectators at a distance, mindful that they not be granted “an invitation to feel sympathetically, to fuse with the hero,” as he put it. He need not have feared: within a week of its initial staging, in Leipzig in 1923, the city council had shut down the production and censured the director.

Less a character portrait than a vessel for an unruly life force, a staging ground for a war between Eros and Thanatos, Baal is sufficiently abstract to absorb the currents of any cultural moment, and as such it’s a work that lends itself well to adaptation. Full credit to Schlöndorff for sensing that this play, long eclipsed by Brecht’s later work, was particularly ripe for revival amid the ferment of the late sixties. By the time he turned
his attention to Baal, the director had made three features, including his acclaimed debut, Young Törless (1966),and the less successful Michael Kohlhaas (1969), a large-scale international coproduction that fueled a desire on the part of the filmmaker to get back to basics. For the low-budget Baal, funded by West German public television, Schlöndorff looked to the experimental-theater world for his collaborators. He found his star in Munich, where Fassbinder, following Brecht’s example as well as that of Antonin Artaud, was mounting an assault on dramaturgical tradition as the leader of the Antiteater troupe, a collective in the anarchist mold of New York City’s Living Theatre that he nonetheless ruled with an iron fist.

Baal represents an interesting intersection of two filmmakers on opposite trajectories. The more experienced of the two, Schlöndorff had apprenticed in Paris with such major figures of the French New Wave as Alain Resnais and Louis Malle. Although he first gained notoriety as an enfant terrible of the underground theater, Fassbinder always had his eye on the cinema. He arrived on the set of Baal having just completed his first feature, Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), an acerbic, stripped-down take on the gangster movie (and one of a mind-boggling ten features that he shot in 1969 and 1970). For Fassbinder, Baal—which gave him his first big role and sustained exposure to a professional film set—was a training ground for his more ambitious productions to come. For Schlöndorff, who would wrestle with the theme of radicalism throughout his career, it was an opportunity to team up with the young rebels of the moment. He hired not just Fassbinder but also the cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, who shot many of Fassbinder’s early films, and filled out the cast with Antiteater stalwarts, including Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann. (This was also the film that introduced Schlöndorff to his longtime partner and collaborator, Margarethe von Trotta, who plays a pivotal role, and who would also go on to work with Fassbinder.)

Over the years, Schlöndorff has earned a well-deserved reputation as a master of the literary adaptation. His sources have ranged widely—Robert Musil (Young Törless), Günter Grass (1979’s The Tin Drum), Marcel Proust (1984’s Swann in Love), Heinrich Böll (1975’s The Lost  Honor of Katharina Blum), and many others—and he has a particular gift for balancing fidelity and flexibility in translating a difficult text to the screen, as well as a keen eye for the material’s contemporary relevance. Apart from a few minor elisions, Schlöndorff’s Baal is, in many ways, an extremely faithful adaptation: most scenes play out word for word, with utmost deference to Brecht’s visceral language, by turns ribald and poetic. Schlöndorff emphasizes the ruthlessly episodic structure with his own alienation device of sorts: a screen-filling numeral to introduce each of the twenty-four chapters. From the opening scene—in which Baal, clad in a leather jacket and smoking a cigarette, swaggers down a country road, accompanied by the speak-sing incantation of Brecht’s prologue, “Chorale of the Great Baal”—the frame all but trembles with the physicality of its lead actor, who wears the role like a second skin. Fassbinder’s Baal is a fleshy, baby-faced sadist, a creature of appetite and impulse, and thoroughly unassimilable into polite society, as we see in the first dialogue scene, in which Baal spurns and offends would-be patrons at a high-end soiree while feasting on eel and champagne.

On paper, Baal has at best a skeptical relationship with the myth of the tortured genius; Schlöndorff and Fassbinder nudge the tone toward blackly comic parody. The main running joke concerns Baal’s apparently limitless powers of seduction. Everything about this vulgar monster proves irresistible to those around him, from his florid way with words to his animalistic stench. Baal lures a rich man’s wife, Emilie, to a seedy beer hall, and subjects her to a humiliating mind game. He deflowers the teenage Johanna, and drives her to suicide. Another young woman, Sophie (von Trotta), calls him “so ugly that it’s startling” before swooning into his arms, only to end up pregnant and abandoned. Baal also cultivates a rivalrous, violent, homoerotic friendship with a fellow poet, Ekart, whom he eventually kills.

More loose-limbed and rough-hewn than his work tends to be, Baal is the Schlöndorff film most closely aligned with the confrontational spirit of the cinematic new waves that were sweeping the world in the sixties. The handheld 16 mm camera work by Lohmann—a marked contrast from the posed tableaux of Love Is Colder Than Death, which he also shot—matches the lurching energy of Fassbinder’s performance. A later Baal film, from 1982—directed by the British filmmaker Alan Clarke, with another renowned iconoclast, David Bowie, in the lead—is more formally stylized, more obviously Brechtian in its staging, unfolding entirely within large, elaborate sets and deploying occasional split screens and direct-to-camera performances. But Schlöndorff finds a fruitful tension between naturalism and artifice in opening up the play to a variety of vivid real-world locations: the middle of a cornfield, the side of a busy freeway, a clearing in a vertiginous forest. Fittingly, given Baal’s repeated invocations of the indifferent natural world (“the sky above . . . was vast and still and pale”) and implicit questions about humanity’s natural state, the action alternates between the dingy interiors of taverns and garrets and the vast outdoors, where the antihero will eventually perish.

The response to Baal, when it aired on West German television in early 1970, was largely negative, not least from the Brecht estate. The playwright’s widow, Helene Weigel, prohibited further screenings, and the film remained largely unseen until 2014, when it was reintroduced, in a new digital restoration (from which Schlöndorff had excised about a minute of footage), to audiences at the Berlin Film Festival. From today’s vantage, this nearly lost film opens a window into a formative phase of the New German Cinema. Schlöndorff could not have known its documentary value at the time, but among other things, Baal stands as a remarkable record of the young Fassbinder. The Fassbinder persona as we have come to know it is fully present in his incarnation of Baal: the heedless pleasure-seeking, the improbable magnetism, the sly awareness and skilled exploitation of power dynamics. Brecht moved from the relatively free-form provocations of Baal to the Marxist principles of epic theater. But for Fassbinder—who died at age thirty-seven, leaving behind more than forty films—this scabrous vision of doomed and destructive genius would acquire an air of uncanny prophecy.

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