A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Threepenny Opera (G.W. Pabst, 1931)

In 1928, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill transformed John Gay's 18th-century Beggar's Opera into Die Dreigroschenoper, one of the most celebrated works to come out of Weimar-era Germany, so when sound came to film it was inevitable that the musical should become a movie. But both Brecht and Weill were unhappy with what Pabst decided to do with both the plot and the songs, so they sued. Brecht lost, but Weill won, with the result that although songs were cut from the film, no new music by other composers was added. Brecht's objections seem to be more about a loss of control over the screenplay, which was written by Léo Lania, Ladislaus Vajda, and Béla Balász, than about any ideological shift: If anything, the ending of the film goes even further left than Brecht's did, with the crooks and corrupt officials of the play becoming bankers. Pabst's direction is sometimes a little slow and stiff: He had never done a musical film before, and the action between songs often seems to lag. But the musical numbers that remain -- which include the well-known "Moritat" or "Mack the Knife," Lotte Lenya's delivery of "The Ballad of the Ship With Fifty Cannons," and "The Song of the Heavy Cannon" -- are well-handled. The cast includes Rudolf Forster as Mackie Messer (i.e. Mack the Knife), Carola Neher as Polly Peachum, Fritz Rasp as Peachum, and Lenya as Jenny. It's striking to see that, as in Fritz Lang's M, made the same year, the underworld is presumed to consist of syndicates of thieves and beggars. The cinematography is by Pabst's frequent collaborator, Fritz Arno Wagner, and the splendid sets are by Andrej Andrejew.