The Threepenny Opera (Die 3groschenoper)

Director: G.W. Pabst
Screenplay: Béla Balázs, Léo Lania, & Ladislaus Vajda (based on the play by Bertolt Brecht)
Stars: Rudolf Forster (Mackie Messer), Carola Neher (Polly Peachum), Reinhold Schünzel (Tiger-Brown), Fritz Rasp (Peachum), Valeska Gert (Mrs. Peachum), Lotte Lenya (Jenny), Hermann Thimig (The Vicar), Ernst Busch (The Street Singer), Vladimir Sokoloff (Smith, the Jailer)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1931
Country: Germany
The Threepenny Opera: Criterion Collection DVD
The Threepenny OperaThe Threepenny Opera (Die 3groschenoper) began its life on stage in Germany in the late 1920s as a rousing opera parody that dared to use the underbelly of society as its canvas. The exact process by which it was written and staged is such a labyrinth of confusion, false credit, and borrowed material that I'll simply note that the play itself is generally credited to radical playwright Bertold Brecht and the songs to composer Kurt Weill. The process by which the immensely popular play was brought to the silver screen is even more confusing, resulting in both Brecht and Weill suing the producers (Brecht lost; Weill won). Suffice it to say here that the great director G.W. Pabst, who had most recently started the cult of Louise Brooks with his magnificent silent epic Pandora's Box (1929), directed a screenplay that substantially changed several things from the play, including the ending, which made it, if anything, more socially cutting.

The story in The Threepenny Opera is actually derived from a much older source: John Gay's 1728 The Beggar's Opera, which was also a parody of traditional opera and took place amid the gutter set. Set in the back alleys of Victorian-era London, the story's primary character is Mackie Messer (aka, Mack the Knife), played by Rudolf Forster. Mackie is a dapper, successful crime lord who falls for Polly Peachum (Carola Neher), who happens to be the daughter of Mr. Peachum (Fritz Rasp), the so-called “beggar king” who has taken it upon himself to control London's beggars by licensing them. Peachum does not take kindly to Mackie seducing his only daughter, so he forces London's chief of police, Tiger-Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), to crack down on Mackie, who is Tiger-Brown's longtime friend. Thus, the story is, in a sense, a love triangle, with Polly caught in the middle between her new husband and her demanding father, and one of its most progressive elements is the iron-fist manner in which Polly steps up and takes over Mackie's gang when needed. She is not a woman who will be pushed around.

In his direction, Pabst seems somewhat torn between staying true to the story's theatrical roots and expanding it out into the purely cinematic. Pabst had made his name in the 1920s directing a series of films praised for their social realism, which stood in stark contrast to the expressionist tendencies that had defined the German cinema in the earlier part of the decade. He brings that textured understanding of the streets to The Threepenny Opera, making carefully constructed sets feel dank and lived in. Much of the story unfolds inside old warehouses, back alleys, and deserted buildings; the most modern and inviting space in the film is, ironically, the prison. Yet, because the film is a musical, there is always an element of inherent fantasy and theatricality, even though only a few songs from the original play are part of the film (these include “Cannon Song” sung by Mackie and Tiger-Brown and “Die Moritat vom Mackie Messer,” which introduces the main character and was made famous in the States when Bobby Darin, among many others, covered it as “Mack the Knife”).

In this sense, The Threepenny Opera is constantly operating in various interstitial spaces--between realism and fantasy, between the theatrical and the cinematic, and, most importantly, between parody and social commentary. Brecht's original play was rife with his alienating effects, including the self-conscious use of direct narration and a patently ridiculous deus ex machina ending that was meant to satirize the need for a “happily ever after.” The film maintains some of these (for example, there is a narrator whose address breaks the film into three parts), but Pabst tones down the more directly confrontational nature of the Brechtian approach and instead focuses on the idea of social commentary, particularly regarding corruption. This is seen most clearly in Tiger-Brown's willingness to turn a blind eye to Mackie's criminal activities, but it is probably sharpest in the film's most amusing scene, which depicts Peachum licensing the beggars and then outfitting them with clothes and feigned maladies that are guaranteed to separate sympathetic people from their money.

Because of its timeless themes and innovative musical-comedy approach to social issues (which is now nothing short of a given in contemporary theater), The Threepenny Opera has aged exceedingly well. Aspects of the film that were criticized when it first came out (for example, the anachronistic quality of the German production's version of what 18th-century London looked like) seem almost beside the point. The humor is still funny, the satire still bites, and the tunes are still infinitely humable. We should be thankful that the Nazis, who decided that its social satire hit a little too close to home in 1933 and tried to have every print of it destroyed, failed in their efforts.

The Threepenny Opera Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.19:1
AudioGerman Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by scholars David Bathrick and Eric Rentschler
  • L'opera de quat'sous, Pabst's French-language version of the film
  • Multimedia presentation by film scholar Charles O'Brien on the differences between the English and French versions
  • Archival introduction by stars Fritz Rasp and Ernst Busch
  • Brecht vs. Pabst: The Transformation of The Threepenny Opera documentary
  • Archival interview with Fritz Rasp
  • Galleries of production photos by Hans Casparius and production sketches by art director Andre Andrejew
  • Essay by film critic Tony Rayns
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 18, 2007

    The Threepenny Opera recently underwent restoration by the Bundesarchiv in Berlin, and Criterion's beautiful new high-definition transfer was taken from a 35mm restoration negative. Like Criterion's reissue of Fritz Lang's M, which was made around the same time, the film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio (resulting from early sound processes that took up some of the visual real estate on a 1.33:1 negative), so the image is slightly pillarboxed (thankfully, this means that the image is not also pictureboxed, which Criterion has been doing with all its Academy aspect ratio films in recent years). The image is sharp and clear, especially after having undergone additional digital restoration. There are some inherent signs of age--a few missing frames, here and there, for example--but given the fact that this film is more than 75 years old, the image looks beautiful. The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from the restored soundtrack negative, sounds excellent for its age. There is some slight ambient hiss, but all significant aural artifacts have been cleaned up.
    Given The Threepenny Opera's tangled production history as both a stage musical and a film, Criterion has put together an outstanding array of in-depth supplements that help establish the context in which it was made and the fascinating personalities responsible for making it. On the first disc we get an excellent, informative audio commentary by Harvard University professor Eric Rentschler, author of The Films of G.W. Pabst, and Cornell University professor David Bathrick, author of The Dialectic and the Early Brecht. Given the commentators' heady academic qualifications, it's not surprising that the track is a deeply intellectual affair, although it also has a nice flow and interaction because they recorded it together. The second disc opens with L'opera de quat'sous (1931), Pabst's French-language version of the film, which he shot simultaneously with the German version on the same sets using different actors (although most of the extras with nonspeaking roles are the same). Many films in the early sound era were shot in multiple language versions, and Criterion does us a real service by including both versions. The transfer for L'opera de quat'sous is terrible when compared to the transfer of The Threepenny Opera--soft, damaged, and improperly framed in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio--but at least we have it available. After watching both versions, you can then watch an 18-minute multimedia presentation by Charles O'Brien, professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, on the differences between the films, which highlights in particular how Pabst altered performances, lighting, and staging to better address his intended audience (Germans liked their films darker and more serious than the French). The real meat of the film's production controversies can be found in Brecht vs. Pabst: The Transformation of The Threepenny Opera, a new 48-minute documentary that traces in detail the story's journey from its roots as an 18th-century operetta, to a hit stage musical in the 1920s, to Pabst's film version, with particular attention paid to the fascinating and confounding personality of Bertolt Brecht. It features new interviews with Brecht scholar and translator Eric Bentley, G.W. Pabst scholar Jan-Christopher Horak, Kurt Weill Foundation director Kim Kowalke, and Pabst's son, Michael Pabst. From the archives we get a short introduction to the film by stars Fritz Rasp and Ernst Busch that was shot for its East German re-release in 1956, as well as an 18-minute interview with Rasp from 1972. There are also some extensive stills galleries of production photos by Hans Casparius and production sketches by art director Andre Andrejew.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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