Transcript after the break
This shot, like many in the Threepenny Opera, makes the case for GW Pabst as one of the supreme masters of the tracking shot, moving through space with a commanding voyeuristic view of the bordello, while also closing in on the intimate fleeting moment, two prostitutes playing cards.
It sets up this medium shot, which makes great use of deep staging and offscreen space.
Lotte Lenya, playing the prostitute Jenny, hitches her skirt and shuffles coolly off stage, here you get a hint of Lenya’s unique control over her own body, and as you’ll see her body language adds a sense of counterrhythm to the characteristically lockstep precision of Pabsts direction.
In shots like this, there’s a steady flow of camera movements and visual details to captivate the viewer. But isn’t this the antithesis of what Bertolt Brecht’s art is about? We see a wamted poster of Mack the Knife, and then the camera pulls back to see the real Mack, who looks at it admiringly, completely disregarding the risk of being seen in public next to his own wanted poster. This is the closest that the film gets to being self-referential, but even so it strikes me as a fairly non-Brechtian way of doing so.
In a Brechtian mode, a potentially self-reflexive moment of a man regarding a public photo of himself would establish a critical awareness within the viewer of the act of representation.
here the image of Mack and his photo reinforces his image, of anti-social, anti-authoritarian coolness.
But lest we think that Pabst is all flash, look at this cut. from a shot of Mrs. Peacham complaining hysterically to Jenny, to a reverse shot of Jenny, statuesque in her stillness, as she takes in the shock of hearing that her lover Mackie has married Peacham’s daughter. Lotte Lenya was famous for her body language, her economy of gesture, seemingly divorced from the goings on around her, contributing to the Brechtian alienation effect on theater. Here her acting is naturalized by the Pabst’s alluring expressionist cinema of long tracking shots, angled perspectives and shadows.
there’s a beautiful but evocative economy of shots here -from the reverse shot of Jenny lifting her stocking to another reverse shot of Mackie entering the brothel. With Jenny’s silent reaction we know that she won’t be serving as Mrs. Peacham’s informant, even if she took her money. though one thing I don’t get about this shot is why Mrs. Peacham doesn’t hear the prostitutes calling Mackie’s name.
Here’s some ornate mise en scene typical of German expressionism. The girls adorn Mackie like prize objects in this object filled room.
and here Pabst films two parallel actions of screens being drawn closed, which sets up the private, withdrawn quality of the musical number we’re about to see. I’m going to keep quiet for all of it, but just think about Pabst’s framing of Lotte Lenya, the use of offscreen space, the number of times he adorns her performance with cuts or pans, and for what possible reason.
This is the closest that Lotte Lenya comes to looking at the camera, and yet she still doesn’t look directly at it. this number has cemented her sense of inwardness. This is the closest the film comes to creating a rupture in the film’s fabric, the image that exists beyond the viewer’s gaze, and it threatens the viewer with its autonomy.
but look what pabst does here.
It cuts to a shot of mackie looking directly at the camera as he has at other times during the film, though here he is less the powerful seducer and more the seduced. but through his piteous gaze we are meant to see through jenny’s eyes a man who has a soft spot, who acknolwedges her special place in his heart.
Then he rises to resume his stature as the powerful Mack the Knife. The tension between them is resolved.
this moment of naturalism – the one most spontaneous feeling moment in a film that feels tightly controlled, arrests the narrative. Lenya the way she waves her body… there’s an energy, a life to her, that neither Mack the Knife nor this movie can either contain or make much of, other than as an ornamental sideshow to the film’s overarching drive towards cinema as dictatorial rapture. Lenya’s performance is Brechtian in that it retains a sense of its own existence as an autonomous object, irrespective of the audience’s engagement with it. It doesn’t completely fit in the grooves of either Pabst’s filmmaking or the audience’s expectations, and for that it makes us think about it all the more. That is a difference between the impeccability of GW Pabst and the impenetrability of Lotte Lenya, as much as the former tries, in vain, to encompass the latter.