Bertolt Brecht Diaries 1920-1922

Source: Bertolt Brecht (trans. John Willett), diary entry for 29 October 1921, in Herta Ramthun (ed.), Bertolt Brecht Diaries 1920-1922 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979), pp. 140-141

Text: Then I saw a little one-acter of Charlie Chaplin’s. It’s called The Face on the Bar-room Floor and it is the most profoundly moving thing I’ve ever seen in the cinema: utterly simple. It’s about a painter who enters a bar, has a drink and ‘because you folk have been so good to me’ narrates the story of his own downfall, which is that of a girl who has gone off with a bloated plutocrat. He sees her again, drunk and in rags, and it’s ‘the profanation of his ideal’, she’s fat and has children, at which he puts his hat on askew and goes off upstage into the darkness, staggering as if he had been hit on the head, all askew, my God, all askew as if he’d been blown off course by the wind, all windblown like no one you ever saw. And then the teller of the story gets drunker and drunker, and his need to communicate ever stronger and more painful, so he asks for ‘a bit of that chalk you put on the tips of your billiard cues’ and draws the loved one’s portrait on the floor – only to produce a series of circles. He slithers around on it, quarrels with all and sundry, gets chucked out and goes on drawing on the pavement – more circles and gets chucked back in and goes on drawing there and chucks them all out and they pop their heads in at the windows and he’s drawing on the floor and the end of the whole thing is: suddenly, just as he was trying to add a particularly artistic curl to the loved one’s hair, he let out a dreadful shriek and collapsed on top of his picture, dead … drunk … (ivre… mort…). Chaplin’s face is always impassive, as though waxed over, a single expressive twitch rips it apart, very simple, strong, worried. A pallid clown’s face complete with thick moustache, long artist’s hair and a clown’s tricks: he messes up his coat, sits on his palette, gives an agonised lurch, tackles a portrait by – of all things – elaborating the backside. But nothing could be more profoundly moving, it’s unadulterated art. Children and grown-ups laugh at the poor man, and he knows it: this nonstop laughter in the auditorium is an integral part of the film, which is itself deadly earnest and of a quite alarming objectivity and sadness. The film owes (part of) its effectiveness to the brutality of its audience.

Comments: Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German dramatist and poet. Chaplin’s The Face on the Barroom Floor (1914) is a spoof of a poem by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy about an artist who loses his love, is driven to drink, and draws the face of his lost love on a barroom floor before dying. The film was produced by Keystone Studios. Brecht wrote a poem about the film in 1944, ‘A Film of the Comedian Chaplin’.

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