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Die Dreigroschenoper (1931)
(aka The Threepenny Opera)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

A distinctly theatrical rendition of Brecht's satirical play, The Threepenny Opera looks and sounds wonderful. It does, however, almost demand a prior knowledge of the text and era. In the final decade of the Nineteenth Century the foggy London Docks are a forbidding place for even the bravest of souls. On narrow streets lined with empty warehouses and packed whorehouses, crowds gather to hear the tale of Mack the Knife. A mysterious figure who preys remorselessly on the weak and vulnerable, mere mention of his name sends chills running down people's spines. From one of these brothels steps Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster), a smartly attired and well-appointed gentleman. On his arm hangs Pirate Jenny (Lotte Lenya), both tart and girlfriend.

She's dropped like a hot potato when Mackie spots Polly Peachum (Carola Neher) though. Polly has looks, a fine business brain behind her pretty face and excellent connections. No wonder Mackie is quite taken with her. Polly's father Jonathan Peachum (Fritz Rasp) is known as the King of the Beggars, for his tight grip on the vagrant population of the Capital. Through this network he has fingers in many pies, which is just how Mackie operates via his web of burglars and villains. Both stand outside of the law, as represented by Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), though Mackie has an advantage; many years ago he was stationed in India with Brown. Taking advantage of the immunity that results, Mackie thieves at will. It's a useful freedom, especially when on a whim he decides to marry Polly.

For anybody coming to The Threepenny Opera cold, its opening thirty minutes could be something of a culture shock. After Kurt Weill's haunting theme has played under the credits, the viewer is thrust onto the cold streets of London like a new-born babe. Mackie appears, looking suave and dangerous, while Jenny and Polly are later spotted. Locals move through the streets and the camera follows, yet there is no dialogue worth mentioning. All we hear are songs, thrilling the nerves with Macheath or enticing alehouse patrons into a moment of dance. What we don't get is exposition, background and explanation; the characters live in this city, everything else has to be inferred. Given this challenge you can either sit back and be confused, or take an active part in harvesting any crumbs that drop from the table. Chart the latter course and a world of corruption, power, surprise and beauty is revealed.

It's easy to identify the source of this initial obfuscation though -- Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Faced with The Threepenny Opera, inherently theatrical source material, he makes few concessions to the broader vista of cinema. Instead his film remains true to its origin, a choice that always has certain implications for an audience. In the case of The Threepenny Opera this means that a working knowledge of at least three "languages" is required to feel the film's full power. On a simplistic level it's obvious that a functional fluency in German will enhance the experience, simply because translation deadens so much of the dialogue's subtle rhythm, resonance and nuance.

At a more basic level, a feel for the language of theatre may be the difference between loving and hating The Threepenny Opera. So much can be left unsaid in a live performance, where the cast is able to establish a rapport with the audience, that this connection is often overlooked. Yet such a conduit is vastly more difficult to create on film, which is where many adaptations fail. To get the most out of The Threepenny Opera you need to be aware of how stage plays function, then allowance can be made. At the fundamental, global level an understanding of the period, of Victorian society, pays dividends. The class hierarchy of the time shaped people's behaviour, the dynamics of their interactions. To realise this is to bathe the movie in a new light, where the characters no longer live in a world far removed from our own.

Given that the cast perform in a style appropriate to Bertolt Brecht's words, they each add something of note to The Threepenny Opera. Forster exudes an air of power, authority and self-belief; qualities founded on his control of London's criminal underworld. At first this makes Mackie seem remote, a lofty puppeteer who governs the lives of others without a thought for them as people. However while this feeling remains, Forster tempers Mackie with humour, love and even tolerance. In contrast, while Rasp displays the same willingness to abuse the misfortune of others, he has no redeeming feature; he gets what he deserves. It's only Neher, trapped in the middle, who acts to prevent the destruction of all; her wits and steely resolve prevail. Along with the rest of the cast, these three seem only too happy to burst into song; it's amazing just how appropriate these interludes seem. Obviously Pabst's decision to retain a theatrical tone was the correct one.

Especially impressive in this print, newly struck by the National Film Theatre, are the production designs of Andrej Andrejev. Evoking the constricted, hazy and laissez faire atmosphere of the docks, the sets balance expressionism and realism. Frequently shot from unusual angles by Fritz Arno Wagner, the cast is occasionally dominated by their environment. This is, perhaps, why the tone of The Threepenny Opera waxes and wanes so considerably. Reaching a peak of tension during the beggar rally, several long connecting scenes produce a nadir of equal intensity. In the end only Weill's songs have real bite, nailing scathing lyrics to memorable melodies. By insinuating themselves into your awareness, they indicate how great The Threepenny Opera could have been with Brecht's original script. It's not that Pabst's effort is a misfire though, more a satirical dart which misses its target.


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