Losey, Brecht and Galileo

by Martin Walsh

from Jump Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 13-15
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

It is an irony of some magnitude that Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre should have chosen to present Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo as part of its second season. Ironic, at least, for the moviegoer who must pay $4.50 to witness a work by one of the great “leftwing” artists of the century. Brecht’s co-optation by the establishment repertoire has been complete for some years now. This bourgeois recuperation of the radical is neatly underlined by the context of this cinematic version of Galileo. Promoted as “high culture” now available to the provincial middle classes, both the advertising and the price tag are an outrageous confidence trick designed to appeal to a financial elite (as opposed to the magnificently populist desires of Brecht himself) susceptible to the notion that “real art” costs money. Just like a “real” theatre, the audience is given an unnecessary interval in the 145-minute film, and even a nice glossy “program” about the production, replete with witty red cover. On the back page, there’s the Biographical Notes—about four inches for director Joseph Losey and star actor Topol, bandying about words such as “famous ... classics ... firmest reputation ... international recognition ... wide experience ....”

And there’s little more than an inch at the bottom to tell us about Brecht; it lists titles of a few of his other plays. We read, “He left Germany in 1933 and traveled about Europe until settling in the United States from 1941 to 1947.” Then it refers to his “anti-Nazi dramas” and the fact that he “collaborated with Kurt Weill on three musical productions.” Sounds like a nice, cheery, humanist kind of fellow, doesn't he?

Curious, though—I mean, weren't Brecht’s “travels” necessitated by political persecution? And wasn't that persecution aimed at the most significant political artist to appear since Soviet Russia spawned Meyerhold, Vertov, Eisenstein and the others during the twenties? And didn't the U.S. House Un-American Activities committee exile him yet again in 1947? Isn't this “program” a calculated bourgeois revisionism designed to anaesthetize the once radical?

Fortunately, Brecht’s Galileo rises above the twitching grasp of such whitewashing procedures. One of the strengths of the film, too, is the choice of Joseph Losey to direct it. Back in 1947 Losey had directed its first U.S. performance—the English version which Brecht had meticulously prepared with the equally painstaking Charles Laughton. Indeed it appears that Losey has long harbored a desire to film Galileo.

“Brecht gave me the exclusive rights to do Galileo in English for many years—and I couldn't get anybody to do it ... I consider the play virtually a scenario for a film ... The pressure of the Roman catholic church had barred any possibility of a film in Hollywood, because Laughton and I had tried to do it there before I left.”(1)

(Losey, like Brecht a few years earlier at the hands of HUAC, was forced by Hollywood’s illegal blacklist to leave the United States.) Subsequently, Losey almost raised the money in Europe for a film version. But the offer was withdrawn when Losey felt it beyond his power to guarantee the prospective producer “a brilliant performance.” Losey’s integrity here, his refusal to play the role of either clairvoyant or opportunist, suggests the recuperative context of this AFT production may not extend to the film itself.

Nevertheless, when Losey says “my life has been ... full of Galileo since before I ever shot a feature film,” we might be curious to know why the anti-illusionist Brecht is so attractive to such a director of the illusionist tradition. In some respects Galileo is less “radical” than much of Brecht’s earlier work. Formally it is less striking than his work of the thirties, which was more concerned than is Galileo with innovations in terms of the mechanics of the performance (interruptive, anti-illusionist devices such as moving platforms on the stage, the use of projected titles, the development of gestic acting, for instance). The emphasis on distanciation, on alienation techniques is not foregrounded in Galileo in the manner that it is in The Threepenny Opera. Brecht was aware of this. Ernst Shumacher writes,

“Brecht regarded Galileo as a play with ‘restricted’ alienation effects.”(2)

The reason for this was that Brecht’s ideas about drama seemed, in the later years of his life, to shift away from the “epic” theatre, toward a “dialectical theatre.” His notions about dialectics were never fully theorized (unlike the notion of epic which was fully outlined in various writings of the late twenties and thirties), but Galileo seems to embody these ideas in practice.

That is to say, the narrative structure of Galileo is built in a clearly dialectical manner that is designed to make evident the contradictory forces at work in Galileo’s life, to pose positive qualities against negative, public images against private, cerebral ideas against physical passions. These co-existing polarities are organized in a web of complex symmetry. And, as Shumacher has pointed out, this symmetry was clearly worked out by Brecht’s preliminary notes for the play. The point of mentioning this is to underline the fact that Galileo is not a product of the Brecht valued, say, by Godard and Gorin (whose allegiance centers around the “Notes to the Opera of 1930). For the emphasis on symmetry suggests closure, a concern with “wholeness” and “unity” that is somewhat at odds with the more open-ended theatrical forms of his earlier years. But it is comparatively consonant with the “illusionist” narrative tradition represented by Losey.

However, in the circumstances, the comparative conservatism of Galileo is its virtue: Brecht’s concentration on the internal relations of the text (as opposed to its physical relationship to the audience) gives it a coherence and strength that almost defies distortion by unsympathetic direction. (Not that Losey is unsympathetic, however.) The play revolves around the figure of Galileo, over the span of his mature life. This life is related to a crucial moment in intellectual history: the supercession of the Ptolemaic world view (earth as center of the universe) by the Copernican (sun as center, earth as planet). Galileo fights for the recognition and acceptance of this new knowledge—for a revolution in consciousness. The play’s narrative traces the contours of this struggle, thereby identifying the strengths and limitations of Galileo’s revolutionary endeavor.

Brecht presents Galileo’s arguments with the ruling nobility of Italy, his clashes with the Church, and the Inquisition—in short his struggle to continue his research in pursuit of the truth. The path Galileo took is one presented by Brecht in various lights, both negative and positive. His obsequious courting of favors from the Grand Duke, his readiness to wreck his daughter’s happiness in order to continue his research, his recantation of Copernican theory (for fear of physical torture) are set against his ideological veracity, his conviction that “My intention is not to prove that I was right, but to find out whether I was right,” his brilliant argumentative powers. Brecht’s presentation of Galileo is in no sense an idealist one. It presents the man in all his frailties, as both hero (intellectually) and coward (physically), as loving and betraying truth. One fulcrum the play rests on is the scene of Galileo’s recantation, which suggests both that (idealistically) Galileo betrays truth by recanting, while (pragmatically) he preserves it in preserving his life to enable him to continue his research in secret, for benefit of later ages.

The dawning of a new age, the inevitable setbacks to its immediate implementation, the difficulties confronting any one individual who sets his sights on such a revolutionary endeavor—these are the concerns of Galileo. We know today how close to impossible it is for any individual to dissociate himself/ herself from the mechanisms of the dominant society. “By setting the name Medici in the skies I am bestowing immortality on the stars.” Galileo’s servility toward the Prince is undoubtedly ironic, since in the scene preceding its utterance, it has been pointed out that Copernican theory effectively abolishes heaven. However ironic Galileo’s stance, the fact remains that he is economically dependent on the very culture whose demise his theories announce.

Clearly there is no ready answer to this dilemma, even today, as Jon Jost’s SPEAKING DIRECTLY: SOME AMERICAN NOTES makes clear. In Jost’s case, his retreat to the woods, his attempted withdrawal from intercourse with the dominant ideology has proven elusive. He still needs a camera (product of alienated French workers), and a laboratory to process the film (oppressed technicians?). He still has to take his film from city to city by automobile. In short, contradiction is inherent in the revolutionary’s activity, and might be said to be the essential theme of Galileo.

Certainly it was a theme that preoccupied Brecht through the forties, as we see in his analysis of Breughel’s pictorial contrasts.

“In The Fall of Icarus the catastrophe breaks into the idyll in such a way that it is clearly set apart from it and valuable insights into the idyll can be gained. He doesn't allow the catastrophe to alter the idyll; the latter rather remains unaltered and survives undestroyed, merely disturbed.”(3)

Similarly Brecht shows that the Copernican “catastrophe” didn't result in any immediate radical transformation of the social order—mass action is the only precedent for that. So the problem remains of how to communicate new and “subversive” knowledge to the masses. That dilemma, however, is not the subject of Galileo. It is better, therefore, that I return to our immediate task: appraisal of Losey’s version of Galileo.

As indicated earlier, Losey had wanted to film Galileo since the late forties. It is not surprising that for the most part (with the exception of the unnecessary music added to Hans Eisler’s original score) he seems to stay close to Brecht/ Laughton’s original English version. Losey’s use of color, as far as the costumes are concerned, fulfills Brecht’s intentions. This is Brecht’s own description:

“Each scene had to have its basic tone ... the entire sequence had to have its development in terms of color. In the first scene a deep and distinguished blue made its entrance with Ludovico Marsili, and this deep blue remained, set apart, in the second scene with the upper bourgeoisie in their grey green coats made of felt and leather. Galileo’s social ascent could be followed by means of color. The silver and pearl-grey of the fourth (court) scene led into a nocturne in brown and black (where Galileo is jeered at by the monks of the Collegium Romanum), then on to the eighth, the cardinal’s ball, with delicate and fantastic individual masks (ladies and gentlemen) moving among the cardinals’ crimson figures. That was a burst of color, but it still had to be   fully unleashed, and this occurred in the ninth scene, the carnival. Then came the descent into dull and somber colours....”(4)

In other words, Brecht uses color and texture of cloth as an index of wealth and power. Marsill’s deep blue is of greater opulence than the grey-green of the upper bourgeoisie, and he remains distinguished from them. The crimson worn by the cardinals serves to designate their omnipotence. At the moment at which Galileo seems to find himself and his theories accepted, he in shown mingling with the crimson clad cardinals. Subsequently as he falls from favor, the vigor of this red disappears from Galileo’s environment. Losey remains faithful to this structure, the cardinals’ crimson, Ludivico’s blue, and the carnival-singer’s multicolored patchwork garb being the only chromatic eruptions to disturb the predominant grey, black, brown and off-white of Galileo’s world.

Losey ignores any temptation to embellish or decorate Brecht’s structure. His work as director is characterized by its restraint. Naturally he weights a particular interpretation of the play through his choice of framing, of cuts, and so on. But one does feel his sensitivity to the demands of the text, a stylistic subordination to Brecht’s structure. In the scene at the Cardinal’s ball between Galileo and Cardinal Barbarini (who is later to be Pope), the two men exchange a series of epigrammatic proverbs, a verbal duel that builds with intensity to Barbarini’s climactic and threatening, “Can one walk on hot coals, and his feet not be burned?”

Losey’s mise-en-scene here is elegantly executed. Tthe camera tracks and pans skillfully to relate the two men (the Cardinal in red, Galileo in black robes) weaving in and around the white marble pillars that serve visually to support their verbal thrust and parry. Or again, look at the scene of Galileo’s recantation, in which we see not Galileo’s agony but that of his pupils, contrasted with his daughter Virginia’s prayers that he will be “saved.” This is one of the dramatic peaks of the play. Losey reserves for it an expressionistic treatment reminiscent of IVAN THE TERRIBLE—huge shadows cast on the walls behind the actors, a starkly simple set consisting of a table and chess set on the left (chess the symbol of conflict, that is crucial to this dialectical drama), Galileo’s empty chair in the center, and a skeletal flight of stairs on the right, atop which Virginia prays while Galileo’s disciples hover uneasily on the left. Losey allows this tension to develop on the screen by keeping both parties simultaneously in the frame, with only minimal use of close shots. The clarity and power of this scene is quite extraordinary, the more so by contrast to Losey’s restraint elsewhere in the film, which has a rather more naturalistic base.

Not that Losey isn't prey to a certain dogmatism at points. The huge close-up as Galileo speaks directly at the camera, early in the film, prophesying the future significance of astronomy, is one example. But even here one feels Losey’s intent is fidelity to the spirit of Brecht’s educative endeavor. (immediately apparent in the very first scene, as Galileo meticulously explains the Ptolemaic world-view to the young Andrea, which he follows with a practical demonstration of the Copernican alternative). The surprise of this large close shot functions to undercut any simple “identification” with the figure of Galileo. Brecht’s drama is, of course, an anti-illusionist, anti-identificatory one which demands that we exercise our intellects rather than simply our emotions. In this respect it is salutary to recall Brecht on the actor’s responsibility:

“At no moment must he go so far as to he wholly transformed into the character played ... This principle—that the actor appears on the stage in a double role, as Laughton and as Galileo—comes to mean simply that the tangible, matter-of-fact process is no longer hidden behind a vest; that Laughton is actually there, standing on the stage and showing us what he imagines Galileo to have been.”(5)

This is where the film’s Brechtianism begins to break down. Topol is not Laughton, and his conception of the role is a simple immersion in his notion of “the character” of Galileo. His performance is naturalistic, rather than alienated. This stylistic tension reappears in the film itself. On the one hand, we have the predominantly naturalistic performances of Mary Larkin as Galileo’s daughter, Virginia, and Richard O'Caliaghan as Fulganzio. And on the other, the magnificently Brechtian engagement of Cohn Blakely with his role as Priuli, where his gestic vitality imparts an exemplary clarity to his performance. Watch the way his hands are used to denote “manipulative thought at work,” for instance; it is a didactic performance, but splendidly witty and energetic. Or again, John Gielgud’s cameo scene as the expostulating and aged Cardinal is a caricature of exquisite balance, culminating in his physical collapse even as he hits the word “immortal.” Similarly, the performance of the ballad singer and his wife (Clive Revill and Georgia Brown) has a direct vigor that recalls much of the spirit of Lotte Lenya and the visual power of Breughel.

And yet—well, the essential problem with the film as far as Brechtianism is concerned lies in Losey’s very fidelity to the “distanciation” techniques of the original production. In the intervening twenty-eight years audiences have become so used to such devices that they no longer function efficaciously. Brecht’s episodic structures, for instance the use of the chorus and printed titles, no longer alienate us in the manner they once did. The point behind “distanciation” is that we are provoked into thought, jolted into exercising our rational faculties, rather than allowed to emote serenely and passively throughout the performance. At one time, the use of projected titles on the stage had an interruptive effect, since it cut across the expected conventions of the genre, thereby creating a meaning that could not be un-consciously responded to, consumed by the audience. One of the most vital precepts of Brechtian theory is the notion that alienation devices must never be reduced to mere technique or convention, for then they become “invisible” and our identificatory propulsions are not efficiently interrupted. Thus Losey’s GALILEO seems from time to time to approach (though not to rival) the spurious “Brechtianism” of Lindsay Anderson’s O LUCKY MAN.

What Brecht taught, and Godard learned, was that alienation devices must be continually re-invented, if they are to retain any value. Thus Godard’s distanciation techniques are rarely iterative but always search for a new mode of expression, in a perpetually heuristic endeavor. One obvious example from the work of Godard/ Gorin is their evolving use of the lateral tracking shot, which refuses to allow us to “enter” the “depth” of the frame in the conventional illusionist manner. Another example is constituted by the various disjunctions between image-track and sound-track that recur through Godard’s work, from BAND OF OUTSIDERS to TOUT VA BIEN. What we must note is that the recurrence of this disjunction is in no sense formulaic, but consistently inventive, probing, seeking to surprise and jolt our intellects.

Early in the film Galileo ruminates on the fact that people began to make progress only when ships left the safety of the shoreline—this is the kind of courage Losey lacks. One suspects that the passing of twenty-five years has made little change in Losey’s vision of how Galileo should be done. And yet, having said this, I feel remorseful—for if we stop to think of what the AFT could have done to Galileo, we should perhaps be thankful for a production of as much integrity as Losey’s. Losey may not be the radical director Brecht deserves. But his production is consistently restrained and allows the incomparable intelligence of Brecht’s text to thrust through to us. For Galileo is one of the very greatest dramas of this century, and it seems to have the rare ability of transcending even the worst production. Its verbal profundity, like Shakespeare’s, is somehow indestructible. And its articulation of the basic dilemmas of revolutionary consciousness is absolutely haunting. After Galileo’s recantation, his pupil Andrea laments “Pity the country that has no hero,” to which comes the somber retort, “Pity the country that needs a hero.” This contradiction hangs in the air long after its utterance, resisting dissolution. For as well as the need for mass action (as Galileo suggests), there remains the need which Andrea urges—for the lone bearers of the knowledge that subverts our conventional orientation, that alone may change our consciousness. For it is this knowledge, in the broadest sense, that must lay the base for mass action. To the rarity of this fusion both history and Galileo attest.


1. Losey interviewed by Tom Milne, Losey on Losey, Secker and Warburg, 1967, pp. 168-72. The following Losey quotes are from this interview.

2. Ernst Shumacher, “The Dialectics of Galileo, in Brecht, ed. E. Monk, Bantam, 1972, p. 214.

3. Brecht on Theatre, ed. Willett, New York, 1964, p. 157.

4. Ibid., p. 167.

5. Ibid., pp. 193-94.