Monday, December 17, 2007


When The Threepenny Opera premiered on the German stage in the 1920s, it wowed the Weimar Republic and changed the face of theatre forever. The brainchild of perpetual underdog Bertold Brecht and the intellectually effete Kurt Weill, it was a free-floating, living theatre experience, updating John Gay's Beggar's Opera with modern cabaret, jazz, and a bit of early Marxist scandal. Its pulpy foundation is actually kind of like a connector between the pre-20th century tales of ribaldry and the emerging gangster movie genre. The play's main character, Mack the Knife, is the prowling outlaw, the deadly killer in a flashy suit that we can't help but be drawn to in spite of ourselves.

Despite being a huge hit in Germany, it took several years for The Threepenny Opera to make the transition from stage to screen. In 1931, pioneering German director George W. Pabst finally tackled the material, taking down Brecht in the process, creating a somewhat morphed version of the original production while making a classic of the early sound period in the process.

One of the main things Pabst did in his adaptation was to tighten up the actual story, dropping about half of Weill's songs and giving The Threepenny Opera a more standard movie narrative. Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster) is a pimp, a thief, and a murderer who runs the show amongst the shadowy figures of Bohemian London. He's the kind of colorful, charismatic outlaw that they sing songs about, and in this case, the famous standard "Mack the Knife," performed by Ernst Busch, a street singer who regularly interjects himself into the movie, acting as a scruffy Greek chorus and even addressing the audience directly. Mack has rejected the whore who loves him, Jenny (played by Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife and the originator of the role) and is seducing Polly Peachum (Carola Neher), the daughter of Jonathan Peachum (Fritz Rasp). Peachum is the "King of the Beggars," an enterprising crook who has organized the London panhandlers. For a fee, he will issue a beggar's license and give you the tools you need to extract the most sympathy from the bourgeoisie. As he says, the moneyed class has no problem creating misery, they just can't stand to look at it and will pay for the privilege not to.

When Mack and Polly marry, it causes an underworld standoff. Peachum doesn't want to lose his daughter to this shark, and so he leans on police chief Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schunzel), an old war buddy of Mackie's, to throw the noose around his pal's neck. If not, the beggars will march through the London streets and disrupt the coronation of the new Queen. If Brown can't keep the peace during this important occasion, his career is sunk.

While Pabst works with a cinematic language, the film version of The Threepenny Opera maintains a certain theatrical feeling. The elaborate sets seem to occupy the middle ground between the neorealist look of Marcel Carne's as-of-yet unmade Port of Shadows and the more obviously constructed set designs of the live stage. The buildings and the streets are wonderfully detailed, but the sky is usually just out of sight. When it comes into view during the more romantic moments, such as Mackie and Polly serenading one another on the deck of a ship, it has a gorgeous perfection, looking both three-dimensional and painted on. So, too, does the action seem to bounce back and forth between a prowling realism and a more stylized mode of expression. Shots of authentic looking beggars give way to moments of vaudevillian comedy and, of course, eruptions of song. Keeping with the cabaret style, the performers aren't so much singing their thoughts or driving the narrative, but instead are stopping cold to either perform as part of that narrative or wryly comment on it.

As far as the acting, I was most impressed by Forster. He chooses to play Mack as unflappable, slightly above it all, and always chill. Fleeing from the police is obviously a necessary action, but he's not going to be reduced to panicked running. Rather, he strolls easily from his fevered pursuers. He could get away or he could not, it doesn't seem to matter to him much either way. Intentionally or no, this seems to fit Brecht's more cynical message, that regardless of social strata, most people are just out for themselves. If Mack is best buds with the chief constable, than who is really mining the store? It makes all the sense in the world that Polly, once she takes over her husband's operations, would choose to buy a bank instead of continuing to rob them. It's what every gangster wants nowadays, to go legit. As Enron and other white-collar rip-offs have taught us in recent years, there's more money to be had on the supposed right side of the law anyway.

Pabst's strangeness in tone and the satirical, cynical eye are the most potent elements of The Threepenny Opera, and despite this otherworldly air, the director doesn't forget to remind us that the social ills Brecht describes are very real. When the beggars stand before the Queen and her parade, Pabst frames them as a sea of weathered faces, the lines of labor and despair appearing as unmistakably deep, etched into black-and-white celluloid. That the Queen only has a bouquet of fresh flowers to hide her face is a powerful metaphor. If you're going to bury your shame in something, it might as well be beautiful and deliciously scented.

It's those same elements that also keep this older film, restored last year in celebration of its 75th anniversary, from being too rickety. Sure, The Threepenny Opera lacks the sophisticated pacing and slick packaging that was to come, just like any other relic of early cinema, but the unrepeatable combination of talent is worth more than any polish.

The lead feature on the second disc is the French version of The Threepenny Opera that Pabst shot simultaneously with the more revered German version, using the same sets, just swapping the German actors for French ones. It's easy to see why the German is more well known, as the French is more stiff and lacking in the graceful storytelling of its sibling, even when things are done exactly the same. The actors feel more like stock performers from central casting, and Mackie in particular is weak-chinned by comparison. It's an okay film, but Pabst was definitely more comfortable in his own language. Likewise, this French version is not as lovingly restored. The picture is shaky, and the framing often seems a bit too tight, cutting off the tops of actors' heads. The subtitles are also burned into the image.

Mackie et Polly en Francais

Originally written September 18, 2007. For technical specs and more special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

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