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THREEPENNY OPERA, THE (DIE DREIGROSCHENOPER) (director: G. W. Pabst; screenwriters: Leo Lania/Bela Balazs/Laszlo Wajda/adapted from the stage version of Bertoldt Brecht and Kurt Weill/inspired by The Beggar’s Opera story by John Gay; cinematographer: Fritz Arno Wagner; editor: Jean Oser; music: Kurt Weill; cast: Rudolf Forster (Mackie Messer), Carola Neher (Polly), Reinhold Schünzel (Tiger-Brown), Fritz Rasp (Peachum), Valeska Gert (Mrs. Peachum), Lotte Lenja (Jenny), Hermann Thimig (The Vicar), Ernst Busch (The Street Singer), Wladimir Sokolow (Smith, the Jailer), Paul Kemp (Mackie Messer’s Gang Member); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Seymour Nebenzal; Criterion Collection; 1931-France/Germany-in German with English subtitles)
“A scathing social satire.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

German filmmaker G. W. Pabst (“Westfront 1918″/”Adventures of Don Quixote”/”Diary of a Lost Girl”)directs this landmark classic of an early sound film: a scathing social satire. It’s inspired by The Beggar’s Opera” (1728) storyby the Englishman John Gay. Pabst takes his cues from the original stage version of Gay’s book by the German playwright Bertoldt Brecht and the German composer Kurt Weill, but when unhappy with Brecht’s rewrite of his own stage version he goes his own way. The screenwriters are Leo Lania, Bela Balazs and Laszlo Wajda. The Russian André Andreyeff designed the studio settings, which are fine but not an accurate depiction of Soho during the turn-of-the-century.

In Victorian London, womanizer, pimp, suave gentleman, murderer, thief and racketeer Mack the Knife (Rudolf Forster) is saying in his own way goodbye to Jenny Diver (Lotte Lenja, wife of Kurt Weill), one of his many lovers, at the door of her Soho brothel. While walking down the street he meets Polly Peachum (Carola Neher), the daughter of the feared king of beggars, Peachum (Fritz Rasp), walking with the jailer’s daughter Lucy,and invites them both for a drink in the underground pub he regularly frequents.

Mack decides to marry Polly that night and instructs his henchmen to steal a wedding dress and a complete set of home furnishings, including a grandfather clock. He also orders them to invite Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), the corrupt chief of police to the ceremony. The chief is an old army buddy of Mack’s from India, who is on his payroll. The unlikely couple are married by the vicar. When the powerful Peachum, who every beggar in London owes allegiance to and no one can beg without a license from him, learns of the marriage, he’s furious and demands that Brown arrest Mackie. Brown refuses. Thereby Peachum threatens to disrupt the approaching coronation of the English queen, which will surely cost Brown his job. Afraid of what her father will do to her hubby, Polly convinces him to go into hiding and let her run his crooked business operation. But Mack can’t resist his regular visit to Jenny at the whorehouse. Mrs. Peachum (Valeska Gert), aware of Mack’s whoring habits, informs Jenny of Mack’s marriage. An angry Jenny tells the cops when her man arrives. But she soon changes her mind and helps him escape. Nevertheless the cops seize him hiding in a room with another whore.

Meanwhile, under Polly’s leadership, Mack’s gang has taken over a bank to rob people legally, and she becomes the bank president.

Peachum is under the impression that Brown let Mack escape and has his beggars demonstrate at the coronation, but can’t halt it when realizing his daughter is the bank president and it’s not to his advantage to shake up the capitalist rulers anymore because his family has now become part of the establishment.

The remorseful Jenny helps Mack escape, and he takes refuge in the bank. Peachum finds he can no longer control his beggars, who continue to protest despite his appeals for them to stop (power to the people). Peachum like Brown now openly become part of Mack’s boys at the bank.

Much of it is heavy-going fare and the dialogue is particularly labored, even though the film was deemed a success at the box office and with the critics.

The song Mack the Knife, sung by the street busker (Ernst Busch),is memorable. It cuts right to the heart of the story and shows the pic’s ability to connect with the public, as its lyrics tell of urban streetlife filled with despair, crime and corruption by telling Mack the Knife’s story as a criminal who finds that ‘crime does pay.’

Brecht wanted the pic to be more anti-capitalist and polemical from the stage version, and rewrote the stage version to have Mack become a banker. The capitalist producers were not pleased and allowed Pabst to patch things together by using some things from the stage version, some from Brecht’s rewrite (he kept Mack as a banker) and other scenarios Pabst rewrote himself. Pabst also dropped several songs from the stage version, which further bothered the stage creators. Brecht sued and lost. The more cautious Weill settled with the producers and became wealthy.

What saves the pic are the excellent performances, that it retains the satirical power of the original stage version and the terrific score.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”