719 (60). (Die 3groschenoper / The Threepenny Opera (1931, G.W. Pabst)

screened April 23, 2008 on Criterion DVD

TSPDT rank #658 IMDb

One of the seminal works of 20th century musical theatre gets a lavish cinematic reworking by G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box). Perhaps more than Bertolt Brecht’s infamous libretto or Kurt Weill’s song score, the standouts of this production are Andrej Andrejew’s lush, atmospheric Victorian production design and Fritz Arlo Wagner’s masterful camerawork, featuring some of the most elaborate and expressive tracking shots attempted in early sound cinema. But the majority of Weill’s music is regrettably omitted to accommodate expository scenes whose poorly recorded sound deadens the proceedings, despite Pabst and Wagner’s envelope-pushing efforts to add cinematic movement to dialogue. Pabst’s blending of naturalistic period detail with expressionist shadows creates a seductive subterranean reality, lays the groundwork for film noir, but its allure runs counter to the disconcerting, confrontational unreality of the Brecthian aesthetic. The one element that runs counter to the proceedings is Lotte Lenya as Jenny, whose aloof presence injects a disruptive counterrythm to the Pabst’s clockwork choreography of the frame. She singlehandedly offers a Brechtian rebuttal to the impeccable prestige picture trappings that surround her.

Want to go deeper?

“Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” / “Ballad of Mack the Knife.” Sung by Ernst Busch as The Street Singer.

The following votes were considered in the ranking of The Threepenny Opera among the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? 1000 Greatest Films:

Alberto Cavalcanti – Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Alexandre Arnoux – Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Andre Cayatte – Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Augusto Genina – Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Claude Autant-Lara – Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Henri Decoin – Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Iris Barry – Sight & Sound (1952)
Jacqueline Audry – Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Jean Delannoy – Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Ove Brusendorff – Sight & Sound (1952)
Pierre Billon – Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Roger Regent – Sight & Sound (1952)
 Akira Kurosawa Favourite Films (1998)
 Brussels Referendum: FilmmakersThe Ten Best Films (1952)
 Daniel & Susan Cohen Book – 500 Great Films (1987)

At the Warners’ Theatre is a German language film known as “Die Driegroschenoper” (“The Three Groats Opera”), which was inspired by John Gay’s celebrated work of 200 years ago, “The Beggar’s Opera.” For those familiar with the Teutonic tongue, it is a moderately entertaining offering, but persons who anticipate enjoying the original combination of sharp satire and pleasing melody will be disappointed.

The story is not credited to Gay, but to Bert [sic] Brecht, and the musical compositions, of which there are only a few, to Kurt Well [sic]. Both Brecht and Weil [sic] were so dissatisfied with the pictorial result that they protested to the producers. A general compromise was, however, effected and the production was presented in Berlin about three months ago.

G. W. Pabst, who has won distinction with several of his pictures, is responsible for the direction, and the Russian André Andreyeff, designed the settings, which are admirable, even though one may differ with his conception of London of olden days. Herr Pabst’s direction reveals occasional brilliant moments, but his characters in their attire look more German than English. Even the police chief and the uniformed policemen never for an instant impress one as being from the “tight little isle.”

It is a production filled with anachronisms. Herr Brecht evidently tried to bring the story forward a hundred years or so, and Herr Pabst goes so far as to show one of the characters writing on a typewriter.

What purports to be Newgate Prison looks to be almost an up-to-date jail. In fact, the scenes constantly change in their atmospheric aspect in a bewildering fashion…

The melodies are quite agreeable and one would not complain if there were more of the singing and less of some of the action. It is, however, a fantastic affair which has none of the charm, vitality and bitter satire of Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera.”

The vocal recording is for the most part exceedingly good, except when those players with penetrating voices were obviously too close to the microphone.

– Original review in New York Times, May 18, 1931, by Mordaunt Hall

A feel for the language of theatre may be the difference between loving and hating The Threepenny Opera. So much can be left unsaid in a live performance, where the cast is able to establish a rapport with the audience, that this connection is often overlooked. Yet such a conduit is vastly more difficult to create on film, which is where many adaptations fail. To get the most out of The Threepenny Opera you need to be aware of how stage plays function, then allowance can be made. At the fundamental, global level an understanding of the period, of Victorian society, pays dividends. The class hierarchy of the time shaped people’s behaviour, the dynamics of their interactions. To realise this is to bathe the movie in a new light, where the characters no longer live in a world far removed from our own.

Damian Cannon, Movie Reviews UK

While Pabst works with a cinematic language, the film version of The Threepenny Opera maintains a certain theatrical feeling. The elaborate sets seem to occupy the middle ground between the neorealist look of Marcel Carne’s as-of-yet unmade Port of Shadows and the more obviously constructed set designs of the live stage. The buildings and the streets are wonderfully detailed, but the sky is usually just out of sight. When it comes into view during the more romantic moments, such as Mackie and Polly serenading one another on the deck of a ship, it has a gorgeous perfection, looking both three-dimensional and painted on. So, too, does the action seem to bounce back and forth between a prowling realism and a more stylized mode of expression. Shots of authentic looking beggars give way to moments of vaudevillian comedy and, of course, eruptions of song. Keeping with the cabaret style, the performers aren’t so much singing their thoughts or driving the narrative, but instead are stopping cold to either perform as part of that narrative or wryly comment on it.

Jamie S. Rich for DVD Talk

It’s a passionless, shapeless, film, paced too slowly for popular consumption, with a finale, the beggars’ protest at the Queen’s Coronation, that is preposterous and poorly staged — the mute Queen looks like a man in drag. The film’s high reputation is attributable to the influence of Left-Wing critics who enjoyed the anti-establishment theme and the depiction of a ‘poetical brotherhood of poverty’. Certainly there is much to admire in the lighting and staging of the introductory dockland scenes, and in the famous wedding in a warehouse sumptuously dressed with stolen goods (The image of the white-dressed bride on a night barge turned up again in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, 1934). Pabst’s camera is more mobile than one would expect in a sound film of the period and his use of sound and silence is intelligent. Less compelling are the crude attempts at humour and Rudolf Forster’s performance: all teutonic moustache and monocle. He lacks the charisma, the timing and the grace for the central role of Mackie.

Paul Sutton, Cambridge University film journal

The film takes place not in a real world but in an almost cubist approximation of one. A labyrinth of shop fronts, storehouses, narrow streets and crooked alleys, where the billboards are in English but the protest placards are in German, was built inside a mammoth studio. It represents the London waterfront where Weill and Brecht’s politically charged revision of John Gay’s 18th-century satire takes place…

The mobile camera seems determined to explore every nook and cranny of this tall and curiously built environment, from the pier where the street singer (Ernst Busch) relates the tale of Mack the Knife, to the warehouse where Mackie marries Polly Peachum (Carola Neher) to the bordello that is home to Mackie’s spurned lover, Jenny (Lotte Lenya).

Mackie Messer is played by Rudolf Forster as a cold, solid block of a man, a pillar of malevolence who draws the innocent-seeming Polly to him with one magnetic look. Polly, of course, is no shrinking virgin but the daughter of London’s beggar king, Peachum, played by Weimar’s most creative interpreter of evil, Fritz Rasp.

And yet it is Lenya, Weill’s wife and a member of the original stage cast, who most memorably embodies the piece’s bitterly cynical yet profoundly humanitarian spirit. Here she performs “Pirate Jenny,” that heart-wrenching ballad of lyrical revenge, standing motionless before a window as Pabst cuts in on her in three progressive close-ups, leaving her isolated and astonished by her own repressed cruelty.

The Criterion edition also includes the French-language version, “L’Opéra de Quat’Sous,” which Pabst filmed on the same sets, using largely the same shots but a French cast. The French version is not nearly as gripping, and not only because the music drifts toward operetta when sung in trained French voices. The casting of two conventionally attractive movie stars — Albert Préjean as Mackie, and Florelle as Polly Peachum — also strips away the hard, tawdry sexuality of the German version.

What’s missing, too, in this less well preserved, much softer and flatter print, is precisely the presence of Pabst’s imagined London. Detached from the more faintly registered backgrounds, unimplicated in the receding perspectives of Pabst’s compositions, these are simply actors standing in front of a set.

Here again is proof of what a fragile medium the movies are, and of how foolish it is for us to condescend to the perceived primitivism of a past that is largely a creation of our own neglect.

Dave Kehr for The New York Times

Sound is to Pabst what a tack is to a bicycle tire: it still runs, but the ride is bumpy and it takes too long to get there. G.W. Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera was filmed in 1931 when sound recording techniques still had much to be desired, and much of the film’s failing has to do with just that. Lacking the freedom that camera’s were allowed in the silent era (when microphones were not an issue), Pabst reverts to tableaux shots and long takes: the scenes are static, and the actors hardly move. This isn’t the usual Pabst who constructs his stories in lurid, penetrating close-ups. What he is able to carry over from his silent films are his love of decor and stylized sets. The acting, however, is uninspired, and it’s as though the actors are reading the lines to themselves before they go to sleep. Just as their movements are static, there is nothing kinetic about their voices. As many early sound pictures proved, movies may have learned to talk, but they had still to learn how to move once again.

Cullen Gallagher, Cineholla Collective

As staged brilliantly by director Pabst, [the] last-act anarchy is unforgettable. A collection of faces both found and fashioned, it speaks volumes about the power in protest while suggesting the senselessness in fighting right with might. Epic in scale if not in visual scope (this was a studio production, limited by the logistics of creating all of London on a soundstage), the clash of classes is then overridden by a last-act truce that speaks more about modern society and who pulls the strings than any movie since, post-modern or otherwise.

– Judge Bill Gibron, DVD Verdict

A modern viewer is struck by the sharp feminist subplot, which was not in the original play. When the film was reissued with new subtitles in 1960, some reviewers found this aspect of the film ludicrous, although it now appears piquantly fresh. The play’s sets were stark, and surrounded by signs with inflammatory phrases written on them were meant to provoke the audience into taking sides. The stylized underworld of the film is wreathed in swirling dust and smoke, real and fantastic at the same time.


“Liebeslied” / “Love Song,” sung by Rudolf Forster as Macheath and Carola Neher as Polly Peacham.

Michael Wilmington, Isthmus

Saul Austerlitz, Boston.com

Andrew Dowler, NOW Toronto

Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk

Chris Dashiell, Cinescene

Lenin Imports

George Hunka, Superfluities Redux

Christopher Long, DVD Town

James Travers reviews the French version for Films de France

Bibliography at Findarticles.com

About the DVD

When Criterion announces a DVD that has already been in the market from a different distributor, or region, the big question is: How much better is the Criterion than the previous releases? Criterion doesn’t disappoint this time either. Criterion uses a restored High Definition transfer from 2006. The previous BFI (UK/R2) was released in 2004, and obviously, used a different transfer. I believe that the Criterion package is actually the best we are ever going see this film in SD-DVD format. The picture is pillar-boxed (not picture boxed) to obtain the OAR of 1:1.19. The image is stable and almost total free from dirt and scratches. However, there are parts with missing frames, and many of the picture changes have a jump cut, the first and last frame in the cut is dizzy. The image is quite dark, and even tough most of the close-ups are amazingly sharp, there’s plenty of wide-shots that are soft. I don’t know if these is something to do with the digital restoring system, or that (according to IMdb) the film was banned by the Nazi Party, and many prints of the film were destroyed, possibly also the original negative. Watching it with a projector it feels almost as if you’ve gone back in time 76 years to the films premiere. The clean image is truly marvelous.

The audio is also cleaned up and there’s almost no dropouts or pops remaining. When the dialogue is spoken there’s a, very minor, low hiss throughout. I feel that occasionally there’s missing a few seconds of the sound here and there. Actually, now the sound-mix felt a little bit to perfect (modern) – if that can be considered a flaw.

In my projector system, the English subtitles occasionally had an unusual one frame vertical shadow during the move to the next subtitle.

On disc two we get the French version of this film, entitled “L’Opéra de quat’sous'”. This print is borrowed from BFI and is most certain the exact same print that is used on the BFI DVD. The image is in horrible condition. It’s zoomed in to 1:1.33 and there’s an overall vertical shaking in the picture, that the digital media can’t seem to follow. The image quality is quite fuzzy. Overall it has a strong videotape appearance, and unusual for Criterion the subtitles are burned-in into the picture. Compared to the German version the image is much brighter. These is explained in the excellent documentary found it the supplements. It’s still a big value to have the French version included, even in this poor condition.

Criterion doesn’t only bring the best in DVD format – the film with the extra material is a quite impressive history study, and the value in film history is larger than most people could ever dream of in university studies. Bravo to Criterion! Highly Recommended.

Per-Olof Strandberg, DVD Beaver

“Barbarasong” / “Barbara Song.” Sung by Carola Neher as Polly Peachum. Music and lyrics by Kurt Weill.

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.

It’s a dizzying, informative and crammed two-disc set, and most notable of all is the feature film on the second disc: it’s L’opèra de quat’sous, the French-language version shot simultaneously with the German one—Pabst directed both casts, and the two versions create an extraordinary opportunity to compare and contrast. A worthy guide to this is Charles O’Brien, of Carleton University in Ottawa, who provides a look (18m:25s) at the obvious similarities and telling differences between the two versions. (One packaging typo: the back cover makes reference to comparing the French and English versions, rather than the French and German ones.) Also on the second disc is a trove (40m:50s) of snapshots from the set of the film, shot by Hans Casparius, a friend of Pabst—they’re briefly annotated here by Hans-Michael Bock, and gives the kind of glimpse at the inner workings of the production that you don’t even get today from an EPK. Bock also interviews Fritz Rasp (17m:45s), who played Peachum, Mackie’s voracious father-in-law, in the German incarnation, and this is largely a conversation about the earliest days of German cinema, when movies were considered a disreputable medium. And a brief gallery of ten production sketches by art director Andrez Andrejew are evocative and rapturous.

Back on the first disc, it’s a clash of the titans in an accompanying documentary, Brecht versus Pabst (48m:54s), which goes over the theatrical roots of the piece, the huge debt to Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, and assesses the contribution of Weill as well. But the main event is writer versus director, and each has their advocates: principally it’s English translator Eric Bentley for Brecht, and the director’s son, Michael Pabst, for his father. The debate continues in a more gentlemanly fashion on the commentary track—we’d expect no less from two men of the Ivy League—with Pabst scholar and Harvard professor Eric Rentschler, and David Bathrick, who teaches at Cornell and specializes in Brecht. They’re especially good on discussing the evolution of the Brechtian dissociative style, and on the film’s place at the top of the pantheon of German cinema, alongside movies like M and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Also on the disc is a brief introduction (1m:28s) by cast members Rasp and Busch on the occasion of the film’s 25th anniversary, in 1956, without a peep about the repressive East German Communist government and its autocratic similarities to the authorities in the movie. And the main event of the accompanying booklet is an essay on the film by Tony Rayns.

Jon Danzinger, Digitally Obsessed

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.

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.

Sean Axmaker for Turner Classic Movies

The DVD provides an 18-minute featurette where a university professor makes a video presentation in which he compares the two versions. He contends that the differences were intentional, and he attributes them to the filmmakers’ perception that the French audience would want a lighter, less cynical tone than the German. This begins with the casting of French musical comedy stars in the roles of Mackie and Polly, who are played as having sunnier personalities and a more playful relationship than their German counterparts. Also, the French version is noticeably brighter, and the expert claims that it has almost twice as much background music, making the French version more tuneful.

L’Opéra de quat’sous is not a bad movie, but there’s no compelling reason to watch it except to gain a deeper appreciation of Die Dreigroschenoper.

– Ivana Redwine for About.com

Brecht vs. Pabst (and don’t forget Weill)

This student thesis includes a table that compares the differences between the play and film synopses.

While Brecht retained the basic plot of The Beggar’s Opera, he updated it and related the satirical elements to his own era. At the same time, he was concerned more with ideas than coherent storyline or character development. In cinematizing the play, Pabst treated the plot and characters far more realistically, with greater emphasis on the feelings and motivation of the principal roles; in this regard, the film bears more the mark of Pabst than Brecht or Weill.

Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

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. 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” 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

Criterion’s new high-definition transfer, 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.

Gordon Thomas, Bright Lights Film Journal

Is “The Threepenny Opera” Pabst blue ribbon or Brecht red banner? Brecht unsuccessfully sued the production, and sympathizers have assumed that he was protesting the undermining of his theatrical innovations and Marxist rhetoric.

Well, as Criterion’s many commentators (including Eric Bentley in a fine made-to-order documentary) point out with a choir-like harmony, this is plainly preposterous. Pabst was creating a movie, not a photographed stage play, so he had to find his own way to suggest Brecht’s epic artificiality and galvanizing didacticism. Pabst rejected placards to announce songs, but he had the street singer narrate brief transitions and underscored the fakery of the thing with sham backdrops, surreal lighting, snakelike camera movement, and stylized performances, chiefly by Rudolf Forster, whose Mack the Knife struts like a coiled muscle.

The film deepens the material by adjusting its tone, not once but (at least) five times. By delaying our first encounter with Peachum, the first section is concerned exclusively with Mack’s silent courtship of Polly; the feeling is slow and ominous, with long tracking shots, strange angles, mirrored reflections, and portentous body language.

Gary Giddins, The New York Sun

For the actual show, now entitled (by Lion Feuchtwanger) The Threepenny Opera [Die Dreigroschenoper], the rehearsals were chaotic. It became “a show that was now well beyond any single person’s control, taking whatever shape it had from a wild and wide variety of suggestions, and built on the debris of multiple crises.” Casablanca, anyone? It was one of the most brilliant theatre events of the most brilliant theatrical decade of the 20th century.

Meanwhile Pabst makes a film whose atmosphere of corruption and menace could almost be bottled, one for which sets of unprecedented complication are built, level piled upon level. Nets and screens and grilles and bars ensure that much of the time the human figure and the material object are elided in the image. From waterfront, to underground hide-out to “Victorian” brothel, Pabst and his team go in for décor. The eye feasts, despite the print quality. (The Nazis burnt the original.) The actors, especially Rudolf Forster as Macheath, are expert and full of charm, a word which Paul Rotha uses in his 1931 piece for Celluloid: must we say they seduce us? The film’s great setpiece, the march of the beggars through London’s streets to disrupt the Coronation is all the more powerful, because nothing has led the viewer to expect such a grimly simple sight as the ruler and the ruled facing off.

Bruce Williams, Senses of Cinema

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 and intensify 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. He integrates characters and oneiric settings in a way that looks forward to Renoir’s Le crime de Monsieur Lange rather than back to the “new objectivity” of his own Joyless Street. For him, the docklands warehouse where Mackie and Polly marry is a double of the Turnbridge Street brothel that Mackie visits every Thursday, just as the police station and the bank are doubles. And all of these spaces and the puppets who inhabit them are united in their duplicity. The warehouse and the brothel are palaces of illusion, crammed with phony or stolen signs of luxury and plenty, in which sincere feelings are present but denied or thwarted. The police station and the bank are outwardly respectable but sterile, and home to the most hypocritical machinations. In its way, this schema is just as powerful a critique of Weimar Germany as anything that Brecht ever sensed in John Gay’s original. And 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.

Tony Rayns, from his liner essay for the Criterion DVD. His essay offers a lengthy account of the history of both the musical and the film, and the disputes between Brecht, Weill, Pabst and Nero Studios over the film.

The few conversations with the director Pabst afforded absolutely no artistic perspective but rather were limited to issues of authority (whether Brecht could decisively influence the screenplay or not, etc.), and from Pabst’s side came the repeated advice that one must take into account the backwardness and stupidity of the film audience. In these discussions Brecht already suspected that any serious and artistic work would face enormous obstacles.

– from a typescript written in the third person by Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann, apparently for the lawsuit proceedings in conjunction with the Threepenny film. From Brecht on Film and Radio, translated and edited by Marc Silberman, 2000, Methuen, p. 145.

As long as cinema’s social function is not criticized, film criticism remains a critique of the symptoms and has itself only symptomatic character. It exhausts itself with issues of taste and is limited by class-given prejudices. It cannot recognize taste as a commodity or the weapon of a particular class but rather accepts it as an absolute. Now within a certain clas taste coule be productive by creating something like a ‘lifestyle’. But mainly the sharp distinction between work and recreation characteristic of the capitalist mode of production divides all intellectual activities into those serving labour andthose serving recreation and makes of the latter a system of the reproduction of labour power. Recreation is dedicated to non-production in the interest of production. This is, of course, not the way to create a unified lifestyle. The mistake is not that art is dragged into the circle of production but that it happens so partially and is supposed to create an island of ‘non-production’. Those who buy tickets transform themselves in front of the screen into idlers and exploiters. Since the object of exploitation is put inside them, they are, so to speak, victims of ‘imploitation.’

Brecht, from his essay The Threepenny Lawsuit, written after the trial to critique how a capitalist-based legal system violates the rights of the artist based on prevailing market forces. Silberman, p. 169-170.

“Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens” / “Song about the Futility of Human Endeavor.” Sung by Ernst Busch as the Street Singer (originally sung by the role of Mr. Peachum). Music and Lyrics by Kurt Weill.

It is in Pabst’s direction of actors, though, that he comes closest to the Brechtian conception of “epic” theater. The dialogue in the film is cut down to the barest minimum, almost silent film standards. The very terseness creates a Brechtian alienation effect, especially when coupled with a deadpan delivery, as in Polly and Mack’s farewell scene. Instead of looking deeply into each other’s eyes and swearing eternal love, as film conventions demand, the actors face the camera. Their lines are delivered in a monotone and their faces remain expressionless. The romanticism of the dialogue is ironically undercut by the unemotional acting, thus “objectifying” the characters. Here the contributions of Brecht’s original cast—Carola Nehar (Polly), Ernst Buch (streetsinger) , Lotte Lenya (Jenny), and Herman Thimig (Vicar)—must not be underestimated. On terms of formal dramaturgy, though, Pabst’s design stands in opposition to Brecht’s theoretical canons. Pabst’s Reinhardt-like chiaroscuro highlights the many night scenes along the misty Soho waterfront. Pabst’s use of light and shadow for dramatic effect violates Brecht’s conceptions of epic theater. The lighting in most of Brecht’s own productions (if existing stills are an indication) was flat and bright. As Brecht put it:

“How can we playwrights and actors put forth our view of the world in half-darkness? The dim twilight induces sleep.”

At the seam[sp] time Brecht’s stage only alludes to locale: a desk suggests an office; a bed, a brothel; and a street sign, an avenue. The sparseness of the set undermines the illusion of reality, producing the desired alienation effect. Pabst’s realistic mise-en-scene and Fritz Arno Wagner’s moving camera, on the other hand, capture actors, background action, and atmospheric details in an ever-changing pattern of complex visual designs. Pabst’s invisible editing further reinforces the spatial and temporal relations implied by the moving camera. Thus, the unbroken flow of images and the realism of the set almost compel the viewers to involve themselves in the drama of the events.

To be sure, Brecht’s intentions are totally opposite. Developing an audience’s involvement in the action is condemned by Brecht, because it results in an emotional rather than an intellectual perception. By fragmenting the narrative, the audience is forced to reconstruct the events and their ideological implications. So goes the theory.

Jan-Christopher Horak, from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 17, 20-21

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.

Alok, from Dispatches from Zembla

Kurt Weill Weill’s reason for bringing suit against the filmmakers (he won) seems quite reasonable to me. As one of the Brecht experts interviewed in the documentary states, there are 55 minutes of music in the play, and a mere 28 in the movie. And some of the music is used incidentally—for example, when Mac and Polly first “go out”—to a bar, there is piano music playing as they go down the stairs to the barroom. This is how they treated the philosophical and sassy “Ballad of the Easy Life”? The song I was allowed to sing when I assayed the role of Mrs. Peachum, “The Ballad of Dependency,” is nowhere to be found. I was quite disturbed that the music was so minimalized.

Nicole Potter for Films in Review

More on the history of The Threepenny Opera on stage


First place to go: Threepenny Opera.org

Listen to classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz on the legacy of The Threepenny Opera for NPR

Reviews of recordings of The Threepenny Opera can be found on Classical Notes

Bertolt Brecht

Wiki IMDb

The International Brecht Society

Charles Marowitz on Brecht’s experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter, with an extended passage on his work on Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die

Brecht was, first, a superior poet, with a command of many styles and moods. As a playwright he was an intensive worker, a restless piecer-together of ideas not always his own (The Threepenny Opera is based on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, and Edward II on Marlowe), a sardonic humorist, and a man of rare musical and visual awareness; but he was often bad at creating living characters or at giving his plays tension and shape. As a producer he liked lightness, clarity, and firmly knotted narrative sequence; a perfectionist, he forced the German theatre, against its nature, to underplay. As a theoretician he made principles out of his preferences–and even out of his faults.

– Encyclopedia Brittanica

An even more detailed biography than that found on Brittanica, courtesy of Gradesaver.com

A poet first and foremost, Bertolt Brecht’s genius was for language. However, because this language is built upon a certain bold and direct simplicity, his plays often lose something in the translation from his native German. Nevertheless, they contain a rare poetic vision, a voice that has rarely been paralleled in the 20th century.


His theater of alienation intended to motivate the viewer to think. Brecht’s postulate of a thinking comportment converges, strangely enough, with the objective discernment that autonomous artworks presupposes in the viewer, listener, or reader as being adequate to them. His didactic style, however, is intolerant of the ambiguity in which thought originates: It is authoritarian. This may have been Brecht’s response to the ineffectuality of his didactic plays: As a virtuoso of manipulative technique, he wanted to coerce the desired effect just as he once planned to organize his rise to fame.”

Theodor Adorno in Aesthetic Theory, 1997, found in Books and Writers


About G.W. Pabst


Bryher, writing in Close Up in 1927, noted that “it is the thought and feeling that line gesture that interest Mr. Pabst. And he has what few have, a consciousness of Europe. He sees psychologically and because of this, because in a flash he knows the sub-conscious impulse or hunger that prompted an apparently trivial action, his intense realism becomes, through its truth, poetry.”

G.W. Pabst was enmeshed in the happenings of his time, which ultimately engulfed him. He is the chronicler of the churning maelstrom of social dreams and living neuroses, and it is this perception of his time which raises him.

As Jean Renoir said of him in 1963: “He knows how to create a strange world, whose elements are borrowed from daily life. Beyond this precious gift, he knows how, better than anyone else, to direct actors. His characters emerge like his own children, created from fragments of his own heart and mind.”

Liam O’Leary, Film Reference.com

Tony Rayns, who has programmed a forthcoming season of early Pabst films at the National Film Theatre, hails Pabst as “a giant of German cinema”, but concedes that Pabst’s reputation is “confusing and confounding”. Many critics have gone further, accusing Pabst of “taking refuge in technique”, of being an opportunist and, even worse, a traitor to the cause, and a spy. So why does one of cinema’s most innovative and versatile directors attract such mixed feelings?

After 1933, along with many others in the German film industry, Pabst refused to work under the Nazis, and sought work in Hollywood. But he wasn’t prepared to dilute his talent. On his one Hollywood film, A Modern Hero, Warner Brothers complained that Pabst was giving his leading actress “too much freedom” and, unaware that the German director was one of the creators of “invisible editing” – where shots are edited in the director’s head – the studio demanded that Pabst shoot more footage so they could re-edit his work and make the final cut.

For Pabst the experience was commercially and aesthetically disastrous, and perhaps affected his judgment when he crossed over from Switzerland into Nazi-occupied Austria in August 1939. Later, Pabst explained his actions with a flurry of excuses: he had tickets booked on the liner Normandy in his pocket; he had to have a hernia operation in Vienna; he had to dispose of family property and he had to take his mother with him to America. Whatever his motives, Germany’s invasion of Poland the following month meant that Pabst literally missed the boat.

After the war all his excuses were dismissed by the grande dame of German film, Lotte Eisner, who remembers telling Pabst “rather harshly” that “the man with the perfect alibi is always the guilty one”. During the war Pabst was ordered by Joseph Goebbels to make a couple of anodyne movies; but after the war the director didn’t help his cause by never making any statement of regret. For his German followers, who were waiting for him in America and who knew him as “the red Pabst”, this refusal was tantamount to an act of betrayal.

Tom Dewe Mathews, The Guardian , January 16 2002

J. Hoberman, The Village Voice, on the 1998 Pabst retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art

About Lotte Lenya

IMDb Wiki

Biography at The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music

“Seeräuberjenny” / “Pirate Jenny.” Sung by Lotte Lenya as Jenny (originally sung on stage by role of Polly Peachum). Music and Lyrics by Kurt Weill.

About Fritz Arno Wagner

Tribute site on the Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers


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