Bright Lights Film Journal

Will the Shark Bite? G. W. Pabst and The Threepenny Opera

“Macheath: I’m not asking you to put on an opera.”
~ Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera, Act 1, scene 2

Down the crooked lanes of London, gangster Mackie Messer stalks a new inamorata, Polly Peachum, and Pabst’s camera strolls along with him. Encountering the hurdy-gurdy strains of the “Moritat,” or, “Ballad of Mack the Knife,” Mackie insinuates himself into the crowd, next to Polly, and listens to the promulgation of his own myth. Against the background of the street singer cataloging his misdeeds — most of them involving the rape and/or murder of women — Polly’s seduction begins.

Fusing music and image, it’s a virtuosic display, and Pabst’s not done. When Mackie offers drinks to Polly and Frau Peachum at a nearby dance hall, they enter a dingy den of vice full of smoke and the pounding rhythms of piano and drums, to which the dancing patrons add the percussion of shoes and boot heels. The honky-tonk music is all by Kurt Weill, taken from tunes that were sung in the original stage version of Threepenny Opera of 1928. The smoky, drunken ambience combined with the din of the dancing — an unusually visceral use of sound for an early talkie — is a feast for the senses.

Unveiled by Criterion’s splendid new DVD edition, these opening minutes of Pabst’s film are so exhilaratingly good, I wondered why, as the film proceeded and came to an end, I felt unsatisfied.

Turns out, less than half of Weill’s score is heard in Pabst’s 1931 film. Some important songs are relegated to source music as in the example above, where the bar’s patrons dance to the tune “The Song About Inadequacy,” which is never heard in its vocal form. Many songs are heard not at all, and this is part of the rub.1 The Brecht/Weill conception contained a lot of music, which, separated from Brecht’s dialog, runs a little over an hour. Pabst apparently was wild to obtain the rights to Threepenny Opera, but he must have known all along that he’d have to jettison a lot of its music, and, to make the movie he wanted, reimagine the entire piece. Narrative films, including Pabst’s, most often beg to be mistaken for reality; the Brecht/Weill show does not.2

More an extended cabaret act than a cohesive narrative, the original theatrical Threepenny Opera wears its artificiality on a tattered sleeve. There is a plot, based very loosely on John Gay’s 18th-century satire The Beggar’s Opera, but it’s kept rather sketchy and coarse, because every few minutes Brecht/Weill stops the action cold with another song. This unbuttoned structure, combined with the salaciousness and half-written quality of the dialog, is a purposed affront to the European operatic tradition then in place, exemplified in Germany by Wagner.3 On the stage, Threepenny Opera flips the bird at the unities of the god/genius’ sublime music dramas.

The whole show hangs together not by action or dialog, but by the harmonic and thematic glue supplied by the score, which is anything but haphazard. Weill even supplies a leitmotif in the form of the recurring tune of the “Moritat”4 that has the perhaps unintentional effect of mocking Wagner further. More importantly, all of the songs share a unique Threepenny “tint” both in their harmonic language and in their pit band, early jazz orchestrations. One of the commentators on Criterion’s new documentary, Brecht vs. Pabst, guesses that the Weimar audience came to the stage version of Threepenny Opera for the songs; furthermore, I’m betting, they ate up the sometimes naughty ironies supplied by the book’s cynicism without buying into Brecht’s angry cry for social justice.

The songs of Threepenny Opera aren’t meant to advance the show’s plot or to dramatize its characters, which, as adapted from Gay’s scenario,5 are little more than signifiers; while singing, the stage performers project “attitudes.”6 When a tune begins, a spotlight or lamp appears, the actor steps into its light, does the number, then steps back to resume dialog — spotlight out. Song lyrics are “frequently in quotation marks.”7 In the original stage version, this way of framing the songs, which are often in archly orchestrated pop styles, creates an ironic disjoint, much like the kind Dennis Potter strives for when his characters in Pennies From Heaven, caught in degrading or deceitful poses, suddenly start lip-synching to the shallow optimism or maudlin balladry of a popular song. The film manages only a whiff of these ironies, localized mostly in the faux romance of Macheath and Polly that’s set to the flavorings of mock Viennese operetta. Like Gustav Mahler before him, Weill understood the power of schmaltz.

For his adaptation, it seems Pabst couldn’t find a dramatic alternative to the stage work’s juiced-up blend of cynical, nearly throwaway text and ebullient (but rather mournful) music.8 After a while, with just a song here and there, the film loses steam. Within his readjusted and tightly controlled narrative, Pabst pushes a more specific Marxist polemic than the theater piece, and none of the performances — with one glorious exception — seems able to step out from behind this moralizing scrim and truly evolve as a character.

Still, Rudolf Forster brings a menacing heft to his Macheath, and Ernst Busch is perfection as the Street Singer. Listen to the way Busch rolls his “r’s” in the “Moritat,” and you know it’s a long way to Bobby Darin. Busch’s stylized way with the song gives us the tart idiomatic flavor of the original show.

Tony Rayns, in his detailed essay in Criterion’s booklet, cites Busch and Lotte Lenya as the only two members of the original theatrical cast to make it into the movie; but there is a third, Carola Neher, who plays Polly. Fine-boned and very pretty, Neher was chosen and rehearsed to create Polly in 1928, but dropped out before the show’s premiere for personal reasons; she rejoined the cast in time for the show’s “second en suite” run in 1929.9 Yet Neher’s unfocused presence as an actress seems inadequate to Polly’s new prominence in the film version, and her high, thin soprano voice is not winningly captured by the early recording technology.

Then we have Lotte Lenya. With a large nose and the mother of all overbites, Lenya was not a pretty or glamorous woman, but it’s her presence, in a supporting role, that lifts the film for moments at a time into another realm. The best of these moments is her performance of “Pirate Jenny,” a number that was originally assigned to Polly Peachum. Pabst’s reassignment of the song proves dramatically apt. In a pivotal scene, Jenny is about to betray Macheath because she’s weary of being relegated to the position of spare cunt. In this context, the song, with its violent imagery, is no longer “dreams of a kitchen maid,” but a prostitute’s dream of revenge.10 With no visible technique, Lenya projects the anger of the socially downcast better than anything in the film. Jenny is tired, used up, but, carrying a spark of defiance in her big, dark eyes, fully alive. Lenya, the wife/collaborator of composer Weill, was intelligent, large in spirit, and knew how to sell a song. She was also uncommonly sexy.

In his entry for Pabst in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, film writer David Thomson suggests that, in order to create truly great films, this filmmaker needed a collaborator, and that, sadly, he found only one, Louise Brooks. Thomson quotes Lotte Eisner’s view that Brooks had “succeeded in stimulating an otherwise unequal director’s talent to the extreme.”11 He and Brooks made just two films together, but I think Pabst could have found yet another such collaborator in Lotte Lenya. It was probably too late anyway; Lenya fled Germany in 1933.

When Lenya is not present in the 1931 film, what’s left to savor is some low comedy from Mackie’s stumblebum gang of thieves (Huntz Hall would not be out of place here), a nicely filmed sequence where Macheath narrowly avoids the police while dallying at the Turnbridge whorehouse, and a neat, rather dry denouement (taken from Brecht’s treatment). In these scenes we feel less the bite of Mackie’s shark teeth than the smooth texture of his white kid gloves — although Pabst’s final image, matched to a potent line from the “Moritat,”12 is haunting in much the same way as the closing of Pandora’s Box, where a clueless character follows the poor and homeless as they march into social oblivion with a Salvation Army band. In Threepenny Opera, however, the image of the poor being swallowed up by darkness has a traditional narrative’s closure about it and a literal, albeit quite moving, visual translation of Brecht’s more figurative text.13 By making his movie in a linear and closed form, Pabst has allied himself with those very same operatic/narrative unities that Brecht/Weill chose to disrupt, but to me there’s nothing sacred to the avant-gardism (turned commercially successful) of the Brecht/Weill vision, a unique frisson that most likely must forever be bound to its theatrical anti-theatricalism.

Yet one of the film’s glories is its inclusion of three of the original members of that original stage show, and Criterion’s improved audio brings their forgotten vocal styles closer to us. Criterion’s new high-definition transfer,14 from a restored element in the German Bundesarchiv, is a window wiped clean, its clarity wondrous, its range of blacks and middle values simply gorgeous. Pabst’s skill and craftsmanship in filmmaking is fully revealed: in sets and lighting design, his creation of a Victorian London is at once realistic and fantastical, rendered in some of the richest chiaroscuro of the director’s career. Some have said this pictorial lushness dulls the edge of Brecht/Weill’s conception even further, but the eye revels in it.

I just miss the songs.

  1. To hear the score approximately as the 1928 audience did, you can turn to a 1958 recording of the New York revival of the original show, supervised by Lotte Lenya, who in turn sang Jenny. Interestingly, the recording, unlike the show’s book, has the Street Singer introduce each song, which creates a new, unified piece out of the isolated songs, a kind of jazz oratorio. As far as I know this recording is still available as a single disc CD issue from Sony. []
  2. All films, of course, vary the level at which they want to trick the audience with their illusions. Pabst ventures outside his narrative frame with one very effective theatrical device: several times he has the Street Singer address the audience with comments on the action. It’s a bold transgression and prefigures everything from Albert Finney’s asides to the audience in Tom Jones (1963) to Joel Grey’s turn as the master of ceremonies in Cabaret (1972) (see also note 8, below). []
  3. Hinton, Stephen (editor). Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990, p. 140. []
  4. Ibid. p. 168. []
  5. The Beggar’s Opera‘s satirical target was the aristocracy; Brecht made his the bourgeoisie. []
  6. Hinton, Stephen, p 5. []
  7. Ibid. p. 6. []
  8. Bob Fosse, with his film adaptation of the stage musical Cabaret, faced a similar dilemma: how to cinematically open up a theatrical conception where many of the songs do not forward characterizations or plot. Fosse merely kept these “commentary” songs and excised the rest. He presents the remaining songs, which play against the characters’ personal dilemmas within the emergence of National Socialism, in the artificial space of the Kit Kat Klub. From here he can skillfully toggle back and forth to the film’s linear storyline in its real space. []
  9. Ibid. pp. 52, 57. []
  10. Like all of Weimar Berlin, Pabst can seem obsessed with whoredom. Images of prostitutes were everywhere in twenties’ German culture, high or low, in films, paintings, novels, stage works, and nudie shows — and of course, most of all, on the streets. Pabst’s possible distinction was his compassion for them and their plight, but something in a whore’s victimhood probably turned him on, too. []
  11. Thomson, David. New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Little Brown and Co., London, 2003, pp. 660-661. []
  12. Brecht added this stanza of the “Moritat” in his rejected film treatment (Brecht, Bertolt. The Threepenny Opera, Arcade, New York, NY, 1994. Translated and edited by Ralph Manheim and John Willett, p. 84 (notes and variations). []
  13. For the ones they are in darkness/And the others are in light/And you see the ones in brightness/Those in darkness drop out of sight. (Translated by Guy Stern) []
  14. The entire French version of Threepenny Opera, filmed in tandem, scene by scene, with the German one, appears on a second disc, but its inclusion is perhaps the perennial Criterion overkill. The comparison documentary by Charles O’Brien on disc two ably demonstrates the differences between both versions, and that’s enough for this viewer. Other than the print being in lamentable shape, the French cast can’t cut the mustard: the Macheath, Robert Prejean, looks like he’s auditioning for the Louis Jourdan role in Gigi. []