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David Bowie in Bertolt Brecth's BAAL
Rating: Overall 1, In Nomine 2
I was recently reminded that early in his career Bertolt Brecht wrote a play with a Baal as the titular character. While it is not about the demon Baal per-se, it is about a demon of a man, the first of Brecht’s many anti-heroes.

In 1982 the BBC recorded a translated version of the play with David Bowie playing the eponymous character. Like many BBC productions of the time, the pace is quite slow for American audiences.

As a protagonist, Baal is only really compelling due to his ability to flagrantly defy the bourgeois standards of his time (the play was written towards the end of World War I and first staged between the World Wars). Unlike Noel Coward’s protagonists who do the same by highlighting high society’s absurdities from within, Baal is an outsider from the very start; a picaresque vagabond who opens the play as the only ragamuffin at a black tie event. Through the course of the play, Baal proves himself to be a brawler, a womanizer, and a murderer who is content to let the detritus of his destructive tendencies gather on the the road side as he ambles (and eventually flees) upon his way.

Like many of Brecht’s later plays, Baal is littered with vignettes that break from the continuity of place and action. Unfortunately, these feel flat and uninspired in the BBC version. Rather that using the opportunity to break the fourth wall, the asides are displayed as complete non-sequitur. Bowie sings Brecht’s discordant and warbling songs directly into the camera while stills and vignettes filmed on a bare sound stage (at the time the play was written Brecht had not yet partnered with Kurt Weill).

On the whole, I would not actually recommend the film. However, if you are a fan of either Bertolt Brecht or David Bowie it is worth giving at least a cursory viewing – and it definitely does do a good job of capturing the infernal outlook of egotism and greed that the authors of the In Nomine try to ascribe to the servants of hell.

A full recording of the 1982 telecast is available on YouTube.

EDIT: The full recording of the 1982 BBC Baal is no longer available on YouTube, but here is Baal’s Hymn from the show.