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The story, moved up from the 18th Century to Victorian England, follows the fortunes of Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster), aka the Mack the Knife of the play's signature song, dark prince of the underworld who runs a criminal empire from the sewers and warehouses of London's Soho district. When he impulsively decides to marry a beauty he meets on the streets, he sets the play's conflict in motion. Polly (Carola Neher) only looks like the innocent swept off her feet by the dashing Mackie. She is in fact the daughter of Jonathan Jeremias Peachum (Fritz Rasp), London's beggar king, and brings to the marriage a clear-eyed perspective on crime and a cunning understanding of Mackie's criminal enterprise. The disgruntled father of the bride, however, considers Mackie a "common criminal" and coerces chief of police Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), a blustery figure whose integrity is thoroughly corrupted, into hunting down and arresting Mackie. All of these forces collide in a savagely satirical climax.
Nebenzal simply wanted to transfer the play to film. Brecht, who was contracted to write the screenplay, decided to extensively rewrite the story. He never delivered the script, but his revised outline transformed Mackie from an underworld thug into a bourgeois crook with a ruthless streak, and radically transformed the third act with a more savagely satirical turn of events. The final script, which was co-written by Bela Balazs, combined elements of the original play and Brecht's revision. Songs and characters were cut and Brecht's suave but savage Mackie and brilliant new third act were incorporated into the film under the direction of G.W. Pabst.
Stage star Rudolf Forster establishes Mackie as an almost mythic figure of the underworld with his cool confidence and elegant aplomb. In the opening scenes, he smiles with a curdled satisfaction as a compendium of his murderous deeds are sung by the street singer (Ernst Busch) who serves as the film's master of ceremonies.
Carola Neher plays the seemingly sweet and innocent Polly with a worldliness that first emerges in the wedding scene. She admires the loot stolen by Mackie's henchmen and sings a love song of anti-romantic sentiment that wins over the kingpin's cynical thugs. Nehar, a dedicated Communist, appeared in only in a few German films before she fled Nazi Germany and ended up in Soviet Russia, where (in a bitter irony) she was arrested and died in prison for alleged "Trotsky-ite leanings."
Fritz Rasp plays Peachum, the "self-proclaimed poorest man in London," as a cantankerous hypocrite with a brilliant racket licensing the beggars of London's slums and administering his own form of quality control with sanctioned outfits and afflictions. Most famous today for his indelible appearance as "The Thin Man" in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," Rasp cut an equally memorable figure in Pabst's "Diary of a Lost Girl" as the pharmacy assistant who first seduces and abandons Louise Brooks.
Only two actors from the original stage production made it into the film. Lotte Lenya, the wife of composer Kurt Weill, reprises the role of the prostitute Jenny, Mackie's tempestuous one-time lover, that she created on stage. Ernst Busch, who played the prison warden on stage, was "promoted" to the role of street singer for the film (the prison guard was played in the film by future Hollywood character actor Vladimir Sokoloff).
The mission of Brecht's "Epic Theater" was to break the identification of the audience with the characters and the story and to call attention to the artifice of storytelling, the better to engage with the ideas behind the drama. G. W. Pabst, the director of such classics as Joyless Street (1925) and Pandora's Box (1929), shared Brecht's leftist leanings and passion for social issues, but not his radical formal ideas. Pabst's The Threepenny Opera is as much a transformation of the stage play as it is an adaptation. His direction is cinematically engaging, his camera tracks characters through the vivid sets with a thrilling mobility absent from most films of the early sound era, and his brings scenes to life with dynamic compositions and sets dense with telling detail. It's a lavish production and it shows in every frame, yet Pabst is also true to Brecht's political commentary and social satire. His criminals are indeed gross parodies of bourgeois businessmen and Peachum's regulated beggars make a particularly ingenious mirror of a contemporary wage earners. Polly's transformation of Mackie's criminal enterprise into a legitimate and respectable form of thievery is a sour take on modern capitalism (and it looks forward to Michael Corleone in The Godfather). And Pabst takes Brecht's all new third act, with its an army of beggars marching on Queen Victoria's coronation, and creates a dramatic visual spectacle that carries the slap of hypocrisy Brecht surely envisioned.
Regardless, Brecht and Weill both sued the filmmakers for breaking their contract. Weill won his suit, which took the filmmakers to task for cutting so much of his music fewer than half of the play's songs made it to the screen (though others were suggested in patter or referenced in the dialogue). Brecht lost his; he had broken his contract first by radically rewriting the play instead of faithfully adapting it, as his contract had stipulated. He settled out of court and wrote an essay claiming that the suit was merely a "social experiment" undertaken to prove that a creator's rights are worthless in a capitalist society. The screed conveniently ignored the rights of original playwright John Gay as well as the invaluable contributions of Hauptmann (among other things, she was responsible for adding the show's hit song "The Canon Song," with lyrics that she translated from Kipling).
The Threepenny Opera was banned by the Nazis in 1933 and the original negative was ostensibly destroyed. The film was restored in 2006 from the best surviving archival materials from the Bundesarchiv in Germany and Criterion's DVD was mastered from this restoration. The image quality is excellent, better than one could have hoped for given the second-hand source material. The film is sharp and clear in almost every frame, though there are brief missing frames throughout. The audio shows more signs of age with a mild haze of hiss running through the dialogue in songs, but the soundtrack is eminently listenable.
Criterion's two-disc set also features the alternate French version of the film, L'opera de quat'sous. Pabst shot it simultaneously with the German version, using the same sets and camera set-ups with a French cast featuring Albert Prejean (whose lightweight Mackie is less imposing and less threatening than Forster's) Florelle (as a sweeter Polly), Gaston Modot (as a no-nonsense Peachum), and the legendary Antonin Artaud (rather flamboyantly taking on a small role as an aspiring beggar mentored by Peachum). Apart from a more rapid pace (it runs ten minutes shorter than the original German version) and a few censor cuts, the only major difference is in the opening visual, where a music box-like parade of dolls represents the characters. It's an interesting artifact but lacks the intensity and chemistry of the original, and the transfer comes from a print that is little better than adequate. An 18-minute video essay by film scholar Charles O'Brien compares and contrasts the differences between the German and French versions.
Scholars David Bathrick (author of "The Dialectic and the Early Brecht") and Eric Rentschler (author of "The Films of G. W. Pabst") provide a largely scholarly commentary track for the film, filled with discussions of Brecht's theoretical and critical approach to theater. The question that they keep coming back to is: "Is this undermining what Brecht had in mind?" The oversimplified answer is that the two artists were much more in tune than either would have wanted to admit, but their commentary fills in the gray areas with more nuanced discussion. The new 48-minute documentary "Brecht vs. Pabst: The Transformation of The Threepenny Opera" delves much more deeply into the production of the film and the conflicts that Brecht had with the filmmakers (and with Weill, as it turned out). The essay by film critic Tony Rayns in the accompanying booklet covers much of the same ground with sharp articulation and a clear-eyed look at the contradiction surrounding Brecht. He writes that Brecht "was more like the Fassbinder of his day, scandalizing the bourgeoisie with his plays and productions, picking fights in the press, and generating as much personal publicity as possible." The archival supplements include a brief introduction filmed with stars Fritz Rasp and Ernst Busch for the 1956 re-release of the film and a 17-minute archival interview with Rasp filmed in 1973, and there are galleries of production photos by Hans Casparius and production sketches by art director Andre Andrejew.
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by Sean Axmaker