not in our stars, but in ourselves
If you believe Siegfried Kracauer, films made during the Weimar Era of German history – that is to say, films made between 1919 and 1933, the year the Nazis gained power – all indicate something of the German psyche and how Hitler was able to happen. It’s not an entirely airtight theory, of course, but I’ve always thought the basic premise was a valid one. It’s always possible to discern how a given film displays, subverts, questions the dominant social mores, neuroses, and politics of a particular time and place. Even Hollywood, the dream machine to rule them all, reveals aspects of the American soul (so to say) in its glitziest and most determinedly escapist fare – sometimes by virtue of the lady protesting too much.
Unlike some of the more unconscious depictions of Germany between the wars, The Threepenny Opera is quite a deliberate document of the Weimar Republic. Thanks to (credited) playwright and librettist Bertolt Brecht, one of the preeminent rabble-rousers of the day, and to director G.W. Pabst, it’s an intentional allegory of Germany in the interwar years. During the opening credits, the Moritatensänger (Ernst Busch) – a sort of one-man Greek chorus throughout the film – calls to account those who create suffering but turn a blind eye to it, those who preach about the importance of piety but who refuse to help the poor. The entire thing is about hypocrisy: every song, every scene, every character has to lie and cheat and dissemble in order to survive. In the Weimar Republic, destroyed financially (and physically and psychologically) by the Great War, there didn’t seem to be any honorable or legitimate way to make a living. Brecht – or, more likely, his collaborator and lover Elisabeth Hauptmann – took the eighteenth-century satire The Beggar’s Opera and injected distinctly German problems into its English story. They moved the time period from 1728 to the Victorian age – which was an especially fruitful time for hypocrisy, dissembling, and cognitive dissonance – but there’s no mistaking The Threepenny Opera for a straight period piece.
Macheath (Rudolf Forster), also known as Mackie Messer (or Mack the Knife*, in English translation), runs the criminal underworld in Soho. He’s a well known murderer and thief, but Scotland Yard never touches him. His close friend, Jackie “Tiger” Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), is the Chief of Police, and he’s careful to cover up any crimes committed by Mackie or his associates. While wandering by the docks one day, Mackie notices Polly Peachum (Carola Neher). He pursues her and, within the space of an evening at the pub, she agrees to marry him. Polly, it turns out, is the daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Fritz Rasp) – the “Beggar King” of London. He’s turned begging into a booming business, registering and assigning his hordes of downtrodden tramps to particular beats, all while requiring from them 50% of their weekly earnings. Peachum is none too pleased that his daughter has married a notorious criminal like Mackie, because Peachum has always preached the value of doing things according to the law (even if it’s more the letter of the law than the spirit). Peachum tells Brown that, unless he arrests Mackie, he’ll march his army of beggars straight in front of the queen’s coronation parade. Mackie goes into semi-hiding in a brothel, where his old flame, Jenny (Lotte Lenya), works and seethes. Polly, meanwhile, elevates his humble underground organization into a completely legal bank. Jenny manages to break Mackie out of jail when he’s briefly arrested. Brown is humiliated by the beggar march on the parade – as is Peachum, who tries to call it all off when he realizes his newly legitimate businesswoman daughter will be a guest of honor – but Mackie offers them both a place in his bank. He can use Brown’s connections to respectable people, and Peachum’s impoverished masses, in order to build something even bigger and more powerful. For capitalists, there’s no happier ending.
I’m a big fan of early musicals, and of Weimar cinema, and of Brecht-Weill works, and of G.W. Pabst – so of course I’m a big fan of all these forces uniting in one film. It’s interesting to me, however, just how they’ve all synthesized here. Before it was a film, it was a play, and Pabst employs some distinctly theatrical devices – the Moritatensänger, for instance, who often addresses the camera directly – in ways that very few (if any) other movie musicals used them at the time. Tony Rayns notes Pabst’s strategy in his essay about The Threepenny Opera for the Criterion Collection:
Pabst has transformed the play without exactly betraying it. He has dropped many of the original songs and moved the two that proved most popular in the theater from act 1 to act 3; this is quite clearly his way of trying to reproduce andintensify the experience enjoyed by so many theatergoers. More than ten years older than Brecht and much more humane in his cynicism, not to mention actively interested in the new frontiers of psychoanalysis, Pabst sees The Threepenny Opera not as Brechtian agitprop but as a harsh social morality.
If there’s one area in which cinema excels, it’s the intensification of an experience, of a sensation. Consider all those beautifully framed, exquisitely lit, evocatively scored movie kisses – and how those create a swirling dream of romance and eroticism in the viewer, far more than watching an actual kiss unfold in boring real life. Pabst uses some of the rhetorical flourishes of the stage play; and, more than just those flourishes, he uses the controlled climate of the soundstage, of framing, of shot composition, and of editing – that is to say, all the things that make a movie a movie – to ensure that the cinema-goer experiences all its themes and ideas and feelings even more than a theatre-goer could ever do.
I confess that I’ve never actually seen The Threepenny Opera on a stage, although I have listened to the full original (?) recording many times. (It has Lotte Lenya, Kurt Gerron, Willy Trenk-Trebitsch, and Erich Ponto, if that means anything to any of you sleuths.) Therefore, I’m not sure if the stage play focuses quite so much on the superiority of Polly and Jenny as the film does – but the women in this version of the story are smarter and shrewder than any of the men. Mackie could never elevate his organization beyond a criminal syndicate, but Polly turns it into a proper bank. Jenny uses a prison guard’s infatuation with her to break Mackie out of jail, without any muss or fuss. Rayns suspects that Polly’s importance, especially, might be Pabst’s editorial choice:
There was a celebrated revival of The Beggar’s Opera in London in the 1920s, directed by the long-forgotten Nigel Playfair, and its reputation reached the ears of Elisabeth Hauptmann in Berlin, who ordered a copy of the text and set about translating it into German. Hauptmann was in love with the enfant terrible playwright Bertolt Brecht, who had moved from Munich to Berlin toward the end of 1924, notionally to take up a post as “Dramaturg” at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, and was working as his secretary while waiting for Brecht to divorce his first wife. […] Brecht’s hostile biographer John Fuegi, in 1994’s Brecht & Co. (published in the UK as The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht), speculates that Hauptmann loved Gay’s play because she identified herself with the smart and feisty Polly Peachum and Brecht with the womanizing Macheath. He also suggests that Brecht had no real interest in the Beggar’s Opera translation until the opportunity to make some money from it arrived out of the blue in April 1928. […] Pabst’s celebration of the strength and intelligence of Polly, who runs the gang with an iron fist in Mackie’s absence and shifts it socially from the basement to the penthouse, could be his vindication of Elisabeth Hauptmann, who did most of the work and was rewarded with a 12.5 percent share of the grosses.
I think there’s something in that theory.
Anyway, back to Weimar. Just in case you didn’t pay attention in history class, the short version of the Weimar Republic is this: after World War I, and the much-reviled Versailles Treaty, Germany fell apart. The government was forced to pay exorbitant reparations to the Allies, and so the country was broke. Inflation soared to such absurd heights that currency became, for all intents and purposes, valueless. Because none of the war had been fought in Germany, and because the Kaiser controlled the press, German people had no idea just how badly the war was going. When those who had survived came back home, they were often maimed, physically or psychologically or both, and incapable of finding honest work. It was a perfect situation for an absolute dictator to exploit, and so he did, eventually.
In The Threepenny Opera, we see how the only possible way to endure in such an insane world is to embrace a life of crime. Those who try to abide by the law are left destitute. Peachum tells Mackie that he’s able to rely on his masses of beggars – to exploit them ruthlessly for his own personal gain – because they don’t know he needs them. Women trust Mackie because they don’t know he’s hiding a sword in his cane (and boy, how many phallic metaphors are wrapped up in that concept). It’s a world where only lies will work. It’s a world where authority is meaningless because it’s colluding with the very same parasites and murderers from which it’s supposed to protect its people. Nothing has changed, really.
N.B. I personally grow weary of my soi-disant “clever” titles for my write-ups, so for the Hulu queue series, I’m just going to title each post with the title of the film. Forgive me, won’t you?
*You all had better prefer the Louis Armstrong version to the Bobby Darin version, because the Louie version is just plain terrific.