The 3 Penny Opera (Die 3 Groschen-Oper)
Germany (1931) Dir. G.W Pabst
A little leeway is required here as this big screen adaptation of the famous musical drama written by Bertol Brecht with music by Kurt Weill features very little singing. This was largely due to director G.W Pabst being more interested in the actual story than the singing. He did though keep two of the more popular songs, including Die Moritat von Mackie Messer which you will recognise from its English translation Mack The Knife!
Brecht’s 1928 play is actually a reworking of John Gay’s 18th century English opera The Beggar’s Opera yet the cynical look at how corruption exists at all levels of British society remains intact. The central figure, in this version, is well known crook Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster), the king of the London underground living an amoral life yet is presented as an anti-hero. He marries Polly Peachman (Carola Neher), the daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Fritz Rasp), the man who controls all the beggars in the capital. He and his wife (Valeska Gert) aren’t pleased by this news and when all efforts to make Polly change her mind fail, they resort to dirty tactics to break up the marriage.
A fairly simple set-up and one which plays out with surprisingly few twists or turns – one of the most straightforward plots to be found in such a famous work. But that doesn’t stop a wry eye from being cast over its subject, coming through loud and clear regardless of the language it is presented in. As was the custom of the time Pabst shot versions in both German and French but a planned English version didn’t materialise.
It is rather odd to hear English place names being spoken so freely in a German but with the Nazi stronghold soon to take over Germany and dictate its film output, it was probably just as well this tale wasn’t relocated to Berlin instead of London. In 1933 however this film along with any others was eventually banned and destroyed, driving Pabst, like many of his peers and contemporaries, out of the country to briefly resume his career in France and the US.
That said this still feels like a German film and even the attempts to recreate 19th century London aren’t totally convincing. The actors have a distinctly Teutonic look about them to pass as dapper English men or even humble beggars but we can let that pass. For Mackie, he is supposed to be a charismatic rogue but this doesn’t come across as such, thus it is hard to root for him as an anti-authority figure. Even his Terry-Thomas moustache and playful banter can’t disguise his selfish side.
This is manifest through Mackie’s refusal to stop visiting his favourite brothel despite being a married man where he is hugely popular with the girls there, in particular Jenny (Lotte Lenya). But, Mackie’s reputation precedes him and Polly’s mum pays Jenny off to set Mackie up to be arrested during a police raid she has arranged, the idea being Mackie will be hanged for his catalogue of crimes.
How does Frau Peachman get the police onside, especially when the chief of police Tiger-Brown (Reinhold Schünzel) is an old army friend of Mackie’s and turns the other cheek whenever he offends? She and Herr Peachman threaten to disrupt the Queen’s coronation with march involving all the beggars forcing Tiger-Brown’s hand, leaving Mackie to find some way to obtain a “get out of jail” card with someone else help.
In what is a rather progressive piece of writing, Polly is not presented as a servile or dependant wife to Mackie or indeed a pushover daughter to her parents. She knows her own mind, possesses a sharp and savvy brain and can hold her own against anyone male or female. If anyone is dependant it is Mackie, living off the graft of his thieving minions – literally everything at their wedding ceremony held in an underground warehouse was stolen – or the guile of his wife and the string pulling protection of Tiger-Brown.
The social commentary doesn’t feel as caustic as probably did back in 1931 or in the stage versions that preceded it but the endless circle of deception, abuse of power and manipulation doesn’t paint a pretty picture. If it isn’t money then it is power than can buy someone’s cooperation or loyalty and the cast is made up of people all of whom are affected one way or another by such machinations, and serves as chilling parallel to the rise of Hitler.
For his presentation Pabst has kept the story from Brecht’s play intact but has avoided the trap most Hollywood directors made in translating a stage show by not replicating the stage set up directly. Pabst lets the camera move around the streets and building interiors even if the set up is the same inert staging; he shoots from different angles to create both space and lack of, as well as to create atmosphere when needed.
As mentioned before song count is reduced but the ones included are not inserted by characters suddenly bursting into song. The classic Mack the Knife opens and closes the film, first sung by a street singer, played by Ernst Busch reprising his role from the stage show, who appears as a musical narrator in between developments.
Also making the leap from stage to screen is Lotte Lenya as Jenny, whose role was equally assured by being the wife of songwriter Kurt Weill. Despite an award winning turn as Jenny in the 1950’s US production, Lenya is most well known for playing Bond villain Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love.
Pabst may still be mostly recognised for his two films with Louise Brooks but The 3 Penny Opera serves as an interesting look at what else he was capable of. It’s a bit stilted in places and the story takes a while to get going but hardcore cineastes should find it a fascinating watch.