Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 29 August 2005
Source BFI DVD
G.W. Pabst’s film version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera is perhaps most famous today for the authorship dispute it gave rise to. Brecht, who originally worked on the screenplay for the film, and composer Kurt Weill sued the production company for the changes they had made to their original musical play — Weill won, but Brecht lost. Consequently the film has the unfair reputation of betraying the original’s radical message. In fact, as a satire of and attack on the capitalist bourgeoisie it’s sharp, committed, and successful; and this success is abetted by Pabst and cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner’s intricate camerawork and rich and complex mise-en-scène.
Brecht’s play was an adaptation of John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera, which was set in the London underworld of thieves, prostitutes and murderers, and used this as a satiric counterpoint to the upper classes of the day, although the romantic treatment of the central character Macheath and the general comic tone undercut any true subversive effect. The Brecht/Weill 1928 musical play moved the setting to a somewhat bizarre Germanic fantasy of Victorian London and transformed the characters, especially so in the case of Macheath, who became the cynical anti-hero Mackie Messer/Mack the Knife.
Pabst’s film was an early sound film and, in the practice of the day, was made in two versions, one German, Die Dreigroschenoper, and one French, L’opéra de quat’sous. (Both are presented on separate discs on the BFI DVD.) Although filmed at the same time on the same sets with the same camera set-ups, the final effect is quite different. For one thing, the shots are not exactly the same — Die Dreigroschenoper’s striking opening shot, for example, starts slightly later in L’opéra and is much less effective. The French lyrics have been considerably softened, bringing the film in tone closer to some kind of French comedy-musical, and L’opéra’s actors are much lighter as well. Albert Préjean (the star of René Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris) is a pleasant, ingratiating actor-singer, but he completely lacks the threatening menace that Rudolf Forster brings to Mackie Messer in Die Dreigroschenoper. L’opéra’s Florelle, as Polly Peachum, and Gaston Modot, as Peachum, are similarly lighter and less effective than Carola Neher and Fritz Rasp in the corresponding roles in Die Dreigroschenoper. The French film ends up being lighter, warmer, more comic, and more involving of the audience’s sympathies—all rather going against the point of The Threepenny Opera. L’opéra de quat’sous has some minor interest in the comparisons it offers with the German film, but any analysis of Pabst’s film needs to look at Die Dreigroschenoper alone.
The tone of Die Dreigroschenoper is established from the start, as a Brecht/Weill song starts over the simple white-on-black credits: slightly snarling, slightly aggressive, a balance of bitter cynicism and social assault:
Let’s have the grub first, then the morality… How does man live?… By forgetting he’s a man just like his fellows… Man lives on nothing else but evil deeds.
There’s a common conception that early sound films represented a tragic break with silent cinema: stodgy, talky and stage-bound, entirely losing the visual fluidity of silent film style. Pabst’s work in Die Dreigroschenoper at the very least disproves this. Stylistically, it’s a direct continuation of his great silent films, in particularly Pandora’s Box (possibly the greatest silent film ever) and Diary of a Lost Girl. Just look at the opening shot of the film, how the shot is structured and how that introduces the film’s characters and themes.
Pabst has two unknown figures cross the foreground, giving the effect of a curtain whisking open from right to left, before Mackie literally leaps into the frame in the opposite direction, propelling the story forward. In this little touch we have Pabst’s genius at work. Nattily dressed in his dapper suit and bowler hat, Mackie is emerging from a brothel with his prostitute-lover Jenny in tow. Still in the one shot, the window behind Mackie opens for a fat whore to hand out Mackie’s white gloves; he freezes as he takes in two women moving forward across the frame, backs towards us (it’s the film’s way of introducing Polly Peachum, a central character); the camera then follows the two women down the side alley before whipping round to Mackie again, who abandons Jenny and starts following the women, briefly pausing as another whore this time hands out his sword-cane through another brothel window; then the camera follows Mackie in his pursuit of the women down this alley and round the corner into the next: all in one single shot.
The stylistic complexity at work here — the constantly-shifting perspective granted via a moving camera, the strong sense of setting, the rich economy with which Pabst delineates a character (here it’s Mackie’s character and how he reveals himself through his physical actions: the freeze-and-stare at the women, the shoving-away of Jenny, the “business” with the two whores, especially the slight tussle he has over his sword-cane) — continues apace, with even greater complexity. After a brief static shot of the watching Mackie, the camera again is on the move following the two women, but with an additional aim of leading into a set-piece highlighting what is today Die Dreigroschenoper’s most famous song, “Mack the Knife”.
This set-piece, of a street singer performing the song to a large crowd, is composed of a complex series of shots, static and moving, long-distance and close-up, with the angle from which the scene is shot constantly shifting, and it follows Mackie’s slow pursuit of one of the women as the song’s lyrics delineate his history of crime: robbery, arson, murder, and rape. It tells us everything about Mackie when the song’s line about one of his rapes occurs over a shot of him proceeding after the woman, a confident, cruel smile on his face.
The woman is Polly Peachum—although in keeping with the distanced feel in the early part of the story, enhanced by a visual style which works against close audience identification and the lack of expository dialogue (in fact, probably the result of the primitive recording techniques, sound on occasions will disappear entirely), the film takes its time in telling us this. She is the daughter of Peachum, the “king” of the city’s beggars; and it is Peachum who will, in tandem with Mackie, offer the film’s two contrasting but linked portraits of the bourgeoisification of crime, with the further implied correlation between crime and bourgeois capitalist society. . As the leader of his crime gang, Mackie is the perfect bourgeois gentleman, never without his three-piece suit, bowler hat, and cane; his cruelty, calculation, and callousness are an expression of the cold, exploitative nature of the bourgeois. For his part, Peachum, who runs a beggar cartel with an iron fist, offers the alternative middle-class non-virtues of hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. Tiger Brown, London’s Chief of Police, is the link between the two: a former Army comrade of Mackie’s, he has protected Mackie in the past, but has to withdraw this protection under pressure from Peachum, who plans revenge after Mackie marries Polly in a bizarre late-night ceremony with a kidnapped priest in a dockside warehouse.
Mackie is not only the image of the smooth bourgeois, but his criminal activity is increasingly played as if it were standard capitalist business practice. (Brecht’s point, of course, is that the reverse is true.) Pabst gives us one scene of Mackie planning a robbery and dictating the details to one of his comic underlings sitting at a typewriter, just as if he were a managing director in his office with his secretary. Moreover, after Mackie’s arrested and Polly has taken over the running of the gang, this process intensifies as the gang “normalises” itself by buying up a City bank (more effective than just robbing it), moving out of louche Soho into the respectable world of the City.
The news of Mackie’s elevation to bank director has an immediate effect on Peachum’s petit bourgeois mindset. Now, he wants to abandon his plans of revenge—revenge, this time, on Brown, who he believes has allowed Mackie to escape arrest. This plan is to send out London’s beggars en masse to disrupt the Queen’s coronation, but it’s now made clear that the beggars — the symbol here of the proletariat poor — are beyond the control of the manipulative bourgeoisie. For all his screaming and shouting, Peachum can’t stop the beggars, and no one can stop the silent, challenging confrontation between the beggars and the Queen in her open carriage: faced by their faces of misery (behind them, the single word “Elend” — “misery” — appears on a placard otherwise cut-off by the edges of the frame), she can only cover her face with her bouquet of flowers.
Peachum, in effect, flees from his failure to control the beggars, to arrive at Mackie’s bank (which the disgraced Tiger Brown has now joined) with contracts in hand. The “happy ending” of all the protagonists joined together on the bank’s board of directors is explicitly depicted as the bourgeoisie’s defence against the proletariat. “If the poor are so powerful, why do they need us?” asks Mackie. To which, Peachum replies: “Because they don’t know we need them.” The final shot of Die Dreigroschenoper is of those poor marching off into darkness and silence, unheard and unhearing, leaving up in the air the question: What if those poor started to hear and be heard?