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The Threepenny Opera
Remind Me

The Threepenny Opera

Mack the Knife slinks down the side streets of London, his eyes nervously scanning the crowd for any police. One of his minions appears alongside him, claps a hearty hand to Mackie's shoulder, and guffaws a loud "hello!" Mack is aghast; he whispers urgently, "I just escaped from jail, you fool!" The puzzled crook tries to wrap his head around that one--the gang just paid £10,000 bail for Mack's legal release. The two men stand there, trying to reconcile their conflicting worldviews: they agree on the current state of affairs, but have wildly varying explanations as to their cause.

Film historians seeking to explain the causes behind any given movie generally feel comfortable accepting the credits at face value. This fellow wrote the script, that guy directed, this bloke produced, let's move on. But every once in a while, a situation emerges to call those blind assumptions into doubt. Consider the question of who created The Threepenny Opera (1931), a landmark classic of early sound film and another triumph of pre-war German cinema. To whose memory should we credit this success?

Bertolt Brecht, the nominal author of the original theatrical sensation, felt the movie so violated his intentions that he sued the filmmakers. This was in itself nothing so unusual--aggrieved screenwriters are a dime a dozen. The devil was in the details. Brecht accused the filmmakers of deviating from his creative intentions, while the producers accused Brecht of the exact same thing. And when the producers won the case, Brecht announced that the entire lawsuit had been a form of performance art, in which Brecht was the "author" of a theatrical experience with various lawyers, judges, and litigants as unwitting actors.

"The Threepenny Trial," he called it. Brecht fulminated that his lawsuit had finally exposed the truth about how big business tramples the rights of artists. As we shall see, Brecht's argument has some gaping inconsistencies.

Let's go back to the beginning -- all the way back to the early 1700s, when a criminal mastermind by the name of Jonathan Wild is running riot in London. Wild not only rules an empire of thieves, he's cooked up a brilliant scheme to have their operation sanctioned by the English government! Wild's gang stole things, then returned them to their rightful owners for a reward, pretending to be private detectives working on behalf of law and order. In other words, they pawned stolen goods back to their original owners--which you have to admit is pretty clever. At times, Wild upped the ante by not only returning the loot but turning in the alleged thief. He didn't turn himself in, mind you, but he framed a member of a rival gang, and laughed as the authorities were duped into hanging his competitors. Eventually, Wild found himself in an all-too-public squabble with a charismatic burglar named Jack Sheppard, and in the fallout Wild's scheme imploded. Wild was hanged in 1725, but became immortal. Forever after, his antics would fuel the imaginations of writers and artists.

One such inspiration took hold of John Gay, who wrote The Beggar's Opera in 1728 as a roiling satire of the whole sordid spectacle. Now, hold in your mind that righteous fury that Bertolt Brecht felt, that his artistic creation was adapted without his full approval, and with that thought let's review the plot of The Beggar's Opera, written 170 years before Brecht was born: it concerns Macheath (nick-named Mack the Knife), a charming criminal who marries Polly Peachum, the daughter of a notorious thief-catcher modeled on Wild. The elder Peachum is furious at his daughter's betrayal and plots to have Mack killed. Polly successfully hides her husband, until he is trapped in a whorehouse and sent to jail, where Peachum has conspired with the police... sound familiar?

The Beggar's Opera thrived as a stage success in England, and made a lasting impression on English popular culture. In 1920, it was revived to great acclaim--and its resurgent popularity inspired Elisabeth Hauptmann to begin work on a German translation. She never finished, but what she did, she did wonderfully.

In 1928, a theater director named Ernst Josef Aufricht hired Bertolt Brecht. Aufricht needed something big, something splashy, and he wanted it fast. Brecht was in a creative slump and hadn't written anything in years. It was a rough patch in his life, in which he had grown estranged from his wife. And there, in the center of it all, was Elisabeth Hauptmann. She was Brecht's secretary, she aspired to become the "other woman" in his life, and she had a nearly complete German translation of a popular 18th century satirical opera. In a moment of... well, whether you want to call it a moment of blind panic, or a moment of brilliant inspiration will depend on how you view Brecht, since biographers of his have taken both positions, but let's just say in a moment of something he commandeered Hauptmann's pages and hastily scribbled in the missing bits.

Kurt Weill wrote the music for Die 3 Groschen-Oper. It is ironic that so much of the ink that has been spilled over the history of this play and its film version, so little of it has gone to celebrate Weill. He was less combative than Brecht, and being the less squeaky wheel meant he got less grease. Brecht tried to strong-arm Weill into accepting a less-than-fair share of the play's profits, on the threat that if he didn't agree, they could just use the 1728 score by Johann Pepusch. Weill went along to get along, and the world was the better for it: his eclectic and catchy music was integral to the play's enormous success.

Movie mogul Seymour Nebenzal, the producer behind M (1931) and 1933's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (not to mention Buster Keaton's The King of the Champs-Élysées, 1934), struck a deal with Brecht and Weill to devise a screenplay adaptation, to be filmed by G.W. Pabst. This is the point where things went all screwy. Nebenzal had paid handsomely for what he expected would be a filmed version of a popular stage success -- a fairly faithful screen adaptation of "Brecht's" opera was precisely what he wanted. But, Brecht proceeded to rewrite the play.

Brecht added a new subplot about the impending coronation of the Queen, and concocted a strange finale in which the former combatants strike an alliance to run a bank. Brecht was seeking to make even more pointed political commentary with the film, and Nebenzal was afraid of tampering with a proven commodity. Add to this the fact that Pabst's natural aesthetic inclinations leaned away from the polemical, and his approach to visualizing the material was in conflict with Brecht's more avant-garde touches.

Tempers flared. Brecht bristled at the ways Pabst was marking out his own creative territory, remaking Die 3 Groschen-Oper in his own idiom. Nebenzal and his various corporate partners offered to buy Brecht out of his contract. Neither side budged, and so Pabst went on ahead without Brecht's approval, and suits were filed. Brecht cast the situation as an epic confrontation between Art and Commerce, and made sure all his friends understood that they were to choose up sides. Weill was caught in the middle. He accepted a settlement from the producers, and walked away from the mess a very wealthy man.

Brecht refused all settlement offers, and fought all the way to the bitter end. Let's be clear on why he lost: for all the noise he was making about how this amounted to the eternal exploitation of an artist's intellectual property by monied interests, the court found against him because he had already voided his own contract. The agreement that Brecht was suing to enforce was an agreement for him to write a screenplay--which he'd never actually gotten around to doing. He'd given Pabst an outline of a script, but perpetually procrastinated finishing it. Since he'd never fulfilled his end of the contract, the court couldn't bind Nebenzal into fulfilling his end, either. Oops.

Brecht's outline for the film script was published posthumously as The Bruise. Film critic Thomas Elsaesser, reviewing The Bruise, wondered if Brecht was deliberately trying to sabotage the film from the outset. Nevermind, Pabst's rendition (which included a surprising amount of Brecht's outline) was a bulls-eye. It won on almost every conceivable criterion: profits, popular appeal, lasting critical reputation -- it was even banned by the Nazis (always a sign of quality).

Pabst's film opens with a bustling crowd on an English street gathered round a man warning them about a criminal in their midst. "Mack the Knife" has left a trail of bodies in his wake yet always escapes the consequences. The citizens need to be warned. In a sense, it is a scene not dissimilar to the one that opens Fritz Lang's M, except that the whole thing has been turned on its head. Instead of a placard going up on a public kiosk for all to see, while an anonymous criminal identifies himself to the audience by distinctive whistling, The Threepenny Opera has the public warned in song. And what a catchy song at that--Bobby Darin would later turn it into a chart-topping hit and perennial Golden Oldies fave. And while the street busker sings about the exploits of Mackie Messer, the man himself slides through the crowd--identified to us, ironically, by his total silence.

Silence plays an unexpectedly prominent role in this so-called "opera." Dialogue is used economically--pointed stares sometimes carry more punch than any words. Pabst brings the flair of silent-era storytelling to the party, making sure every camera move, every composition, every detail in the mise-en-scene conveys something important. This opening number is the closest thing to a traditional musical number the film offers. Most of Weill's songs have been dropped, those that remain have been moved around. If characters simply must break into song, Pabst makes sure to stage the event as if singing was the only natural response at that moment.

The theatricality of the play has been transformed, but not entirely lost. One of Brecht's avant-garde devices remains, despite its misfit with Pabst's style. The street singer (Ernst Busch) returns at several points in the film to directly address the audience and signal plot developments. Unlike the similar role played by Anton Walbrook in Max Ophuls' La Ronde (1950), the singer performs no integral plot function. Pabst could have omitted him without any damage to the story. Yet Pabst kept him, a concession to Brecht's aesthetics. In such intermingling of styles is Threepenny's strength forged.

The cast is terrific. As Mack, Rudolf Forster is unflappably cool. Nothing touches him. He's Dr. Mabuse as played by Douglas Fairbanks--a man capable of causing things to bend to his will just by staring at the right people, a man capable of escaping even the inescapable. His enemy, Peachum, is played by Fritz Rasp. Offscreen, Rasp was a pussycat, but he made a career out of playing slippery baddies for people like Pabst, Lang, and Murnau. He was Weimar Cinema's Christopher Walken. The various underworld figures who swirl around these two are made up of character actors who populate similar underworld settings in films like M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

Carola Neher very nearly steals the show as Polly Peachum. The part was written with her in mind--but this does not mean it was written for her. By way of an explanation: Gay's original opera features some jealous rivalry between the various whores of Mack's past and Polly, whom they regard as an unwelcome intruder. Mack's selection of Polly as his bride is an affront, but she is truly his equal. She is intrepid, resourceful, and unblinkingly amoral. When Elisabeth Hauptmann came to translate Gay into German, she saw herself as an ersatz Polly to Brecht's Mack. Hauptmann resented the attention Brecht gave to such floozies as that tawdry actress Neher, and wanted Brecht to recognize that she was his rightful soulmate. Hauptmann didn't just translate the Polly role, she started to punch it up, inserting more of herself into the mix. When Brecht cast Neher in the role for the stage version, it was a cruel kind of cosmic justice. Pabst then asked Neher to recreate her role for the screen, in a part now rewritten yet again to be even more the heroine.

Weimar cinema wasn't an especially hospitable place for actresses. Women tended to be relegated to two kinds of roles: victims, or not in the movie at all. Neher's Polly is an almost 21st century-strong heroine. She takes over Mack's gang and transforms it into a semi-respectable business--you wanna talk about crime paying? By the end of the film, she is lord and master of her husband and father, the men of her life tamed and remade as her loyal employees.

And then there's her song. Oh, that song. In it, she croons about how, to protect her honor, she learned to say "no" to all the nice young men who knew how to treat a lady. Along comes Mack, an unregenerate selfish creep, and being conditioned to reject his opposite, she had no choice but to tell him "yes." It's a bravura piece of songwriting. "Mack the Knife" may have entered the American songbook as a beloved standard, but someone like Amy Winehouse could sing "Polly's Song" tomorrow and it would be fully contemporary.

Lastly, a word or two about Reinhold Schunzel as Scotland Yard's Tiger Brown. It's a tricky role, because the writing is a little inconsistent. Here is the head of Scotland Yard, in the pocket of the criminal gangs. It's not a flattering portrayal of law enforcement. The fact that he is not a corrupt cop, being bribed to look the other way, but a longtime friend of Mack's whose loyalty predates his allegiance to the law would seem to be a fact in his favor, but he sells Mack out to Peachum when properly threatened. Depending on which part of the text an actor shaded more heavily in their portrayal, one could imagine Tiger coming across as any of several different flavors of bastard. Schunzel does something altogether unexpected with his part, though. He glides effortlessly over those different interpretations, and builds something new in their place. He plays the role with a wicked comic touch, as if he had wandered in out of an Ernst Lubitsch movie and hadn't noticed he was on the wrong set. As played by Schunzel, Tiger is something more complicated and human than what his written dialog alone conveys.

These actors got to cavort across a soundstage recreation of a peculiarly Germanic-looking London, as devised by production designer Andrej Andrejew. It looks as if Pabst told Andrejew, "you know all those ideas you've had your whole life about different things you could do with a set? Why not do 'em all at once?" It's as busy and visually rich as a movie set has ever been. You could watch this every day of your life and never manage to see the whole thing. Fritz Arno Wagner, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, employed a looser, more playful approach to the camera than he had been permitted by the likes of Fritz Lang or F.W. Murnau.

What it all adds up to is this: Brecht stood on a soapbox and railed against what he saw as an unjust treatment of an artist by a commercial imperative. But his use of "artist" as a singular noun was an act of unwarranted arrogance. The movie The Threepenny Opera is a palimpsest, a work as much Pabst's as Brecht's as Hauptmann's as Gay's, with a little bit of real-life history tossed into the mixture. It is a work of collaboration, in which the different parties who contributed were not always in agreement about their common direction, and in which conflict was as productive as cooperation. The movie is what it is because of Reinhold Schunzel's idiosyncratic performance, because of Kurt Weill's irrepressible music, because of Elisabeth Hauptmann's jealousy, because of countless other artists and artisans too numerous to detail here. Forget whose name went above the title, The Threepenny Opera is more populist and egalitarian an achievement than that. It is ours.

Producer: S. Nebenzahl
Director: G.W. Pabst
Screenplay: Brecht (text); Balázs, Lania, Vajda (adaptation)
Cinematography: F.A. Wagner
Art Direction: Andrej Andrejew
Film Editing: Hans Oser
Cast: Rudolf Forster (Mackie Messer), Carola Neher (Polly), Reinhold Schünzel (Tiger-Brown), Fritz Rasp (Peachum), Valeska Gert (Mrs. Peachum), Lotte Lenja (Jenny), Hermann Thimig (The Vicar), Ernst Busch (The Street Singer), Wladimir Sokolow (Smith, the Jailer), Paul Kemp (Mackie Messer's Gang Member).

by David Kalat

Thomas Elsaesser, "Transparent Duplicities," The Films of G.W. Pabst.
Tony Rayns, "Doubles and Duplicates," essay included in The Threepenny Opera DVD.
Eric Rentschler and David Bathrick, audio commentary to The Threepenny Opera DVD.
Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, editors, The Cambridge Companion to Brecht.
Bruce Williams, "Preface to G.W. Pabst: The Threepenny Opera," Senses of Cinema.