I watched this DVD over the weekend and if you care about Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, the business of war, or simply want to have a behind-the-scenes look at a first-rate production, Theater of War is the documentary for you.
(Admittedly, not everyone cares about Bertolt Brecht. Their loss. He was one of the great genius playwrights of the twentieth century who witnessed the defining tragedies of our times, in particular Nazism - he fled Germany in 1933 with his wife and their children, first to Denmark, then Sweden, then Finland and finally the United States - the Second World War - most of which he spent in exile in Los Angeles - the beginning of the hunt against Communists, which prompted his return to Europe after the war, and then of course the oppression of Eastern Germany, although he served as a poster child to the party in power, since he had returned from the mecca of capitalism).
The first-rate production in question is the 2006 staging of Mother Courage at the Public Theatre in New York City. It doesn't hurt that Meryl Streep plays the title role, although there were fewer snapshots of her process in creating the role than I expected. At least we were treated to scenes from rehearsals, which was better than nothing. But for me the true value of this documentary is in the insights it provides about Brecht, the testimony of his daughter Barbara, the stills of the original Mother Courage production in Berlin which marked the beginning of the Berliner Ensemble and where Brecht's wife, the great Helene Weigel, starred as the mother.
As much as I admire Streep as an actress, her casting as the mother is not a perfect match (this is better explained in the New York Magazine's review of the production; put another way, it is hard for Streep at this point in her career to make a theater audience forget she is Streep, while it is easier to do in movies). For another review of the 2006 production, here is the New York Times's take on it. I thought the excerpts on DVD were far better than the reviewer implied of the whole production, but maybe it was too early for its time. Ten years later with certain wars dragging on and others having broken out, the theme of the 30-year-war resonates far more with the viewers.
I was stunned when I saw the stills by how good of a fit for the role Helene Weigel seemed to be. She directed the Berliner Ensemble after Brecht passed away in 1956 and survived him by 15 years. Magnum Photos has some great photos of hers at the height of her fame and power in East Germany. Buy the DVD for Streep and watch it for Weigel.