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The Ambiguous Quality of Brecht’s ‘Goodness’


On Tuesday, I was having lunch with two friends and we came suddenly to talk about “The Life of Others,” the amazing film put together by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that received this year’s Foreign Film Oscar. Two of us—I was one—admitted to having seen it twice; one viewing does not suffice to absorb the many layers of meaning woven through this very important work. The discussion started me thinking again about Brecht’s poetry, and I thought of a very dark poem, “Was nützt die Güte.” It doesn’t feature in the film, but it struck me that this poem is also extremely close to the dilemma of this very timely film, with an ironic twist. I have just completed and posted an original translation of the poem below.

Brecht wrote the poem in 1935, while he was in exile in Denmark and struggling to make a new life. Only a few days after he wrote the poem, he wrote that he read in a newspaper, in a foreign language, that he had been stripped of his German citizenship. He had seen his name in a long column with dozens of others. “The lot of those who fled hardly seemed worse to me than that of those who remained behind.”

The theme of this very dark poem seems easy to glean from its surface. He is writing about personal morality. What can an individual achieve alone, even if that individual commits himself to moral conduct? He is criticizing moral philosophy, and what he offers in its place is a commitment to collective action. This is the committed Communist Bertolt Brecht writing—the man who got into hot water with the House Committee on Unamerican Activities and had to make a very rapid exit out of California.

Two of Brecht’s plays come very close to this same line of thinking. One is his breakthrough work, “Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe” (“St Joan of the Slaughterhouses”) from 1928—written on the eve of the Great Depression, it turns on stock market manipulations and labor actions and is sited in the Chicago meat markets. In it his conflicted heroine, Johanna Dark (Jeanne d’Arc) runs a Salvation Army-like operation caring for destitute workers and their families. But she has a sort of death-bed conversion, recognizing the foolishness of her do-gooder approach.

My vocation was to oppose the oppressors
Oh, goodness without consequence, imperceptible disposition,
I changed nothing
But disappear quickly from this world without issue
I say to you all:
Take care that you leave the world
Not just as good people, but that you leave behind
A good world.

And similarly in “Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan” (“The Good Person of Sichuan”) Brecht writes: “People have enough to do just to save their naked lives. Good principles bring them to the rim of the abyss; and good deeds push them over the edge.”

Brecht the doctrinaire Marxist is curling his lip at the bourgeois moralist, the individual who simply strives to “do the right thing,” but who divorces his engagement from something more broadly political. But he’s insinuating even more—these people merely feign being “good,” he says, we need to learn to be suspicious that a dark political motivation lurks behind them.

But–this is the thinking that built the “Workers and Peasants State” of the GDR. It led to the rise of a great surveillance state in which, in the end, a full ten per cent of the population were engaged in spying on their fellow citizens for the benefit of the Stasi and other branches of the great state security apparatus. It denied individuals their essential autonomy and conscience. In 1953 there was an uprising against it, and Brecht, in the last days of his life, finally turned a skeptical eye on the work of the Party.

“The Life of Others” builds off of Brecht and his poetry. It strikes me as an effective metaphor for many reasons. One of them is the transformation that Brecht himself made. Brecht was a brilliant writer and thinker who embraced a highly doctrinaire and exceedingly flawed set of values. His work has enough of the universal in it to survive even this, but it also reflects a gradual transformation–the same transformation that we see in the Brecht-reading Stasi Captain Wiesler. In the end it is indeed the quiet morality of the individual that matters; that is what must be repeated millions of times, through millions of individual self-realizations, to create a better world. That will never emerge from any state’s central plan.

The post-1953 Brecht seems slowly to come to this realization. And the use of Brecht and his writings as a core thematic ribbon in this film is, also for this reason, exceptionally inspired. Another sign, I believe, that this is a film which rises to the highest levels of which this medium is capable.

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