The Playgoer: Threepenny: The Movie

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Threepenny: The Movie

Mackie's Back: Rudolf Forster in Pabst's 1931 "3 Penny Opera"

Two illuminating reviews of the Criterion Collection's brand new release of the classic 1931 Threepenny Opera film by G.W. Pabst. Long derided by Brecht purists (in fact sued by Brecht himself) as a butchering of the play, it seems time for a new look. Especially in light of what is said to be an amazing restoration of the print itself, revealing a much more visually complex film that many of us thought.

Says Dave Kehr, reviewing it for the Times today:

With the images restored to a digital approximation of their original clarity and depth, it seems quite a different movie.

The film takes place not in a real world but in an almost cubist approximation of one. A labyrinth of shop fronts, storehouses, narrow streets and crooked alleys, where the billboards are in English but the protest placards are in German, was built inside a mammoth studio. It represents the London waterfront where Weill and Brecht’s politically charged revision of John Gay’s 18th-century satire takes place.

Another rave review from Gary Giddins in the Sun says this re-release "forces a reassessment."

As Giddins rightly points out, many of the features of the heavily revised script resemble changes Brecht himself made to Dreigroschenoper in a film "treatment" (which for some reason he called "The Bruise") and in his "Threepenny Novel." While he claimed Pabst ruined the play's politics, the film actually augments all the plot threads satirizing banking that Brecht started injecting into the play text with his 1931 revisions. (Hence the whole ending of the film doesn't resemble the play at all: Polly and Macheath live happily ever after as crooked bankers.)

However, the film is decidedly unfaithful to the integrity of Kurt Weill's score in that it retains only about half of it. (And some songs that are left are reassigned, like the constantly tossed around "Pirate Jenny.") But the fact that the remaining songs are recorded in such stellar performances--like "Pirate Jenny" by a young Lenya, the opening "Moritat" (or "Mack the Knife") by the original Streetsinger, Ernst Busch.

The Criterion set also includes the French-language version Pabst directed on the same set with a different cast (standard practice in those days) and a documentary with commentary by Eric Bentley and others.

I know I'm looking forward to it. If you want to buy it, just click on the Amazon link to the right.

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