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The Criterion Collection presents

The Threepenny Opera (1931)

"It's not nice. It's art."- Mackie (Rudolf Forster)

Stars: Rudolf Forster, Carola Neher, Fritz Rasp, Lotte Lenya, Ernst Busch
Director: G. W. Pabst

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:50m:48s
Release Date: 2007-09-18
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

It's still kind of hard to fathom the decadent powers of The Threepenny Opera, especially since its most widely renowned contribution to American popular culture is of a swingin' Bobby Darin tune, Mack the Knife. Based on that alone, you might think that you're in for some big band action or a traditional book musical, but that couldn't be more off base—the theatrical premiere was a sensation in the late 1920s in Berlin, and the film, made a couple of years later, may not be a faithful reproduction of the stage incarnation, but it still can draw blood. It's a racy, daring, off-putting piece of work—you can see, for instance, why it was so deeply threatening to the Third Reich, for it's a fair-minded and biting bit of social commentary, and still doesn't go down easy for audiences whose unchallenging view of musicals begins and ends with stuff like Cats. It's nobody's sentimental favorite, but it still stings.

Two of the young lions of the German theater of the 1920s, playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, took John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, a mad pastiche of a musical, and made it very much their own—as with any intensely rewarding and successful collaboration, it can be difficult to discern where the contribution of one artist ends and the other begins. The operetta tells the tale of Mackie Messer, well-connected street tough who is as ambitious as any movie gangster of the period, and who is moving along from simple graft and violence to co-opting the services of the deeply corrupt police department. (Weill and Brecht keep Gay's story in London, making the Germans' view of the English one more object of fascination for us.) Mackie is a great favorite among the many local whores, and adds to his menagerie by taking a young wife—Polly is no sweet young thing exactly, that's for certain. She's the daughter of the ringleaders of one of London's great growth industries: panhandling, which they have boiled down to a science, and implement for maximum efficiency, playing off of the riches and the guilt of the upper classes.

As in much of Brecht, though, the story really isn't the point—his whole notion of drama largely runs counter to conventional linear storytelling and moviemaking, in which the audience is strung along in anticipation of the answer of always the same question: what happens next? Instead, Brecht and Weill are delighted to spit out the whole plot for us from the jump, inviting us to think about its implications as we watch it unfold—and the presentational acting style asks the actors to do the same, not merely inhabit their characters fully, but to comment upon them. Brechtian acting runs counter to all the Stanislavski realism that informs so much of acting today—it's almost like you get re-conditioned to this presentational style as you watch the movie, for it's closer to silent-film technique or opera than it is to what we're used to seeing.

But it's all here in the service not of cheap melodrama, but of a brutal indictment of the bourgeoisie—the class warfare is frequently explicit, and the film parades the gaudy decadence of German culture between the wars both for our amusement and derision. The director, G.W. Pabst, doesn't soft soap this stuff exactly, but you get the sense that he's not the great proletarian warrior that Brecht would hope he would be—some of his sinuous moving camera work, though, and formal compositional style give the piece a cinematic visual life that it could never have onstage. (The silent technique that Pabst so mastered in movies like Pandora's Box pays huge dividends here.) Apparently Brecht and Pabst didn't see eye to eye on the film, a point much amplified in the ample extras package, but the work is still kind of wonderful, even if the clarity of Brecht's revolutionary intention loses some of its sharp focus.

The actors all seem in league with the style of the piece, though, so it makes for a startling experience. Rudolf Forster is both a menace and a dandy as Mackie, and Ernst Busch is committed and winning as the street singer who delivers the signature song; best of all may be Lotte Lenya (aka Mrs. Bertolt Brecht), as Jenny, a former Mackie favorite eager to exact some revenge. Pabst and Brecht also share a love of slapstick, and the officers of the law are played for a grand kind of Keystone Kops comedy—they're still packing, though, and they remain dangerous, just like the rest of the movie, which seems never to flag or waver.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.19:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: A note at the top of the print indicates that the film was restored for its 75th anniversary, in 2006, and the pillarboxed, 1.19:1 transfer looks really quite spectacular. Goodness knows films from this period can vary wildly in video quality, and there are some conspicuous instances of damage to the source material. But the transfer is a paradigmatic one.

Image Transfer Grade: A

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: There's a rough, tinny quality to some of the audio that actually rather complements the source material—describing it that way may be making a virtue of necessity, however, as the mono track has its limits, though it's well presented here.

Audio Transfer Grade: A- 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
5 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Eric Rentschler and David Bathrick
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. French version of the feature (see below)
  2. production sketches (see below)
  3. accompanying booklet
  4. color bars
Extras Review: It's a dizzying, informative and crammed two-disc set, and most notable of all is the feature film on the second disc: it's L'opèra de quat'sous, the French-language version shot simultaneously with the German one—Pabst directed both casts, and the two versions create an extraordinary opportunity to compare and contrast. A worthy guide to this is Charles O'Brien, of Carleton University in Ottawa, who provides a look (18m:25s) at the obvious similarities and telling differences between the two versions. (One packaging typo: the back cover makes reference to comparing the French and English versions, rather than the French and German ones.) Also on the second disc is a trove (40m:50s) of snapshots from the set of the film, shot by Hans Casparius, a friend of Pabst—they're briefly annotated here by Hans-Michael Bock, and gives the kind of glimpse at the inner workings of the production that you don't even get today from an EPK. Bock also interviews Fritz Rasp (17m:45s), who played Peachum, Mackie's voracious father-in-law, in the German incarnation, and this is largely a conversation about the earliest days of German cinema, when movies were considered a disreputable medium. And a brief gallery of ten production sketches by art director Andrez Andrejew are evocative and rapturous.

Back on the first disc, it's a clash of the titans in an accompanying documentary, Brecht versus Pabst (48m:54s), which goes over the theatrical roots of the piece, the huge debt to Gay's Beggar's Opera, and assesses the contribution of Weill as well. But the main event is writer versus director, and each has their advocates: principally it's English translator Eric Bentley for Brecht, and the director's son, Michael Pabst, for his father. The debate continues in a more gentlemanly fashion on the commentary track—we'd expect no less from two men of the Ivy League—with Pabst scholar and Harvard professor Eric Rentschler, and David Bathrick, who teaches at Cornell and specializes in Brecht. They're especially good on discussing the evolution of the Brechtian dissociative style, and on the film's place at the top of the pantheon of German cinema, alongside movies like M and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Also on the disc is a brief introduction (1m:28s) by cast members Rasp and Busch on the occasion of the film's 25th anniversary, in 1956, without a peep about the repressive East German Communist government and its autocratic similarities to the authorities in the movie. And the main event of the accompanying booklet is an essay on the film by Tony Rayns.

Extras Grade: A

Final Comments

An uncannily sharp film, with a pervasive sense of decadence and moral rot—it had to have been shocking 75 years ago, and it largely remains that way today. The DVD set sports a brilliant transfer and a rich package of extras, making this one easy to recommend.

Jon Danziger 2007-11-02