"When the dark womb drags him down to its prize
What's the world still mean to Baal, he's overfed
So much sky is lurking still behind his eyes
He'll just have enough sky when he's dead"
—Bertolt Brecht, Baal (1918)
Forty-three years after its entombment, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s incarnation of Baal rises from the grave, as brutal, poetic and rebellious as ever. This Berlinale, Volker Schlöndorff’s 1970 adaptation was shown in public for the first time in four and a half decades of censorship by Brecht’s inheritors, perhaps because there is something in the film which is too revelatory about the text’s essence. Steeped in the vitality of Brecht’s youth, in his raw anger, it is the punkish anomaly, anarchistic violent and immoral, which cannot be easily explained by or assimilated into his later theorized Epic Theater. This first play of Brecht’s lacks entirely that political clarity which defines many of his later works; its politics are rather its energy of refusal. It is a violent rejection of fascist drama, a rejection of bourgeois art-lovers, a rejection of linguistic placidity, and a bestial cry in the name of poetry at any cost.
In Schlöndorff’s film Rainer Werner Fassbinder does not just incarnate Baal’s spirit, he is Baal, and perhaps was even so inspired by this, his first filmic performance, that he assimilated this persona into his own life to the point in which Baal and R.W.F. become inseparable. Naked, young, immensely marvelous, R.W.F./Baal displays his thuggish mug, his pimpled jaw, his abused, fat body for Schlöndorff‘s handheld 16mm camera, every gesture expressing a sensitive brutality, a raw rebellion. R.W.F./Baal’s revolt is instinctual and liberating. It is a debauched and natural refusal of any social more, of any form of shame or praise or authority which might make this anti-idealist animal beholden to another human; the inner insurrection which maintains his purity in both Art and Nature.
Baal’s quintessence is the ‘ungeheuer’ (literally ‘un-safe,’ or colossal, terrific, monstrous), and who could be more perfect to play this Baal the poet, Baal the asocial, Baal the traitor, Baal the rebel than Rainer Werner Fassbinder, that cinematic ogre, who doesn’t so much walk into the frame as much as stalk in it, bursting its edges with his ungainly and lumbering body, leather-clad and menacing, with an eternal cigarette dripping from his contemptuous sneer?
Schlöndorff’s adaptation is both literal and literary like only a post-nouvelle-vague film can be. The principle of his film is that of minimal adaptation, a word-for-word, scene-by-scene ‘transfilmation’ leading to a formal rigidity, a refusal to budge from the original text which is simultaneously the wellspring of its cinema and its limiting boundary. It is devoid of anything that does not serve the text’s manifestation—there are no ambiance shots, no expository scenes, no inserts, no cut-aways, no additions, only faces and bodies and bodies and faces. Confronted with the choice between submitting his movie to Brecht’s feral language or taking on the near-impossible challenge of sublimating it, the young Schlöndorff in all humility (or awe?) selected perhaps wisely the former path, limiting himself to a literal transposition from written text into filmed flesh and recorded voice.
Schlöndorff’s Baal is, to be sure, unequal, imprecise, outdated. The camera movements, raw and roughshod, serve to focus on faces which speak, faces which listen, faces which wait, faces which desire—human incarnations of the word. At moments, Schlöndorff’s attempts to reproduce Brecht’s language with exactitude weighs his adaptation down; yet, without this amateurishness, the film would lose its essence, this unprofessionalism which is its novelty, and the guarantor of its revolt. It is an example of just how unnecessary professionalism is when the film crew and cast has ideas, energy, will. Yet something too gets lost—the potential film-that-might-have-been—the one which has the courage to seek resolutions of how to transfer Brecht’s uncontainable text without imprisoning it within the frame. The difficulties of Brecht’s play, the force of his language could have been sources of cinematic ideas, making this hypothetical film grander than the one that is. Nonetheless, even though Baal becomes at times tiresome and rigid, Schlöndorff’s adaptation is worthwhile enough if for nothing else, to see R.W.F./Baal conjoined, to see his chewed-up oatmeal face speak Brecht’s text, to see his body express this treacherous lust, this poetic yearning.
In many ways Schlöndorff’s filming of the adventures of this gutter-seeking poet matches Brecht’s play. The film was banned perhaps because it doesn’t fit into ‘the program,’ yet what could be more natural for an adaptation of a text whose basis is the rejection of that program, specifically the program of its own rehabilitation? Anti-idealist, anti-ideological it (the play, the film) is absolute in its egoism, in its mockery of pathos and rejection of explanation, perhaps the only way to express this simplified, awkward, and rage-filled youthful yearning for something beyond that which is.