friday, june 13, 2008
The 3penny OperaThe 3penny Opera (or Die 3groschenoper) is a film that has been almost completely overshadowed by its history.
Derived from the tremendously popular play its passage from page to screen was a famously stormy one. Playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill sued the filmmakers for breach of contract. After it was made the Nazis banned it and destroyed almost every known negative leaving it to be seen only through adulterated copies for more than 75 years.
In 2006, a new version of the film was finally made using a camera negative and the result was a version of the work that is nothing more than a complete revelation. Last year, the Criterion Collection released this on DVD and it is almost like witnessing a new version of this Weimar-era masterpiece.
Directed by G.W. Pabst The Threepenny Opera is revealed as nothing less than a brilliant and powerful social criticism as well as a technically brilliant achievement. Moreover, it's fantastically entertaining despite the weightiness of its subject matter.
The film centers on crime boss Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster), the famed "Mack the Knife."
He is an unrepentant criminal who works under the surface of the legal system - partly due to his old army buddy Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schunzel) whose now a befuddled chief of police. By keeping a low profile he is able to enjoy the pleasures of his illicit little kingdom - as long as he doesn't create difficulties for the other powers-that-be.
Messer is a philandering lout and although he never exhibits the violence the song describes of him his cocksure demeanor certainly puts it in the realm of possibility. The knife is never in evidence but the weapon he carries is certainly suggested. He's more interested in assignations than assassinations.
The conflict between these three forces is what fuels the remarkably complex tale - although it's no more complicated that the actual account of how the film itself came to be made.
The genesis of the film was John Gay's 1728 play, The Beggar's Opera, that was no less controversial in its time than its successor two centuries later. And no less popular at the time.
What is fascinating is how much sheer serendipity and luck worked to make The Threepenny Opera (or Die Dreigroschenoper) come into being. Brecht's secretary/lover Elisabeth Hauptmann heard of a revival of Gay's work and translated it into German. Although Brecht claimed authorship, Raynes names no less than a half-dozen collaborators on the play.
That lead to the famous lawsuit that Brecht and Weill brought against the company who made the film, Nero. Paid for the rights, the contract called for the pair to retain a degree of creative control over the film version. Brecht then produced a radically different and highly politicized treatment for the movie that the producers rejected.
Nero, Raynes points out, only wanted a film version of the successful play. And when they moved forward to make it, Brecht and Weill sued. The court found in Weill's favor - his music was retained as he wrote it - but against Brecht. Pabst was then clear to make the film he intended.
Pabst has often been lauded for is his tendency to allow strong and rounded performances from women - something one would expect from the director that discovered Greta Garbo - and The Threepenny Opera is no exception. Carola Neher's performance is the lynchpin for the whole work and she pulls it off with both grace and power. She seems at first simply a na´ve prey for Messer's voracious sexual appetite but quickly proves a willing bride, more-than-able partner and, at the end, a suffering wife.
It is interesting that for a work that ostensibly is mostly concerned about class conflict that such a strong feminist statement is made as well. Mrs. Messer proves to be the inspiration for the transformation of her husband's gang into the more dangerous and profitable business it becomes. Yet she merely ends up holding the place for him to lead it and, while she has labored to do so, he has been betraying her with a series of affairs.
One of the chief criticisms of Pabst's approach is the severe truncating of Weill's music in the film version. Only a few of the songs that have made the stage version so famous are retained and in a substantially different order. Film critics defend this partly due to the time limitations of the cinematic version
By rearranging the musical numbers Pabst helps create a growing sense of drama that isn't as inherently necessary in the stage version. Moreover, by using specific compositions of Weill's in the background he also subtly added a sense of realism to the film that contemporary viewers may not catch.
After its opening at Munich Schiffbauerdamm Theater in 1928, the music of the play was damned near ubiquitious. Within a year, more than 42,000 performances of it were held across Europe and Weill's songs were impossible to have not heard.
"In the streets no other tunes were whistled," wrote Lenya in her memoirs. "A Dreigroschen bar opened, where no other music was played."
That familiarity with the music would make a viewer of the film in the mid-1930 immediately associate the drama with his own world. When the people in the bar begin dancing to the music, it could have well been something they had done themselves just a year or two prior.
Again, this effect might go over the heads of modern day viewers but the idea itself certainly wouldn't. Ever since George Lucas put contemporary songs into the soundtrack of American Graffiti, this means of adding a layer of realisay - fell under this new classification for a host of reasons; Brecht's communism, Weill's Judaism and the film's depiction of German society as corrupt to the core. On a whole, most of Pabst's films were considered degenerate and banned.
And the Nazis were particularly ruthless in their vendetta against the film, eventually succeeding in destroying what was thought to be almost every negative of the work. For many years the only surviving remnants were terribly adulterated versions that barely allowed the power of the work to hold forth.
The near-tragic fate of the film gave it a luster as a cautionary tale of what fascism and totalitarianism are capable of. It's a theme that Brecht held quite dear in his later works and adds an additional layer of irony to The Threepenny Opera itself.
Unlike Messer, she is sharp enough to know that the appearance is all that separates him and his kind from the 'sharks' whose business is in more respectable environs. When she and the henchmen take over the bank they may have donned better clothes but they certainly haven't changed their stripes (or their manners, either).
More importantly, once the gang is operating with the guise of legitimacy it's protected by the legal protections put in place by the upper classes to ensure they are able to keep the property they have accumulated.
Rather than an overtly communist scenario that Brecht wanted for the film, this development is a more generalized criticism of the society. A strict Marxist interpretation of the work seems to break down at key points.
There seems to a substantial difference between the boisterous dockside crowd that begins the action and the lower class of beggars that make their sad extuent in the film's closing scene. Its not at all clear if these are supposed to be the same or the classically conflicted Bourgeoisie and Proletariat of Marxist thinking.
To a point, the latter makes some degree of sense but the film is frustratingly inconsistent in its argument. Messer, Peacham and Brown have come from this crowd and risen to the position of power by the end of the film. They are the new ruling class of this society and unashamedly corrupt to the core.
Yet it is the lowest classes, the abject and powerless poor that come face to face with the highest class - the aristocracy. The conflict ends in anarchy but no real change in the status of either. Behind the scenes the bourgeoisie has taken control and has the full force of the laws to back it.
The film may suggest a key to the situation in its introduction when the singer makes an appeal to the authorities "If you want us to be morally virtuous you must see to our base needs first." Yet, as the film goes on to demonstrate, once this is accomplished then the real exploitation can begin.
All of which could have be overwhelmingly boring and monotonous if handled badly. But there is an inherent faith in humanity throughout the film - no matter how cynical and painfully pragmatic it gets. The humor helps a lot, too.
In fact, The Threepenny Opera is one of the most deliciously dark comedies in the history of the medium. Its efforts in raising a laugh range from to subtle irony to outright slapstick but the effect is marvelously able in deflating the pompous standards of the society it's depicting. The social commentary is sharpened by the cutting wit of the film, not lessened.
The film's subject matter begs you to make a political assessment of the work and then it merrily defies any and all theories you can come up with. But it's sympathies with the left are unmistakable.
According to Marx there is a disjunct between appearance and reality that capitalism uses to prey on the working class. It appears to provide a way for them to attain a living and a degree of prosperity but what it's actually accomplishing is placing them inescapably under the control of the ruling classes. The process of exploitation is masked by the utility of the system.
In The Threepenny Opera, Pabst hammers home this idea symbolically. Reflections are a key motif throughout the film popping up with regularity and in ways that practically cry out for notice. The reflections in mirrors and windows cut through the illusion of appearances.
And, of course, this emphasis on reflection is self referential as well. Pabst's film is a reflection on Brecht and Weill's original work which itself is a version of Gay's play. There is a growing distance between each and the original work that inspired them all but, instead of becoming adulterated, each has a power of their own.
Much like the reflections and the reality depicted on the screen in the film all have their own validity - a point stressed by the last scene using a mirror where a row of men both in front of and shown in the mirror utter their lines in a way that it becomes indistinguishable for the viewer to discern which is which.
In some ways, the film preserves the politics of they young Brecht which are fascinatingly complex and contradictory - a perfect condition to record the zeitgeist of the Weimar years. No matter how conflicting the forces that overwhelm the society the underlying wrong they create has to be acknowledged and dealt with.
Sadly, the group that emerged to deal with it was more ruthless and corrupt that anyone ever imagined.
|comment posted by: J-Money on june 16, 2008 @ 8:52 pm|
For the record, I cannot attend any karaoke night without singing "Mack the Knife". It fits in so nicely between "Friends In Low Places" and "Summer Lovin".
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