Director: G. W. Pabst
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among the giants of theatre, I have always considered Bertolt Brecht to be at the top of the heap. A gifted poet, Brecht created a new theatre for a new, more threatening time, one that refused to allow audiences to melt into a naturalistic setting and identify sympathetically with the lives and morals of the play’s immoral characters. In the Germany that would soon succumb to blind devotion to the myth of the Übermensch peddled by a genocidal dictator, Brecht’s unreal realism and his and music collaborator Kurt Weill’s most successful drama, the cabaret-style musical The Threepenny Opera, would be banned.
Before that happened, director G. W. Pabst and producer Seymour Nebenzal attempted to capitalize on the phenomenal success of the musical by contracting with Brecht to film it. Brecht, moving even more radically to the left than he had been as a bohemian artist of the intelligensia, turned in a treatment oozing with communist ideology. Pabst and Nebenzal mainly discarded the transformed material and created still another, completely different work—a fully cinematic drama in the Expressionist mode that eliminated half of Kurt Weill’s songs, most of Brecht’s biting, poetic lyrics, and very nearly the one actor who breathes authenticity into the work, Lotte Lenya. We are left with a somewhat tepid tale of corruption, with evocative images and a searing, but too-brief performance by Lenya that isn’t all that different from the more bourgeois Marlene Dietrich vehicle of the same period, The Blue Angel (1930).
Rudolf Forster as Macheath, aka “Mackie Messer” (Mack the Knife), emerges from a brothel, with Jenny (Lenya), a whore he had once been close to, hanging on him lovingly. He shakes her off brusquely when two attractive women pass by, then disappears into a crowd that has gathered at the London dockside to hear a street singer (Ernst Busch) who will be our narrative guide through the film sing “Mack the Knife” and put up illustrations of the murderous deeds attributed to—but never pinned on— Mackie. Mackie sees a young lady (Carola Neher) and her friend admiring a wedding dress in a shop window. He engages them to have a drink with him. He stares at a pair of men sitting at his usual booth until they leave, orders a waiter to clean the table, and signals one of his burglary gang to come take the lady’s friend off his hands. Before they finish their drinks, Mackie and the woman are engaged. Mackie sends his gang scrambling to procure food, wine, and furnishings (“Don’t forget the grandfather clock”) for their wedding reception and love nest—an empty dockside warehouse—and a preacher (Hermann Thimig) to marry them. One of the gang steals the brocade wedding gown from the shop window for the occasion. Another hand-delivers an invitation to the police chief Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), who keeps Mackie out of jail for a small fee.
Mackie’s new bride is none other than Polly Peachum, daughter of the powerful beggar king (Fritz Rasp). Peachum and his wife (Valeska Gert) vow to see Mackie hanged rather than be husband to their daughter. Threatening to force Brown’s dismissal by unleashing an army of beggars to confront the queen during her pending coronation parade, Peachum convinces the police chief to arrest and hang Mackie. After a long chase, the police finally apprehend him with the help of Jenny, who is jealous that Mackie has married. But all turns out for the “best,” as Mackie, having escaped from jail, learns he needn’t have bothered. Polly has purchased a prestigious bank in Piccadilly and made him the bank president, whom no one would dare execute. All of their thieving will be done on the up and up from now on.
Much as my colleague, Rod Heath, commented in his review of Public Enemies (2009) about the odds against the lone outlaw battling corrupt overlords, Mackie, an unorganized, violent thug, is coopted—though not at all to his distress—by the organizational skills of Polly, learned from a father who created a empire of beggars forced to march to his commands. Yet, both he and Mackie learn a lesson—while both count on the cooperation of confederates who are personally loyal to them, when Peachum cannot stop the mob he organized to disrupt the parade, he learns the power of the people. Together, they come to understand that a marriage between corrupt overlords and dependent masses can move mountains. In a nutshell, Pabst has given us a picture of the evolution of National Socialism.
Yet far from horrifying us, we come to admire these genial rogues. Mackie, in his Brecht-prescribed stage make-up, casts a threatening gaze that Pabst’s camera sometimes captures. But more often, he is surrounded by adoring women and eager-to-please, cartoonish lackeys who are used by Pabst almost exclusively for laughs. Mackie dresses smartly, with a jaunty bowler hat and a cane whose hidden sword is never unsheathed after its first reveal in the opening minutes of the film. When I saw the full stage production of the original The Threepenny Opera, Mackie’s deep kiss and stabbing of his betrayer, Jenny Towler (it’s unclear whether Lenya’s Jenny is this murdered Jenny or destined to share her fate), brought the lyrics “Jenny Towler turned up lately / With a knife stuck through her breast / While Macheath, he walks the embankment, / Nonchalantly unimpressed” horribly to life. Despite Busch’s effective rendering of the song, the timid use of illustrations of Mackie’s crimes have no power to convey just what an animal we’re dealing with. It certainly can’t help that this dark song is known to contemporary audiences mainly as a tune popularized by a mainstream singer, Bobby Darin, who doesn’t seem to know what the words mean.
Nonetheless, the film passes muster on the strength of strongly impressionistic sets strongly lit and photographed and Lotte Lenya’s savage delivery of “Pirate Jenny,” a tune originally sung by Polly. In this context, of Jenny having been betrayed by Mackie and about to return the favor, the apocalyptic vision of an armada of pirate ships gunning down all but the brothel where Jenny lives and works is extremely effective. Once heard, Lenya’s voice and interpretation become unforgettable and definitive. And to think Lenya almost didn’t play this part because Pabst thought she was too ugly for movies. Indeed, this film could have used a lot more ugly and a little less art.