It’s Not Nice, It’s Art!

All photos from The Threepenny Opera' stage production, Northwestern University - November 2005, by Thomas Lee, from Noel

In the film version of The Threepenny Opera, Pabst managed to accomplish what Brecht could not: a true reconciliation between the satiric jubilance of the original stage play and the politically driven cynicism of Brecht’s revision.

Wedding guests (remarking on Polly’s performance of a song): “The missus sure can sing a song. That was nice!

Mack Messer: That wasn’t “nice” you idiots! It’s not nice, it’s art!

A poet given to nihilistic satire, whose plays were renowned only among the avant-garde for the scandals they caused, scores a critical and financial success. A composer trained in the classical idiom and thought to be a musical modernist writes a collection of tunes redolent with traces of American jazz and 19th century parlor music, which so enthralls listeners that a bar is opened that plays these songs exclusively. A piece of musical theater -- based on the tribulations of a sinister criminal guilty of acts of thievery, murder, and rape -- designed to shock the bourgeoisie, charms them instead. This is the unlikely situation surrounding the premiere on 31 August 1928 at the Berlin Schiffbauerdamm Theatre of Die Dreigroschenoper or The Threepenny Opera.

It remains, perhaps, the most important collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and embodies the best of what their creative powers could produce. In the late '20s, Brecht was still formulating his ideas concerning “epic theater” and he had not yet succumbed to the blandishments of overt agitprop. Many of the theatrical devices he employs in The Threepenny Opera adumbrate what he would later call the technique of Verfremdung (alienation). Brecht feared that an audience too often found itself mesmerized in the theater; the so-called “well made play” (a late 19th century development of the Aristotelian ideal) caught the audience up in the suspense of the plot and thus divested the individuals of their critical faculties; the machinations of the plot beguiled the audience into being more concerned with what would happen next than with what it all meant.

By clearly demarcating the space between the actor and the character as well as the difference between theatrical space and the real world, Brecht hoped to allow for the distance necessary for critical thought. Brecht composed his play of vignettes, and the songs were nearly all treated as “numbers” (that is, as asides that were interjected into the plot, derailing the narrative flow); thus the individual in the audience would be encouraged to critically confront the artificiality with which she was presented, to reflect upon the issues being raised instead of becoming “involved” with the depth of the characters. Ideally, for Brecht, characters had no depth; they were all surface and detail.

Weill’s music fit perfectly within the Brechtian scheme (even if Brecht repeatedly complained that Weill’s melodies were washing out his lyrics). The overture to The Threepenny Opera is simultaneously a gesture toward an 18th century opera overture and a parody of it. Its appeal is immediate, its harmonies functionally tonal; and yet the march-like rhythm seems oddly out-of-step and the chords are laced with unexplainable dissonance. Weill never pushes these eccentricities to the point that they erode the music’s communicative power but they draw the meaning of that communication into question -- this is the music of irony.

The heady combination of Brecht’s theatrical innovations and Weill’s musical irony is best demonstrated by the opening number of The Threepenny Opera: the famous “Ballad of Mack the Knife” (a piece that was actually added within the week prior to the premiere at the behest of the character playing Mackie). The text of the song is a litany of Mackie’s crimes. The audience immediately understands who this man is; there is no need for discovery. Therefore, they are prepared to evaluate the situation to be described and its relation (oblique or direct) to their social reality. Weill’s deceptively simple music displays a calm gregariousness that sits awkwardly next to the horrors being described. It is almost as though the music and text stand adjacent to each other; they refuse to combine and thus they refuse to envelop the listener who must almost inevitably remain aloof.

And yet, the “Ballad of Mack the Knife” is also the perfect example of the troubling difficulty irony presents for those hoping to make a social statement: there is always the chance that the message will be received without recognition of the ironic tone. Adopted by popular performers ranging from Louis Armstrong to Bobby Darin, “Mack the Knife” proved to be that most un-Brechtian of vehicles: a hit. Indeed, The Threepenny Opera as a whole was an unexpected smash. Either the bourgeoisie failed to realize they were being pilloried or they enjoyed the ribbing. Whatever the reason, Brecht, steeped in the early stages of his studies of Marxism and deeply wounded by accusations that his play lacked any discernible social commentary, found himself embarrassed by his success (although, despite his communist leanings, he made sure that he earned the lion’s share of the profits).

When producer Seymour Nebenzal (of Nero Film) and director G.W. Pabst approached him for the film rights to the play, Brecht saw an opportunity for redemption. As part of the deal, they agreed to allow Brecht to adapt The Threepenny Opera as a screenplay. The problem was that Brecht wanted to totally revamp the play for film, whereas Nebenzal and Pabst wanted simply to translate the successful work for the different medium. By the time Pabst had seen what Brecht was up to, the poet had completely altered large portions of the plot to make it more politically abrasive. The most drastic change involved the conclusion; in place of the last-minute reprieve saving Mackheath from execution, Brecht’s retooling had the criminal joining forces with his nemesis Peachum and the chief of police Tiger Brown as directors of a bank; thus the play’s most incorrigible miscreants occupied capitalist society’s most honored position. If the original play’s social commentary was ambiguous, this ending left no room for doubt as to Brecht’s political commitments.

Inevitably, Brecht and Pabst collided. Nebenzal tried to buy Brecht out of the project. Brecht and Weill then took their case to court just as the filming began. Brecht lost and rightly so; Pabst and Nebenzal were interested in The Threepenny Opera, not some reworking of it that Brecht may or may not have brought to completion. Weill, however, won creative control over the music. The film premiered at the Atrium Cinema in Berlin on 19 February 1931.

The Criterion Collection now presents Pabst’s rendition of The 3 Penny Opera in both its German and French versions. (In an age before dubbing was typical, many films that were to be distributed in different countries would simply shoot two different versions in different languages with different casts simultaneously.) Anyone expecting a filmed version of the stage play will be sorely disappointed -- especially those who were hoping to hear the entirety of Weill’s brilliant score. Less than half of the music has survived the translation into film and even the numbers that remain have been repositioned or turned into incidental (and instrumental) background music. Moreover, in a rather ironic twist of fate that has been largely ignored until recently in film studies, Pabst accepts quite a few of the changes Brecht had wrought upon the play in his rejected film adaptation -- including the ending.

The Criterion Collection once again lavishes the DVD set with all the trimmings. In addition to providing both versions of the film, the Criterion Collection has included a brief introduction to the film made in 1956 and featuring two of the stars, Fritz Rasp and Ernst Busch, (this is perhaps the only throwaway extra included); a new documentary that charts the vicissitudes of the making of the film and the difficulties with Brecht; an audio commentary that is actually worth one’s time (if only to hear two film scholars, David Bathrick and Eric Rentschler, who clearly have a passive-aggressive relationship -- the eye-rolling is almost audible -- but nevertheless manage to communicate some intriguing points of view); an archival interview with Fritz Rasp (who played Peachum in the German version); galleries of production photographs; a fascinating multimedia presentation by Charles O’Brien that compares the German and French versions (not the French and English versions as the DVD cover claims -- there was no English version) with a shockingly astute eye for detail; and, finally, a new essay by critic Tony Rayns who maintains a healthy disdain for Brecht’s self-importance and relative lack of creative productivity.

The extras are nearly universally top-notch but O’Brien’s multimedia presentation stands out as a brilliant achievement in its own right. He carefully contrasts stills from both versions to bring out the intricacies of lighting differences and the diverse approaches to the roles on the part of the lead actors. O’Brien makes wonderfully palpable the menacing atmosphere that the German version carefully cultivates by comparing it to the rather insouciant air with which the French version is imbued. Despite the fact that they were shot with the same sets, the same extras, and the same director, the French version lacks the satiric bite of the German, something made eminently clear in O’Brien’s treatment. His scrupulous analysis merits multiple viewings -- a true rarity among extras even within Criterion Collection releases.

The film itself, despite the irremediable loss one feels owing to the paucity of Weill’s music within the production, is a remarkable achievement. The opening sequence, in particular, marks The 3 Penny Opera as a significant moment in film history and an eloquent demonstration of Pabst’s refined directorial ability. We see Mack and Jenny (the prostitute with whom he cavorts) leaving the brothel. The soundtrack is completely silent. Then, from somewhere off screen, we hear the sounds of approaching footsteps. Two women (Polly and her mother) pass the couple and a long tracking shot follows them. Mack disentangles himself from Jenny and pursues Polly. Polly and her mother find themselves before a store window where they admire a mannequin attired in a wedding dress. Mackie approaches, and his reflection in the window aligns itself perfectly next to the mannequin, which, it now becomes clear, is a surrogate for Polly. Polly smiles pleasantly at the image but as she turns toward Mackie himself her face registers nascent horror. It is a telling moment. These characters thrive on image and shadow; reality manifests itself in a glaring light that causes these figures to recoil in dismay.

The desire for artifice pervades the narrative. Every moment is a chance for display: Mackie stares down two of his cohorts, forcing them to abandon their table so that he and Polly can sit (of course, they work for him so he hardly had to intimidate them—but that is not the point; it was the daunting display that mattered, just as in all courtship rituals); the underlings decorate a warehouse with deluxe furnishings for the improvised wedding ceremony between Mackie and Polly; and Polly sings a song (“Barbara Song”, which in the original play she sings before her parents to explain her love for Mackie) that narrates her amorous strategy of remaining aloof from all potential beaus who treat her properly while giving herself over to the first man (Mackie) who demanded her acquiescence. At the song’s conclusion the wedding party (such as it is) congratulates her, calling the song funny and nice. Mackie upbraids them for their imbecility. “It’s not nice,” he declares, “it’s art.”

The scene has a double significance. On the one hand, it reveals the artificiality of the characters. Every gesture is planned out; every glance foreordained. The characters perform an intricate social dance that eternally evades commitment and deflects all attempts at deeper interpretation. Such a stance is not merely nice, it is artifice on a grand scale; it is artifice as manifest reality, the only reality to which these characters have access. On the other hand, the scene provides a meta-commentary on the Brechtian approach to theatrical representation. This representation is not designed to entertain (or at least not to merely entertain) but rather to shake the audience out of its complacency. By the very virtue of its attempt to be a social and political artform, it cannot be nice. Indeed, it is the rather rude character of the representation that allows for its critical efficacy. If it is art, it can hardly be nice.

Nothing demonstrates this point with greater alacrity than the ending. The proletarian mob (or at least their proxy -- the beggars and poor) disrupts the coronation ceremony. The police cannot control them. They even seem to threaten the aristocratic entourage as the latter ceremoniously marches up the causeway while the mob thrusts forward unremittingly. But the mob is, by its very nature, disorganized and without definite purpose. The conclusion of the film finds a recently escaped (and, unbeknownst to him, acquitted) Mack Messer in charge of a bank (thanks to the efforts of his wife, Polly) and in the process of allying himself with the former chief of police (who buys himself into the enterprise with the pilfered money designated for Mack’s bail) and with his father-in-law Peachum, who has realized the power of the proletariat.

However, as Peachum confidently declares, the proletariat can be controlled ultimately because they don’t realize they are needed. The film closes with images of the poor disappearing into the shadows as the narrator intones: “For some men live in darkness while others stand in the light. We see those in the light while the others fade from sight”.

The proletariat fails to grasp their own strength and thus the commercial powers prevail but the threat remains. Brecht may never have seen the film and even if he had, he would have found some excuse to object out of sheer principle. But if Brecht failed to be impressed by Pabst’s achievement, perhaps he should have been because Pabst managed to accomplish what Brecht could not: a true reconciliation between the satiric jubilance of the original stage play and the politically driven cynicism of Brecht’s revision.






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