Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Threepenny Opera

As I was looking through some of the lists of best DVD releases of the year, I was disappointed not to see the criterion edition of G W Pabst's 1931 classic The Threepenny Opera. It is certainly one of the most important DVD releases of the year and should be on any one's list. For a long period of time it was available only in bad prints and worse, the original negatives of the film were thought to be destroyed, until last year when it was restored in Germany. This DVD is in turn taken from that restoration and it looks and sounds absolutely stunning. It has already become my favourite German film from that era, along with perhaps Fritz Lang's M.

The film has a very long, complicated and interesting production history. The original Threepenny Opera, the musical theatre written by Brecht with music by Kurt Weill, was a sensational hit in Berlin, and later all over Europe, when it premiered in the late twenties. G W Pabst acquired the rights of the film but by that time Brecht had revised his own play to make it even more didactic and politically incendiary. Pabst and his writer Bela Balazs had their own ideas about how the play should look like on screen and it differed drastically from what Brecht had in mind. They not only left out a lot of scenes and changed the sequences but also completely rejected Brecht's stage treatment of the play. Brecht was furious and he sued Pabst and his producers which he ultimately lost. Most probably Brecht never saw the finished film. He took it as another instance of the perfidy of the capitalist culture and the fate of artists in modern consumer society - an example of how a work of art is processed to make it fit for mass consumption and entertainment. Yet as the two scholars on the commentary track, and indeed many scholars elsewhere, show how completely unfair and even preposterous Brecht's complaints really were. In fact, in the beginning of the commentary track when the scholar-duo Eric Rentschler and David Barthrick announce that they teach German Studies, Film Studies and Theatre at Harvard and Cornell respectively I began to expect another deluge of jargons (like the scholars on the Pandora's Box commentary track who claim to have "worked" on the film from more than twenty five years) but they do a really great job in rubbishing Brecht's criticism and at the same time convincing that it is indeed basically a "Brechtian" work, if not in obvious style then at least in its intention and final effect.

Brecht of course condemned all theatre which was based on make-believe and unreflective and emotional involvement of audiences in the plot and characters. In order to deny the audiences any kind of direct involvement with what is happening on stage - acting, set design, lighting, dialogues - everything had to be designed and written in such a way to remind the audiences that what they are watching is really a work of artifice and not to trick them into believing the simulacrum is real. Now on the surface Pabst's Threepenny Opera does seem to reject this Brechtian notion of audience estrangement mainly because of its "realistic" and large-scale studio sets and the expressive camera movement which is as far removed from the static mise-en-scene of theatre as it can be. (The Cinematographer of the film was Fritz Arno Wagner, responsible for some of the most iconic images of German cinema like Max Schrek in Nosferatu and Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's M.) In the film the realistic sets actually create a distancing effect because the staging of scenes and the acting is anything but realistic. Many actors actually came from the original production and they understood the basics of a Brechtian acting style. The film also keeps the revised ending that Brecht had written in which the underworld criminal, the capitalist and the police officer all come together to run a bank in order to steal people's money "honestly." It is not surprising that the Nazi's didn't like this film and had it banned. Politically the message of the film is that of despair and pessimism. Just after the coming together of the rich, the powerful and the criminal, Pabst shows a group of poor beggars after their unsuccessful march to the queen disappearing into the darkness with Kurt Weill's music swelling on the background.

The best part of the film, in my opinion, remains the music and the songs. Unfortunately Pabst could only incorporate eight of the original 20+ songs into the story but all of them are really memorable and are used brilliantly. Besides the marvellous Mack the Knife, in which the street singer recounts and illustrates a bunch of hideous unsolved crimes committed by Macheath, there is Polly singing why he had to reject every offer of romance and settle with someone unromantic, also the pirate song sung by Jenny in which she dreams of terrible revenge on everybody. There is also Macheath and Tiger Brown reminiscing about their good old days of imperial adventurism in India. (Brecht's secretary Elizabeth Hauptmann, whose original translation of the English play The Beggar's Opera formed the basis of the text, took the song from Kipling.)

There is a lot more than can be said about the film but more of that later. Suffice to say that it is a vital, important and endlessly fascinating and provocative masterpiece. A very good article about the film here. Also, a review of the DVD and an article on the criterion site which goes in detail about the background history of the origin of the play.

6 comments:

puccinio said...

I was waiting for you to get to your post on ''3groschenoper''. I'll first talk about Brecht and then on the film.

However, although Brecht was a triffle too paranoid about the film adaptation, you have to take into consideration that he was still a new Marxist and one who didn't know much about how cinema functioned even if the cinema was a major influence on his life.

To Brecht, his theatre(by the way get ''Brecht on Theatre'' edited by John Willet) was one that he felt would bring about the possibility of social change by trying, to in his words, make the audience think. To him, even the best of the great dramatists were compromised because of the fundamental ambiguity with which both the right and left embraced them.

In Jean Renoir's ''This Land Is Mine'' there's a scene where a Nazi played by Walter Slezak, quotes Shakespeare and then says, "Great man, we love him in Germany, the English don't understand him". Brecht had nothing but high reverence for the Bard but felt that it was dangerous to make art when you are aware that the right wingers can misinterpret it as they want by saying it's entertainment or reducing it to it's aesthetic level.

It's similar to Lang's ''Metropolis'', one of Hitler's favourite films. For most of the film you have a critique of capitalism at it's most nightmarish and then in the end you have a solution to that class conflict that just...sucks and compromises it entirely. Which is why Lang denounced that film later saying that he wasn't as politically minded as he should have been when he made it. It goes back to what Adorno said about Wagner...basically How Theodor Herzl(the founder of Zionism) and Aldolf Hitler were both Wagnerites!!

To Brecht, people should in his magnificent analogy approach theatre like it's a boxing match or any sporting event. The audience to the players knows the rules, the plays, the ins-and-outs so to speak and watch with attention holding cigars(Brecht was a great cigar-afficionado;]) on each and every move. He felt that people should know all the theatre tropes, how it works and look at it with the same attention as a sporting match. Not that he felt art was sport or anything.

As much as he admired cinema(especially Chaplin and Eisenstein and Renoir and WB Gangster Movies) he realized that such a tradition wasn't well established yet. That cinema in the Golden Age(and sadly even now) still followed a very traditional framework, within which nonetheless many great directors and films were made. So naturally he was worried about his film getting compromised.

Even if UFA wasn't Hollywood...producers are the same everywhere and so you had those guys plastering the fake ending of ''Der Letzte Mann''(which actually worked well in spite of it's idiocy).

At the same time Brecht as that documentary on the DVD says felt that a cinema with a mass audience could be an avenue to correct criticisms made by some Marxist critics that his plays weren't Marxist enough. And let's not forget that 1931 was a very turbulent time in Germany as ''M'' proves beyond doubt.

So while you have to say that Brecht was wrong in his vision getting compromised(when the opposite is the case) you can't say his fears were ungrounded.

To understand Brecht more read his theoretical writings, ''Brecht on Theatre'' edited by John Willet. Unlike other theorists, Brecht is actually very easy to understand and quite straightforward but then unlike other theorists he practised first and then theorized.

puccinio said...

Oh and before I get into the film, one last thing...that article by Tony Rayns on the Criterion Collection Website about the background of the play, don't go by it.

That book it cites, ''The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht''(as the title should make it apparent) is one of those fake biographies that tries to de-mystify by making the subject some sort of criminal rather than offering new insight into his working methods. Brecht worked like a movie director, creating the atmosphere around which great art was made and bringing the best out of his people. He definitely wasn't a glory hound stealing ideas from his collaborators.

Rayns is a very good critic but not the best researched and makes many mistakes like in Criterion Commentary for Veronika Voss, saying Rosel Zech collaborated with Fassbinder first on that film when she acted for him on ''Lola'', even more absurd is him saying Murnau's ''Faust'' is based on Marlowe's play more than Goethe's(which is contradicted on the DVD Commentary on the same ''Masters of Cinema'' label).

Now to the film,

It's really interesting at how Pabst tried to achieve that same Brechtian effect in his film, long before Godard and Co. tried to creat a cinematic idiom for Verfremdungseffekt. Especially the wedding scene where there's this odd pan to the witnesses and we don't hear the vows being exchanged or the priest sanctifying the marriage.

The best is the acting. There's really not at all a likable character in this film or even one you hate. You didn't feel anything for them you just have to observe and think. The absurd thing is I read DVD reviews saying that Pabst made the characters more realistic and human...clearly myths taking the place of human eyesight.

Mackie unlike say James Cagney in his gangster movies isn't some sympathetic rogue...he's a lowlife plain and simple who's lining up to become bourgeois. Polly Peachum is somewhat more likable but then you don't know if she's a strong woman who can and does organize a street outfit into a bank or if she's a silly moron who lets Mackie treat her like a doormat. It would have been a different character if say Marlene Dietrich or Barbara Stanwyck played her.

It's a strong attitude certainly. And the cinematic alienation is doubly effective because of the fact you see German actors speaking German on London streets. The English boardings outside Jonathan Peachum's Beggar's Registration office is slightly absurd even more so when in the Queen Victoria parade scene those protest boards are in German. So the art direction is really really top drawer.

That parade scene by-the-way is my favourite scene of the film and one of the most powerful images in German and World Cinema.

Especially when Victoria is shown played by this ugly snobbish lady(by the way the lack of reverence for Her Royal Uselessness earnt it big points for me) who sees the beggars then hides her face behind the flowers. It's also prescient because Hitler loved these kind of parades as Leni Reifenstahl has so lovingly in her own words recorded with documentary precision(hope the sarcasm got through).

Moreso it's even historical since Hitler was a big admirer of British Imperialism and another of his favourite movies is ''The Lives of the Bengal Lancer''.

Then the framing and composition is just beautiful. It's a shame that the German people didn't take the messages of this film and ''M'' or Lang's last Weimar film and the world's first anti-Nazi movie ''The Testament of Dr. Mabuse''.

In case you are interested, there's a beautiful record of Brecht's ''Galileo'' out on DVD. It was made for a television programe that sought to preserve complete productions of classic theatre so it might be stagy to you, but this one was directed by Joseph Losey, a great director who worked with Brecht and Laughton for the American version. Laughton died before this film was made but Topol is brilliant as well. It beats reading the play for sure.

Alok said...

Hi, thanks as always for the comments. Lots of information to process.

I don't think anyone with even a basic familiarity with the German cinema of the time could have any reason to be apprehensive about cinema's expressive capabilities. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari were in every way on par with the avant-garde in other artistic mediums. It is difficult now to think how quickly the artistic medium of cinema managed to create an autonomous reality on its own, and in the process offering subtle and complex critiques of reality and socio-political structures as it existed. If one compares the history of cinema with, say, that of painting or literature oen realizes how quickly it was able to develop self-awareness of form and managed to portray abstractions and subjective experience. This is the reason for a lot of criticisms levelled against Brecht saying that he was basically after taking more credit than was due to him, forcing his own over-enthusiastic political interpretations on the writer-director who unfortunately for Brecht had a mind of their own.

The interviews and commentaries collected on the criterion DVD overall paint a very critical picture of Brecht as well. I am very ill-informed on the subject but an egomaniac and glory-hound artistic genius is a fairy common type in history.

I agree about the acting, I specially loved Carola Nehar who played Polly and of course Rudolf Forster who played Mack. This is also one of the reasons why the French version doesn't work as well as the German. It is not well preserved but still the visual style and the sets are the same and yet something essential is missing - the "edginess" that the German actors brought to the screen. The German language itself creates a dissonant alienating effect, but that is probably just myself (I love the sound of German though).

Alok said...

I am actually currently reading The Threepenny Opera. It has a very good introductory essay and a lot of supplementary notes as well. I will try to find his theoretical writings on theatre too. His name keeps propping up everywhere and I myself keep using the terms "Brechtian" and "alienation effect" without having read anything, at least not more than what is there on the wikipedia.

Also, I was trying to find some information about the actors. Sad story how Carola Neher died in one of the prison camps of Stalin's Russia. An informative article here.

puccinio said...

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Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari were in every way on par with the avant-garde in other artistic mediums. It is difficult now to think how quickly the artistic medium of cinema managed to create an autonomous reality on its own, and in the process offering subtle and complex critiques of reality and socio-political structures as it existed.
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But ''Dr. Caligari'' wasn't universally well-liked when it was made!!! Siegfried Kracauer's reaction to it is actually pretty common. Film criticism at that time were actually quite critical of the best German films of Lang and Murnau.

And don't forget that the German film industry weren't composed wholly of Lang, Murnau, Pabst, Wiene. They used to churn out quite a lot of dross that's practically forgotten today. Lame genre movies and thrillers and whatnot. So Brecht had every right to be suspicious of the very first film adaptation of his work.

Brecht himself worked twice on film...one was a film called ''Kuhle Wampe'' which is an essential documentary-like film about Weimar Germany and the finest WWII propaganda film ever made, ''Hangmen Also Die!'' directed by one of Brecht's greatest students, Fritz Lang.

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If one compares the history of cinema with, say, that of painting or literature oen realizes how quickly it was able to develop self-awareness of form and managed to portray abstractions and subjective experience.
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Which they were able to do so entirely because of the great developments of painting and literature and theatre as well as that huge fountain of history from which they drew from.

But again the benign view we have of the history of cinema wasn't shared by the people who lived during that time. People tend to be more pessimistic about the present then the future.

Like if you read criticisms on Hollywood around that time, you'll find Jeremiads pining for the silent days when we know that Hollywood had a Golden Age according to Bogdanovich from 1912-1962 unrivalled by any nation in the world. Some of them like Raymond Chandler even stoop that old standby that films from other countries were greater than American films anyday.

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This is the reason for a lot of criticisms levelled against Brecht saying that he was basically after taking more credit than was due to him, forcing his own over-enthusiastic political interpretations on the writer-director who unfortunately for Brecht had a mind of their own.
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That documentary was made largely to vindicate the film so naturally they got a little overenthusiastic but the fact is Brecht's fears were common, understandable and well justified and he was lucky that the director G. W. Pabst was able to capture his vision which is strongly socialist.

It's interesting that this film was made the same year as ''M''. That film had it's league of beggars which Lang borrowed from the play and casted Peter Lorre, one of Brecht's actors in the role of the age. And although the vision in that film isn't socialist it's made in the same spirit as Brecht. Especially the final scene with the mothers. Brecht for all his ironies was always sentimental when it came to mothers. He was a bit of a momma's boy growing up.

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His name keeps propping up everywhere and I myself keep using the terms "Brechtian" and "alienation effect" without having read anything, at least not more than what is there on the wikipedia.
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I used to do that a lot of time before I read the book of his and only then was I finally able to understand what Brecht was all about.

As I said, Brecht's theories are very easy to read so definitely try them. ''The Short Organum on the Theatre'' is an essential essay.

The alienation effect is not an exact translation of Verfrumdungseffekt and has probably cost people a lot of confusion as to what Brechtian means exactly but it's not as direct as say flashing an intertitle on the screen, it's an attitude really and it can be achieved very subtly.

A great example of a completely Brechtian film is Charlie Chaplin's ''The Great Dictator'' and his ''Monsieur Verdoux'' to some extent.

Chaplin in his famous anti-Nazi film, which influenced Brecht's own ''Resistible Rise of Arturo-Ui'' embodies many of the tenets of Brechtian acting. You have alienation of actors from characters with Chaplin playing two characters, then even further when one of the characters a Jewish barber is dressed like the Tramp and like in Brecht's plays, the actor steps out of his roles and speaks to his audience.

Brecht worshipped Chaplin a lot and he got to be friends with his idol in Hollywood.

By the way, what happened to Carola Neher was deplorable. Today when we look at the many great artists who manage to escape we tend to breathe a sigh of relief but many died and they tend to be forgotten. Carola Neher was also one of Brecht's girlfriends as well and she was there right at the beginning of his dramaturgy.

Another ghastly case is what happened to Kurt Gerron who acted in Pabst's ''Diary of a Lost Girl'' and Sternberg's ''The Blue Angel''.

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